It is a river that for much of the year flows almost entirely with treated sewage, a river contained by concrete banks and laden with so much garbage that after it rains, crusts of trash form high-water marks.
But in the eyes of the law, the Los Angeles River should be fit for anglers, kayakers and swimmers. Federal law even requires it to be protected as potential drinking water.
Now, these conflicting realities have sparked a battle over the river's future. In one key dispute, for the first time in its history, the city of Los Angeles has challenged its federal permit to discharge into the Los Angeles River, arguing that it is too restrictive and unrealistic.
The conflict marks a turning point in the river's strange and troubled history. Once a free-flowing, willow-draped ribbon through the city, in the 1930s it became the concrete-manacled river we're familiar with--a kind of cement back alley, nearly dry for most of the year, with just a narrow trickle of water in the bottom.
Today, the river has a new incarnation: Its dry season flow has been boosted tenfold due to a huge influx of treated waste water. More than 90% of that flow--75 million gallons of waste water each day--comes from the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Sepulveda Basin, completed in 1991, and a smaller plant in Glendale. The trickle has become a sheet of rippling green water that supports birds, fish, and in a few places, 40-foot-high trees.
At the same time, now that the early aims of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act have been accomplished, regulators have shifted their attention to new pollution problems that strain the outer limits of technology and economics, boosting pressure on polluters of the river.
Skirmishes have ranged from arcane regulatory tiffs over how much anti-lice shampoo to allow in treated sewage in the river, to whether the river should be classified as an "effluent-dominated waterway," for which pollution standards would be lower.
"The public has a decision to make," said Roger Baird, assistant laboratory manager for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. "They are allowing their waste-water treatment facilities to create streams. How much are they willing to pay for the water quality in those streams?"
City officials contend that the price of meeting drinking water standards in the L.A. River could exceed the yearly cost of running the sewer system.
"It starts getting to where you are putting distilled water in the L.A. River, which is lined with concrete, to go to the ocean, which is saltwater," said Chris Westoff, a deputy city attorney who represents the sewer department. "It drives me crazy."
Environmentalists bristle at that kind of talk.
"They say the river's not a river," said Terry Tamminen of Santa Monica Baykeeper, an environmental group. "This was a river that flowed year-round. . . . The fact that it's diminished doesn't mean we should write it off."
Should Different Standards Apply?
Under assault, environmentalists say, is not just the river's future, but the uncompromisingly utopian vision of federal antipollution laws. Those laws call for restoring the biological health of virtually all U.S. waterways--even the L.A. River. The question is: Should certain waterways be held to lower standards?
The city's logic "would result in throwing in the towel on every impaired water body in the country," said Alex Helperin, staff attorney of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles.
To some, the argument is not as academic as it might appear. Take Denis Schure, a local kayaker who doesn't think it's ridiculous to consider using the river for paddling. He does it all the time.
On a recent afternoon, he slipped a red canoe into the L.A. River in the Sepulveda Basin. But for a rusty shopping cart, old tires and fast-food containers, Schure might have been somewhere in rural Wisconsin. Limpid green water slid by. Trees swayed above him. Waterfalls gurgled. Snowy egrets flapped in alarm.
Only about 10 miles of the river's 51-mile length are anything like this. But Schure can't help casting a hungry eye on the reaches farther down. He imagines a river cleaned of trash and made navigable with a few changes here and there: a river for both wildlife and recreation.
"People argue with me about the L.A. River," he said. "But if I can get them on the water and show them this, it's the end of the discussion," he said.
Stripped of the worst pollutants, the waste water flowing in the river is still far from drinkable. But fish find it hospitable, if a little heavy on ammonia, scum and trace metals. Birds go where the fish are.
"The whole system is totally artificial, but it still serves a natural function," said Cat Kuhlman, associate director of water for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Sacramento.
Before the concrete, the river welled up from the ground for much of its length, even during summer. From Canoga Park, it flowed east, a graceful, gurgling stream, to Elysian Park, where early settlers built a water wheel to supply drinking water.
Beyond that point, the river dropped below ground, spreading across the basin, popping up here as a lake, there as a swamp (an area near La Cienega Boulevard is one), according to Northridge professor emeritus Leonard Pitt, author of a history of the region called "Los Angeles A to Z."
When it rained, the river turned lethal. Floods killed scores of people up through the 1930s. Flooding was so powerful that the river's course is known to have shifted over time from Ballona Creek on the Westside to its present path that leads to its mouth in Long Beach. The concrete was installed to contain floods.
Activists such as Friends of the L.A. River have talked of restoring the river with waterfront promenades, and of bringing back the steelhead trout runs for which the river was once famous.
Such notions are not quite so outlandish as they used to be. The river now has a bicycle trail along one section, and city politicians are discussing possibilities for habitat protection and recreational open space on the riverbanks.
In contrast, city officials contend that for all practical purposes, the river is a man-made creation. They hold that its ecosystem is a kind of benign Frankenstein's monster, a byproduct of sewage treatment. As such, the river shouldn't be regulated the same way as, say, a pristine mountain stream, said Judith Wilson, director of the city Sanitation Bureau.
The cost of further treatment is a pressing concern for the bureau, already taking heat for increases in sewer rates.
$30 Million to Upgrade Plant
The city has embarked on a $30-million improvement project at the Tillman plant to remove ammonia and related chemicals from discharge upstream. The change is mostly to protect the river's fish, but is also required in case river water seeps into ground water used for drinking wells.
Among the other chemicals that have been at issue in recent years are substances people seldom think of as pollution menaces. One is lindane, a pesticide used in lice-killing shampoo. Another is fluoride, which is put into water to prevent tooth decay.
Wilson likes to quip that solving pollution problems caused by these chemicals would have a dismal side-effect: "a city of kids with bad teeth and head lice."
State and federal regulators say that they try to compromise, and point to the recent easing of restrictions on lindane and some other chemicals, even as other limits were tightened.
But some regulators agree with Wilson that as pollution limits for treated sewage discharge are ratcheted down, the city could end up being forced to virtually purify the river at costs so high that they would dwarf what is spent on other government services.
"We want to do the right thing, but we don't have unlimited resources," Wilson said. "We should use some common sense."
The squeeze on sewer utilities is not unique to Los Angeles. Nationwide, as legal pressure from environmental groups to strengthen enforcement of the Clean Water Act has grown, a countermovement has developed, demanding customized rules for certain waterways--rules that would be easier for polluters to meet.
The issue is especially acute in the arid Southwest, where many rivers are dry part of the year, except for treated waste water.
Wilson argues that it's only fair that a desert river like L.A.'s should be regulated differently from, say, the Sacramento River, where pollution is diluted by lots of natural flow.
She argues that California should follow the lead of Arizona, which has tackled the problem by inventing a new category of river called "effluent-dominated waterways."
In theory, those could be held to lower standards--perhaps those suitable for hardier fish--although as yet, there has been little change in the standards for those rivers, EPA officials say.
Closer to home, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board this month eased some pollution rules affecting the lower, coastal reaches of some local rivers, including the San Gabriel, by ceasing to list them as potential drinking water supplies.
Regulators argue that the waterways will continue to be protected for fish, and therefore will not decline. But environmentalists view the trend with alarm.
"It's a classic end-run around the Clean Water Act," said David Beckman, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
City officials have lobbied to have the L.A. River exempted from drinking water standards, but so far, regulators have not complied.