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WHOSE RIVER IS IT, ANYWAY? : More Concrete Versus More Nature: The Battle Over Flood control on the Los Angeles River Is Really a Fight for Its Soul

Berkeley writer Judith Coburn grew up on the Mississippi, lived on a houseboat on Virginia's Anacostia and passed time on the Mekong, but she never knew there was a Los Angeles River when she lived in L.A

The five questions about the Los Angeles River most people ask:

1. Is it a real river?

2. Is there any water in it?

3. Who owns it?

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4. Can I drive in it?

5. Ever find a dead body in it?

Three of them are as easy to answer as paddling in a pond. Yes, the river has water in it (sometimes). No, you’re not supposed to drive in it. And yes, the occasional dead body shows up. But the questions of whether the Los Angeles River is a real river and who owns it launch you onto a mounting flood tide of riverine politics, especially these days.

Once a natural river of mercurial, Mediterranean temper, it flooded in winter, dried up in summer and changed its course entirely every century or so. A natural force that fickle threatened people, and so the river, beginning in the ‘30s, was strait-jacketed into a concrete channel by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. On some maps, it was reduced to a dotted line -- a 58-mile-long, man-made watershed of dams, reservoirs, debris basins and storm drains, landlocked by chain-link fences, padlocked gates and signs warning off trespassers. To city folk, it was that spookily empty sunken freeway snaking through the San Fernando Valley along the back of Griffith Park, trimming the east edge of Downtown, then arrowing for the Pacific.

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Nature still had a claim on the river, of course, as anyone who has watched its waters plumbed by red-winged blackbirds or its winter flood tide hurtle hellbent for the sea already knows.

But now a countywide battle with national implications about how to run the river, a battle percolating below ground for years, has burst to the surface. By next summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works are determined to begin construction of a massive flood-control project on the river, the first in decades, which the corps says could cost at least $500 million by its end. Environmentalists bent on blocking it insist that the county should resist the call for more concrete because such attempts to conquer nature really don’t work. They envision restoring the river with more natural flood-control methods, river-bank parks, a greenbelt and a bike path from the mountains to the sea. Questions raised in the wake of last year’s disastrous Mississippi flood -- about the cost and effectiveness of huge dam and levee systems and a growing, nationwide movement to restore “trashed” urban rivers -- may tip the balance in their favor.

Now that the Los Angeles River is back on the map, what will it become? Can people live with nature without trying to conquer it? Can a city unlock its gates to the wilderness? Is the L.A. River finally just a flood-control project, or is it a real river? Who owns it and who will finally run it?

Points of Embarkation

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Resolving to run the Los Angeles River beginning at its source is a quick way to run aground. Its ancient origin is in the rainfall on four mountain ranges that frame the city’s sprawl. In winter, snow and rain lash the mountaintops, roaring down their slopes into a lacework of arroyos and canyons, washes and rivulets that unite to become the river. But the Corps of Engineers has planted its flag in Canoga Park, insisting that the river springs from a concrete “merge” where two creeks converge there.

How can I get a grip on a river with no clear beginning? If there are many rivers -- at least in people’s minds -- I’ll need many guides. Randi Spivak, who works for the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, a public agency that protects parks and open spaces, suggests one way out of this reality swamp: She’ll lead a daylong trip to both the river’s sources.

We begin high above Santa Anita Dam in the San Gabriels, hiking the canyons where the Forest Service fights floods and fires and avalanches of mud. “It’s a natural cycle,” observes Terry Ellis, a Forest Service district ranger. These mountains and the river’s headwaters have left him more humble than flatland hydrologists. “Man can’t do a better job than Mother Nature. She’s in command of these natural resources.”

What effect humans can have stretches out before us as we ply our way north toward Canoga Park. Spivak, a transplanted New Yorker, marvels at the sheer audacity and scope of the basin’s never-ending development. A detour takes us back into the mountains, to the Park at Porter Ranch, a gated city of 1,200 ersatz Spanish haciendas and four-lane asphalt roads that engulf a whole canyon in the Santa Susanas. It’s the paving-over of more and more watershed like this that has hydrologists worried about increased flooding on the river.

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“Freeways and developments like this also create biological islands of habitat,” Spivak says as we press on. “We’re trying to buy land that would connect them back up.” The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and other environmentalists envision the river as a major artery of a system of parks, trails and open land nourishing wildlife, animals and people, much as the river once connected remote outposts of settlers.

