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OUTDOORS : STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS : L.A. River Could Become Vital Source of Recreation, Environmental Groups Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the setting sun sprays streamers of gold on the water, Red Cross boating instructor Denis Schure slides his 15-foot canoe into a Class 1 stream. Barreling downriver, Schure sees a mallard beat its wings before flying noisily out of a willow thicket. Overcome by the scene, Schure momentarily forgets that he is rolling on the . . . Los Angeles River.

“Isn’t this hard to believe?” he says.

Hard indeed. The L.A. River isn’t known as a nature lover’s paradise. Most Angelenos regard it as nothing more than a junk-strewn sewer that meanders under smog-choked freeways. There is also widespread conjecture about the precise contents of the water--when there actually is any water--but officials do concede this: It won’t kill you.

As his canoe slices through the dark effluent, Schure is worried less about drinking the water than riding on it. His unauthorized canoe trip--technically, he is trespassing--is intended to demonstrate the viability of the river for water sports. Contrary to the river’s image, he says, “It’s feasible to have a satisfactory” boating experience on parts of the 51-mile-long man-made drainage channel.

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Schure and other environmentalists are currently engaged in a three-way battle to determine the future of the river. They are backing a recent proposal by Mayor Tom Bradley to open the river for recreation and turn its concrete banks into tree-lined public parks. Bradley has appointed a task force to come up with a plan.

On the opposite shore is Assemblyman Richard Katz, who wants to convert the river to an alternative freeway. He has a $100,000 grant from the L.A. County Transportation Commission to study the possibility.

Adrift in the middle of these warring forces is the Army Corps of Engineers, which built the river in the 1930s to control flooding. The engineers don’t much like anyone tampering with their ditch--if anything, they say, it needs upgrading--and probably will have the final say on any project.

It will take years of political and legal wrangling before any plan gets the green light. In the meantime, says Schure, an adviser with the mayor’s task force, why not test the river’s recreational potential right now, for very little money? Certain stretches of the river, he says, need nothing more than cosmetic improvements to resemble a real river once again. And there’s a mile-long section in the Sepulveda Basin that can easily be dammed, he says, and turned into a lake.

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“All this could happen right away if we got official approval,” says Schure, a 45-year-old graphic designer who works for the city’s Department of Planning and lives in Highland Park.

Paddling under the Los Feliz Bridge, Schure is floating perhaps the prettiest part of the river--the six miles or so between the Burbank end of Griffith Park and Dodger Stadium called “Frogtown.” While most of the L.A. River is covered over by concrete--about three million barrels--the Army engineers had to leave Frogtown alone because of high levels of ground water. Today, the water runs deeper (two to three feet) and swifter (3 m.p.h.) than most people realize, even in times of drought. White boulders placed in the river by the engineers create riffles and atmosphere.

“It’s not the Kern, but it’s still amazing, considering we’re right in the middle of the city,” Schure says.

Because of the drought, surging water has been a rarity in recent years, allowing vegetation to gain a firm foothold in the sandy bottom of Frogtown. Willows, sycamores and even palms, 15 to 20 feet high in some spots, are here to stay. The trees provide cover for thousands of migrating birds and are home to great blue heron and snowy egrets. And with the rushing current, it’s almost difficult to hear the rumbling Golden State Freeway, which runs parallel to the river through most of Frogtown.

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While nature has treated Frogtown well, man has violated it. Broken glass, Styrofoam cups, high-tension wires and huge graffiti tableaux are everywhere, painful reminders that the river runs through an urban wilderness. Debris--tossed in the water upstream or discharged through some of the river’s 700 unregulated storm drains--get caught up in the vegetation. Barbed wire keeps the public out.

But man, Schure says, can also undo the damage. Frogtown--as well as the Sepulveda Basin, which also has a sandy bottom--could be cleaned by volunteer workers. “Controls for access and safety could be put in place quickly,” he says, adding a warning: “But right now, it’s totally inappropriate for kids to be on the river.”

Schure also says there is no shortage of volunteers. He belongs to several environmental groups, including Friends of the L.A. River, a five-year-old organization that has been spearheading the river-greening movement.

“We look at it as a living river,” says filmmaker Lewis MacAdams, a founder the Friends. “Much of it has been neglected for so long. And it’s an aberration that people hate a river.”

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Last Earth Day, the Friends held the “first annual L.A. River Regatta” in conjunction with the Sierra Club and the San Francisco-based Friends of the River. A flotilla of dinghies, canoes and rafts floated from Riverside Drive in Burbank to Griffith Park. Participating were more than 200 people, including State Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), an advocate of using the river for recreation.

Before being issued a permit by the city, organizers of the regatta had to obtain $1 million in liability insurance. And that’s another problem in putting people on the river: Who’s responsible if they drown or become sick by accidentally ingesting the water? The answer is somewhat murky, although it will probably become clearer as studies are done and hearings are held.

The river begins in the southwest San Fernando Valley where Bell and Calabasas creeks converge. Runoff from mountains, including 5,000-foot Mt. Lukens above Verdugo Hills, also contributes to the flow and gives the river what Schure calls “a respectable vertical drop.” But except when it rains, the bulk of the river’s water in the Valley comes from the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Sepulveda Basin. The plant releases 40 million gallons a day, a quantity that will double in a year, increasing the current.

Critics of the recreation plan point out the dangers to boaters of flash-flooding brought on by a heavy rainstorm. Even Schure concedes, “If it rains, the river is a deadly place to be.” But major flooding is rare. According to a spokesperson for the Department of Water and Power, the last major flash flood occurred in 1980; at one location on the river, the channel was at 88% of capacity, the water level reached 17 feet and the flow hit 17 m.p.h.

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“I wouldn’t want to go down the river in a flood,” MacAdams says, “but most of the time, the river is pretty benign.”

As the sun slips behind a mountain in Griffith Park, Schure finishes his river trip and portages his canoe over the concrete embankment to his car. He shakes his head. “Like a lot of people,” he says, “I’ve been driving across the L.A. River for years, wondering, What are the possibilities (for recreation)?

“Now, I see that it’s very possible.”


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