As the day wanes, Spivak maneuvers through rush-hour traffic to a mean, gritty little Canoga Park bridge distinguished mostly by its proximity to a Hughes Aircraft employees credit union. She parks.

“Got it?” she asks.

“Got what?”

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“The beginning of the river,” she says, amused at my shock.

It’s just two concrete walls curving together in a point, one side stamped “Bell Creek.” Calabasas Creek, the other half, is unnamed. The concrete riverbed is paved with Fritos bags. No sign marks this inauspicious rendition of the headwaters of the Los Angeles River.

The poet Gary Snyder writes that he can heat the L.A. River laughing under all that concrete on its way to the ocean. But I couldn’t hear anything above the roar of the traffic.

A Way In

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Canoeist Danis Schure has a postcard of himself on the Los Angeles River that makes people guess he’s running wild water in the Sierra. Given that he leads white-water trips on some of California’s most heart-stopping wilderness rivers, you’d think he’d prefer the kind of nature that starts somewhere several hours’ worth of traffic jams from the city. But Schure, a board member of a group called Friends of the Los Angeles River, is no purist. He believes city dwellers need nature at home as well as on vacation.

We push out in Schure’s battered red canoe onto the river in Sepulveda Basin, in one of only three places where the river bottom hasn’t been completely paved over. Schure is as ebullient as if we had just embarked on the south fork of the American River. “On a clear day, you can see the Santa Susanas, the San Gabriels and the Santa Monica Mountains -- that’s the watershed, and 10 million people live in it,” he says in his best tour guidese. (Schure has taken scores of political luminaries canoeing on these waters, courting support for FOLAR’s drive to restore the river.)

A breeze cools the sizzling city air, rippling across the water through a canopy of overhanging willows. A mallard family sizes us up and glides into our eddy. Tiny white butterflies drift by like cherry blossom snow in spring.

Just upstream, busy Balboa Boulevard roars overhead. From the bushes, someone lost in a wilderness of the mind raves biblically. The “riparian” (riverbank) habitat here includes Coke cans, plastic bags and a shredded beach chair. It is not a clear day, and I notice that we are paddling in circles. That’s because we’re confined to one of three tiny man-made ponds, blocked off by piles of rocks, that push the river around in ersatz contrived whirlpools, as in a high school physics ripple tank.

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The corps built these ponds in the ‘40s, Schure points out, then nature took over. He wishes more of the river looked like this. But Schure admits that greening the river has to enhance, not undermine, flood control.

“Since the river’s man-made, I look on it as a clean slate,” Schure says, as we lift the canoe out of this odd oasis. Spoken like a true Army Engineer corpsman? Schure chuckles. “But the corps thinks only about getting rid of the water as fast as possible. Their attitude is, ‘It’s going to the ocean, end of discussion.”’

No Way Out

Running the river south from Downtown to Long Beach in my white rent-a-Honda was Diego Cadena’s idea. Cadena, a 12-year veteran of Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Works and its L.A. River project manager for the past three years, didn’t want to use his car because he’d just had it washed. It being summer, the riverbed should’ve been bone dry. But Cadena points out that the city releases water year round from its treatment plants into the concrete ditch that is “the river we built,” as Army Corps engineers call it. Sure enough, there are puddles to be splashed through after we speed off a levee and shoot down onto the riverbed.

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Driving around in the riverbed is strictly forbidden, no matter what you’ve seen in the movies. Cadena says, grinning and reciting a list of chase scenes from films like “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” that have been shot on this riverine speedway. City bus drivers get to practice in the riverbed, which conjures up mahouts maneuvering their elephants in the Ganges.

At least six people, most of them kids, drown in floods every winter, Cadena announces. When Cadena first talked to me, by phone from Public Works’ Alhambra headquarters, he urged me to watch the county’s video “No Way Out,” made to warn school kids about how dangerous the river is. The footage is shocking. Here is the “flood control channel” at winter’s full flood-tide fury, sweeping its young victims along in a 30- to 45-mile-an-hour death grip. Frantic rescue workers los their footing on the slippery canted concrete banks and are swept away themselves. (There are no wild river oases here: no rocks, no shoals, no sandbars, no lulls between rapids.) Firemen dangle from choppers or bridges in harnesses, grabbing at drowning people as they shoot by. A rescuer snags one victim, who’s torn from his grasp by a churning riptide of an armchair, shopping carts, tree limbs and ripped-up bushes.

Once, the river was a gift. Kumi vit natives who settled along its banks 1,500 years ago called the land pwinukipar -- “it is full of water.” The Spanish and Mexicans who followed echoed them, calling their ranchos la cienega (“swamp”) and las salinas (“salt pools”). Because of the river, a great city could rise from the desert: Until 1913, the Los Angeles River was L.A.'s sole source of water.

But the city was growing too fast. In the early years of this century, its population doubled every four years. At first, city engineer and water god William Mulholland favored conservation: replenishing the city’s water supply by slowing the winter rains’ rush to the sea through reforestation and small check dams and by leaving open spaces where water could filter underground. But, given the boom-town thirst of real estate speculators, dam-happy engineers and big farmers, that ecological approach couldn’t hold water. Droughts compounded the pressure. So did the river’s vagrant nature. Once emptying into the sea at Ballona Creek in Playa del Rey, the river radically changed its course to flow through Long Beach after a huge storm cut a new channel in 1863.

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Says Public Works Deputy Director Carl Blum: “A city needs a river that’s predictable and reliable.” Beginning in the 1930s, after a series of catastrophic floods, the Corps of Engineers vowed to tame the river’s cycle of winter floods and summer droughts. The remaking of the L.A. River was a confluence of the Depression’s national romance with flood-control projects, the era’s faith in Big Government, a desperate need for jobs and New DEal pork-barrel politics. Seventeen thousand men were given jobs paving the river. By 1960, the city had built itself a concrete watershed.

As we speed south on the levees, Cadena at the wheel, the Century Freeway dominates the horizon, raising the flag of the Age of Engineering, like some Iwo Jima Memorial. The whole contraption lifts off from pilings akin to flying buttresses rooted in the man-made riverbed. Concrete sheathes the landscape in every direction. Even the sky--blasted, grainy, gray -- looks paved over. For a wild moment, Assemblyman Richard Katz’s (D-Panorama City) 1989 folly of turning the L.A. River into a freeway has an outre grandeur.

But Cadena is more down to earth. Not a visionary or a master builder, he’s an engineer who still believes in public service. And now he’s pointing down at the roofs of the bungalows, trailer parks and warehouses snuggled cheek-by-jowl against the river. In many places, the levee we’re hurtling along towers over them. Should a flood breach these banks, miles of real estate would be sleeping with the proverbial fishes.

If Cadena and his corps counterparts could stop the river, they would. The best they can do is shove back hard. It’s a constant scramble to stay on top of the natural cycle of flood, mudslides, fire and earthquake, and they have the kind of respect for nature’s savagery that soldiers have for a formidable foe. On our trip downriver, Cadena points out where Carl Blum once worked, the trailer so close to the levee that in flood season he kept his car parked right outside the door, key in the ignition, ready at a moment’s notice to high-tail it for drier ground.

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Humans have their own cycles, and one of them is an ever-permutating notion of safety. Less than a decade after the corps finished constructing its L.A. River, it began planning to fight an even bigger flood. Increased urban runoff from development plus more sophisticated calculations by corps-county hydrologists led to that conclusion. While most city dwellers assume that the billions spent for flood control guarantee protection, the question of how big a flood is actually on the horizon is largely theoretical. The corps and Public Works now believe a significant flood on the L.A. River could inundate as much as 82 square miles and do $2.3 billion in damage, Cadena tells me as we barrel on. “That’s 11 towns flooded between South Gate and Long Beach.”

To meet this apocalypse, corps and county flood controllers propose to reinforce the levees and heighten them with four- to eight-feet walls on an 11-mile stretch of the lower Los Angeles River and on nine miles of the Rio Hondo, a main tributary south of Downtown. Adding the walls will also mean raising or modifying 11 bridges along that same stretch. Estimates of the final cost of the project are all over the map. As controversy has grown, county engineers keep revising figures down, a practice that amuses long-time observers, who know how budgets for big corps projects can mushroom.

Corps and county engineers operate as if the Los Angeles County Drainage Area Flood Control Project -- LACDA as it’s known to friends and foes -- is a done deal. But since 1986, when Friends of the Los Angeles River was founded, beating LACDA has come to symbolize what environmental writer Marc Reisner calls “undoing the wrongs done by earlier generations doing what they thought was right.” Last summer, the L.A. River became a national environmental cause when American Rivers Inc., a national river conservation organization, adopted it as an endangered river and the National Resources Defense Council began meeting with FOLAR about initiating a lawsuit to stop LACDA.

For the corps, at least in L.A., there’s a whiff of the Alamo in the air. “There’s absolutely no environmental impact to LACDA,” fumes corps project manager Stuart H. Brehm III, when I first ask him about the project. “It’s just a bunch of walls.”

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It isn’t just environmentalists who have LACDA engineers circling their wagons. In the wake of the catastrophic 1993 Mississippi flood, questions are being raised about the government’s ability to protect people from natural disasters. An interagency task force, chaired by the Army Corps’ own Brig. Gen. Gerald E. Galloway, raised serious questions about rebuilding the Mississippi’s network of dams and levees and called for a new, multi-agency approach to manage that river’s entire watershed.

“I like analogies,” says Army engineer Brehm. “Our work on the L.A. River was finished in the 1960s, just like Interstate 10. They’re both about 500 miles long. Suppose somebody wanted to put a guard rail on the 10 to 20 miles between Downtown and Covina. But instead, people come back and say, ‘Let’s rip out the freeway and have a whole new transportation system.’ It’s like reinventing the wheel.”

Paddling Upstream

Reinventing the river, if not the wheel, is just what scientists working with L.A. environmentalists have in mind. Peter Goodwin, an engineer with Philip Williams & Associates Ltd., a San Francisco environmental hydrology consulting firm, likes to tell the story of an Indian engineer who explained at an international conference how his country couldn’t afford the huge dam and levee systems of the West. So farmers in the Ganges flood plain plant crops that can withstand floods and build huts that can be moved at a moment’s notice. An Army Corps engineer there was stunned: “Great idea!”

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Goodwin grins: Perhaps the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented, only rediscovered.

“The L.A. River was the high-tech engineering solution of the ‘40s,” Goodwin says. “It was a control model. But we’ve learned some things since then. We like to talk now about managing a river, and that includes its whole watershed, not just the single channel most people think of when they say river.” Goodwin and likeminded hydrologists believe that many of the corps’ traditional methods may actually make flooding worse. The Army engineers’ approach of speeding the river to the sea as fast as possible by pouring a narrow, perfectly smooth concrete channel creates a ferocious force of water that would do a tidal wave of damage if levees were ever topped. It’s safer, Goodwin and others insist, to slow a flood by diverting water and allowing it to be absorbed naturally into the water table. A variety of methods could be tried, from widening the river to adding new reservoirs and “spreading grounds” (where water sits until it “percolates” underground) to reforestation and the use of porous materials in driveways and parking lots to decrease urban runoff.

Running a piece of the river in north Long Beach with Jim Danza, head of FOLAR’s technical advisory board, is a grand way to scope out the possibilities. “It’s good you got here today,” he says as we boost selves over the chain-link fence that is supposed to keep people out of the river.

“The county’ll clear-cut most of this soon, so the water’ll run faster.” Danza grew up whiling away afternoons on the river. “The corps thinks I’m still just playing around down here,” Danza jokes as he leads me into a riverbank jungle of wild sunflowers.

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Downstream at Del Amo Boulevard, Danza points to where the river was made narrower when the concrete channel was poured. Widening the river is one of the most hotly contested issues in L.A. County flood-control politics. Deputy Director Blum insists that if FOLAR has its way, the river would have to be made six times as wide as it is now to handle floodwaters. “Besides the expense, the land isn’t available,” Blum says. “L.A. is overbuilt.”

Danza and others scoff at this. “There’s much more to it than widening the river. There’s the question of the steepness of the banks and the rate of the water. There are all the ways we’d divert water before it even reaches here,” argues Danza. But he also believes there may be more land available than Blum and Cadena claim, pointing out as we walk how many public-utility easements there are along this stretch of riverbank. No one has done a complete study of land use along the river, Peter Goodwin says, although a report done to support state Sen. Art Torres’ idea for a riverside light rail system found more easements than expected.

Danza and other environmentalists are cynical about what they see as the contingent nature of corps-county safety estimates. They point to the fact that the corps originally calculated that the new walls need to be six to eight feet high, but when the cost came in at more than $700 million, the corps cut the walls down. Goodwin asks a critical question: “If LACDA goes through, is it really going to give us flood protection? Or will we, in another 30 years, have to go back yet again to the drawing boards and pay for raising the walls higher?”

At least one downstreamer living in the flood path doubts there’s any danger at all. William Pearl, an attorney and president of the East Long Beach Homeowners’ Assn., armed with the fruits of countless Freedom of Information requests, challenges the corps-county’s entire rationale for the LACDA project. What set off the alarm about whether the current levees could be topped in the next huge flood were the readings on stream-flow gauges and the discovery of river debris on a levee near Long Beach after a big flood in February, 1980.

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No one actually witnessed this. The next day, the Long Beach Independent Press Telegram reported that the L.A. River had risen only to “within nine feet of its banks in Long Beach.” But Pearl found county records showing that the rain gauges weren’t working accurately that day. The same day’s computer printouts of riverflow measurements are missing. Pearl discovered that county flood-control experts later--it’s unclear when--penciled in estimated levels. In a brief challenging LACDA, Pearl argues that the debris on top of the levee, if it even existed, could well have been deposited there by unusual currents rather than the whole river overtopping the levee. Pearl also wonders why it took the corps until 1987 to determine there was a new flood threat when the alleged incident happened seven years earlier. He points out that in 1983, the Federal Emergency Management Agency did a flood-insurance study that found that the current flood-control system could withstand a significant flood.

FEMA then backpaddled and decided there is a flood threat. As Pearl notes in his brief, the agency wields a heavy club on behalf of LACDA. The corps has led FEMA, which administers the National Flood Insurance Program, “to commence a process that could rezone the area for purposes of onerous and crippling ‘flood zone’ building restrictions. Many property owners would also face the mandatory purchase of FEMA’s flood insurance.” County public relations handouts quote a USC study that found that the FEMA requirements would eventually cause a loss of more than $30 billion in economic activity, a loss of more than 177,000 jobs and would cost property owners in southeastern L.A. County $122 million in annual flood insurance.

Here’s how the system works, according to the corps’ Stuart Brehm: “FEMA uses our hydrology and our flood maps. Our report triggered FEMA coming out (to redraw their flood maps).” Not surprisingly, most downriver politicians support LACDA, but Long Beach is a weak link. A mounting battle to block FEMA from putting new flood maps into effect in Long Beach, led by Pearl, homeowners’ associations and at least two city councilmen, is brewing. In response, in late October, FEMA postponed putting the maps into effect until next summer -- conveniently after LACDA’s startup. FOLAR still hopes Long Beach will pull out of LACDA, which would sink the project.

But except in Long Beach, this is a closed, rarely scrutinized system. So far, the Board of Supervisors, which funds Public Works be setting property-tax assessments for flood control, and Congress, which holds the corps’ purse strings, have simply rubberstamped corps projects. Government engineers have the money to do feasibility studies while environmentalists do not. When the corps’ own environmental impact study on LACDA failed to adequately consider alternatives, as required by law, FOLAR lawyers threatened to sue. But the supervisors didn’t let the contract to redo the report out to independent hydrologists. It went to Woodward-Clyde Consultants, a big L.A. engineering firm that does a lot of work for the corps. (Woodward and Clyde’s project manager for the study says the firm’s contract with the county prohibits him from talking to the media.)

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Still, the corps doesn’t always prevail. In Vicksburg, Miss, the corps has a multi-million-dollar, full-scale partial model of the Los Angeles River to test its engineers’ calculations. Peter Goodwin reports that the Vicksburg model itself was flooded in the 1993 Mississippi disaster.

This Is a River

Lewis MacAdams, FOLAR co-founder, journalist and two-time world heavyweight poet, suggests we commence our river trip at the jaunty cafe Eatz, the group’s international headquarters, near Griffith Park.

MacAdams says his romance with the river began on a bus ride he used to take in the early ‘80s from Venice to Downtown, where he worked near the 1st Street Bridge. “That’s when I first saw the river. What a metaphor of how humans can screw up! And not only a metaphor, but the river was so bad, I knew it had to turn.” Later, he reports, he went down to the river for a private ritual. He asked the river if it minded being saved. “The river didn’t say no,” MacAdams says, “so I decided to go ahead.”

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Before FOLAR could convince people the river could be restored, MacAdams explained to the first annual Trashed Rivers conference a year ago in San Francisco, “we had to create the very idea that the river existed.” FOLAR’s first act was a performance art piece of civil disobedience that began when MacAdams and fellow artists cut out a section of chain-link fence to get to the water. “It was all about how rivers hate to be in a straight line, and freeing this river,” says MacAdams, grinning because he knows how this sounds to the engineers Downtown.

Eight years later, FOLAR has a mailing list of several thousand names, annual river cleanups netting tons of garbage, a seat on the countywide task force on the Los Angeles River, the ear of local, state and national pols and a national reputation for political savvy. Nothing happens on or near the river without FOLAR sticking an oar in, most recently to negotiate with CBS Studio Center over its plan to pave over the confluence of Tujunga Wash and the river for a parking lot.

“I have to hand it to Lewis,” says Diego Cadena. “He put the river on the map.”

“Let’s go down to the river,” MacAdams says, scooping up his 3-year-old daughter, a frequent companion on his rounds, and settling her on one hip. Bunches of grass that have split through the concrete wave purple beards at us as we shimmy down the bank. This is the longest stretch of the river, nine miles, with an unpaved riverbed. Common yellowthroats weave among stands of cattails and reeds sprout from two sandbars in the riverbed.

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Contrary to what many LACDA supporters believe, when MacAdams and friends talk about restoring the river, they don’t mean unpaving it. “We can’t let the river run free or bring back the lush cottonwood groves,” MacAdams concedes. “But we could follow cities like Paris and San Antonio, who’ve made their urban rivers places where people can enjoy themselves.” The romantic Seine, FOLAR activists remind people, is sheathed in concrete in Paris. But there isn’t a single bench on the L.A. River, and this is the river’s only footbridge, MacAdams points out as he leads me across it.

“The corps sees only a degraded river they want to keep people away from. So they don’t see what difference higher walls make,” says MacAdams. “But it’s a step back.” Peter Goodwin has worked on designs that would set the levees back farther, allow banks to naturalize and disguise spreading grounds in parks. FOLAR is working with the city, the mountains conservancy and others on plans for a bikeway along the river from the mountains to the sea. The conservancy wants to connect Griffith Park and Elysian Park with a necklace of pocket parks and wildlife viewing spots to brighten the bikeway.

“Every day, people come up with new ideas for the river,” MacAdams says.

We linger over a patch of wild grapes embellishing the chain-link fence as we exit the river. Not ripe yet. A man is pulling up something that looks like wild yarrow and piling it neatly on a page of newspaper. MacAdams asks him in Spanish what it is. They chat. “I don’t know what it is in English, but he says it’s a good tea when you’re sick,” translates MacAdams, charmed to learn of yet another of the river’s gifts.

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Bridge Over Homelessness

Cruising over the river via the classic Art Deco 4th Street Bridge, I’ve got one eye on my “Guide to Architecture in L.A. and Southern California” and one on the bridge. People are honking, so I park to examine this engineering marvel on foot. Built in 1930 by Louis L. Huet and Merrill Butler, the guide tells me, it has classic Moderne zigzag pylons, piers and railings, a medley of styles of Frank Lloyd Wright, Bertram B. Goodhue and Eliel Saarinen.

Downriver at City Hall, mayoral aide Tom LaBonge waxes eloquent about the Downtown bridges, “one of the city’s most unappreciated sights.” A real river rat who grew up on the river and still bikes there with his wife, Brigid, LaBonge got the few signs naming the river attached to bridges Downtown. “We’ve got to get people back on the river, like FOLAR says,” enthuses LaBonge as he rushes out to meet with the mayor.

The next morning, I see the 4th Street Bridge through other eyes. Alice Callaghan, an activist for the homeless and director of Las Familias del Pueblo on 7th Street, leads me under the bridge, where we meet Lisa Smith, a young woman who says she’s been living on the river for two years. “I can’t complain,” she says, breakfasting alfresco on an avocado-and-jalapeno omelet she’s cooked up over an open fire from food scrounged from local markets’ discards. “We got bathing suits. There ain’t enough water in the river to swim, but we get in and play,” Smith tells me as Callaghan frowns.

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“We worry about infections because of toxic and treated sewage runoff,” Callaghan says on our way up to the bridge, “But poor people, especially immigrants, insist on using it like a real river, washing clothes, drinking and swimming in it.”

The Whole River, Part One

Most of the frogs split when the river was paved over, but this place is still called Frogtown. It feels more like a village than an urban neighborhood because it’s so self-contained: a slice between two bends of the river and the Golden State Freeway southeast of Griffith Park and across from Taylor Yard, the defunct Southern Pacific railyard. The meeting, at St. Ann’s Church on the corner of Riverdale and Blake, is packed with the kind of people environmentalists rarely attract to meetings: working-class Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Latino and Anglo homeowners, many of whom have lived in Frogtown for decades. But the neighborhood is also the yearly scene of FOLAR’s most festive and well-attended river cleanups.

“The Los Angeles River isn’t Yosemite,” says FOLAR board member Martin Schlageter. It was Schlageter who made the phone calls, wrote, ran off and posted the leaflets announcing the meeting. “It runs through the rust belt of L.A., and these are the park-poor neighborhoods that really need some nature.”

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They also need some say about what happens to the river, FOLAR believes, and so the meeting has been organized to get reaction to a FOLAR study, financed by the California Department of Water Resources, on how to turn the abandoned Taylor Yard into a park and flood-control project. It calls for terraces up from the river, playing fields that could divert water at flood time and re-creating wetlands. The study supposedly has the support of Public Works, but Schlageter got a letter early in the week from Carl Blum asking the group to cancel the meeting. “Because of other urgently needed flood control projects,” Blum wrote, “we do not expect funding to be available . . . at this time.” Schlageter interpreted this as “LACDA preempts everything,” sent Blum a thank-you-for-your-input letter and went ahead with the meeting. (There may be other reasons Public Works has cut away from the plan. Taylor Yard is the biggest parcel of undeveloped land left near Downtown.)

The meeting begins affably enough, as Schlageter and MacAdams, this time with both his kids in tow, chat up neighborhood people they know, munch cookies and inspect maps and drawings of the proposals. But when the two activists begin the presentation of their ideas for Taylor Yard, accompanied by a backup harmony of translation into Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, the whole fragmented, paranoid nature of postmodern politics threatens to drown them out. No sooner does MacAdams explain that the drawings are only ideas, not a firm plan, than people begin to attack.

“We don’t want a park here, it’ll attract gangs!”

“How can we afford it?”

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“That railroad land is poisoned!”

“We don’t want a bridge over the river! The gangs will come!” (There’s no bridge in the proposal.)

MacAdams and Schlageter take the heat calmly. “What’s your dream for this place?” MacAdams keeps asking. “Jobs? Parks? Flood Control? Improved property values? How can we make the plan better?”

The crowd turns on the two organizers.

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“What developer do you represent?”

“What kind of secret deals?”

“Who paid you off?”

“They’re going to push us out of here!”

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Schlageter speaks up: “I’ve been meeting with many of you for over two years. I’m not from Sacramento! Someone’s going to take over the railroad yard. Why shouldn’t it be the community?”

“We have no power!”

“Bull----!” says MacAdams, amiably but forcefully. “I started FOLAR with nothing because I saw not a concrete ditch but a live river that connected everyone in this city.” He repeats the challenge: “What is your dream for this land?”

An old man in the second row pipes up: “A merry-go-round!”

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This brings down the house. People applaud. There is a flood of ideas, and Schlageter is hard put to scribble them down: “Trees!” “A museum!” “Nature lessons for the kids!” “Soccer!” “A pool!”

The meeting ends on a high note, with Schlageter and MacAdams agreeing to go back to the drawing board and report back at another meeting.

The two are philosophical about the meeting’s bitterness. “Of course, they’re worried,” MacAdams says quietly. “They remember Dodger Stadium.”

The Whole River, Part Two

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Things are considerably quieter the following week over at the Los Angeles River Master Plan advisory committee meeting at Public Works headquarters. The committee came out of an effort in 1990 by Mayor Tom Bradley to reverse the “neglect and disregard” of the river and now coordinates the activities of 27 local, state and national agencies that have some piece of the L.A. River, from mosquito abatement to water treatment, and works with the public and the cities along the river to come up with a master plan for the whole river. Diego Cadena and the county are firmly in charge. Cadena greets Schlageter affably enough but asks him to remove FOLAR leaflets from the table where everyone is signing in. “You’re welcome to hand them out yourself, after the meeting,” he instructs. Schlageter complies and, introduced to Cadena’s new assistant, gives him the “it’s-so-great-we’re-all-sitting-down-together” speech.

The corps, however, is low-profile at the meeting. “We don’t play politics,” Brehm snaps, “we’re engineers.” Corps engineers indiscreetly bad-mouth FOLAR; in fact, corps officials in L.A. take such a jaundiced view of greening the river that they refused three years ago to spend $1 million appropriated by Congress to study such improvements. Does their hard-line approach complicate river politics? I ask one committee member at the meeting. He laughs nervously, goes off the record and opines, “the corps is like a 10-ten elephant. They don’t have to be good at politics.”

The suave Cadena, on the other hand, has cultivated his grass roots, especially the city managers and politicians of the downriver cities in LACDA’s shadow. He opens the meeting with a description of various committee demonstration projects and then introduces Randi Spivak to report on the conservancy’s community meetings about their greenbelt along the river from Griffith Park to Elysian Park. Cadena sums up: “This is a good example of a project that can be included in the master plan.” (The conservancy, although one of the state’s most enterprising environmental groups, has so far stayed out of the battle against LACDA). Cadena then splits the committee into regional groups to come up with riverbank projects in their own back yards.

But as the meeting drones on, what seems most remarkable is what is not being discussed. LACDA is never mentioned. Committee members admit that Public Works’ modus operandi -- that the project is a done deal -- has never been challenged in their meetings. The master plan, expected to be issue next year, won’t reflect local river politics, let alone volatile national flood-control politics. In an L.A. where William Mulholland’s Department of Water and Power has been taken over by environmentalists who are busy shipping water back to the Owens Valley and studying the use of treated sewage water to replenish the city’s water table, the committee’s deliberations are especially gutless.

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Of course, the real L.A. flood-control politics aren’t going on in this room but in the trench warfare FOLAR and its friends are waging in every political, administrative and regulatory arena from Sacramento to Washington. The next six months will be critical. Will the Board of Supervisors finally enter the fray? Will the feds ruberstamp the corps’ request, as usual? Will the City of Long Beach pull out of LACDA? Will the walls really start going up next summer? Will the river ever be allowed to come back?

Already, there is some rumbling among pols about a compromise: The corps gets the lower river and LACDA, with the upper river ceded to the environmentalists for alternative flood-control experiments, parks and recreation. Cadena doesn’t like this scenario: “We don’t compromise on safety,” he says. And FOLAR is poised to file suit to block LACDA. Lewis MacAdams is out front: “We want the whole river.”

Nature’s River

For my last run down the Los Angeles River, my guide is Kimball Garrett, from the L.A. County Museum of Natural History’s Exposition Park office. Garrett is also author of a weighty tome for the California Department of Fish and Game on the river’s wildlife. The report is a historical record as well as a brief for respecting what natural beauty the river still has. If the river were restored, some wildlife that was forced out could be brought back and a new natural balance struck. Garrett suggests we retrace the route MacAdams and I took because the river near Frogtown is the richest in wildlife. More than 125 species of birds have been sighted here, Garrett tells me.

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As Amtrak roars by on the far bank, we shuffle down the canted concrete bank close to some starlings bathing by a Bud Lite crate. “Is this a river or a garbage dump?” Garrett grumbles. Turning away, he points out kids fishing for crayfish downstream.

Garrett asks me if I notice anything odd about the birds here. “Great blue heron,” I reply, “mallard duck, those poking in the reeds--"

“Cinnamon teals,” Garrett supplies, pedagogically. A bird lover but not a birder, I fail the test, but he doesn’t seem to mind much. “They’re all marsh birds, not normally native to rivers or the urban neighborhoods around here.” Normally, the river would dry up completely in summer, but now the county releases treated water year round, creating a pseudo marsh. Nature has responded by inhabiting it with wetland instead of riverine birds and plants.

“Makes you wonder what’s really natural,” I muse.

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Garrett chuckles. “Well, it’s as natural as L.A., anyway.”


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