The long-awaited Paddle the Los Angeles River pilot program got off to a wobbly start Monday as two dozen civic leaders in hard hats and bulging life vests stepped into kayaks and pushed out through murky ripples in the Sepulveda Basin.
The group of flood control officials and City Councilmen Tony Cardenas and Ed Reyes was chaperoned by experienced kayakers and naturalists on hand to make sure no one tipped over into the treated urban runoff or entangled themselves in the heavy brush laden with shredded clothing and plastic bags that lines the 70-foot-wide channel.
The maiden voyage of the first legal float down the river in seven decades only ventured a few hundred yards from the put-in point at the Balboa Boulevard bridge. But for Reyes, the 30-minute ride past glades of sycamore and oak trees where cormorants and herons roost triggered dreams of a regional recreational zone in the making.
"Keeping this river in a straitjacket — off-limits to even the people who live alongside it — has been punitive to the environment and the community," Reyes said. "This program will enable a new generation of Angelenos to enjoy the river as a living being and an important part of their lives."
He broke into a smile and added, "I'm actually out on the water and not worried about getting arrested for it."
The program is intended to be a restrained adventure for the whole family, much like the calm stretches of the Snake River above Jackson, Wyo., where thousands of people each summer drift quietly through a lush, scenic valley below the jagged Teton peaks.
But Los Angeles is urban territory, and this 1.5-mile trip is arrow-straight, flanked by the San Diego and Ventura freeways and strewn with discarded bicycles, shopping carts, trash and, occasionally, the carcasses of rodents.
It is also home for 212 species of birds, including yellow warblers, hooded orioles and the federally endangered least Bell's vireo.
In July, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers District Commander Col. Mark Toy issued the license allowing the Los Angeles Conservation Corps to operate the program along a soft-bottom stretch of the river between Balboa and Burbank boulevards, about 17 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
On Monday, his participation in the program's inaugural "ceremonial paddle" was viewed by environmentalists as an important juncture in the history of the river that was tamed and polluted in the 1930s by the corps' concrete walls and 12,000 storm drains.
"For more than a century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built walls between people and their rivers here in Los Angeles and nationwide," said David Beckman of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "So to have the corps' district commander metaphorically jumping over that wall and into a boat is symbolic and potentially very important."
Toy shrugged off such accolades, saying, "This is a team effort, and I'm proud to be a part of it. What we learn from the program this year will help shape the future of the river."
Frequent catastrophic floods prompted civic leaders in the 1930s to transform the river into a flood-control channel. Nearly the entire 51-mile river bottom was sheathed in concrete except a few spots such as in the Sepulveda Basin.
Awareness of the river's recreational potential grew in the 1980s, when environmental groups pressured the county and the corps. The waterway is slowly being transformed into a greenbelt of parks, trees and bike paths, courtesy of bond measures approved by voters.
But in 2008, then-corps biologist Heather Wylie learned that her agency was preparing to adopt regulations that would have stripped much of the Los Angeles River watershed of its Clean Water Act protections. She leaked those plans to some of the nation's top environmental law firms.
The corps later found images of Wylie and others kayaking down the river and threatened to suspend her for 30 days, saying the unapproved expedition "undermined the corps' authority."
After months of negotiations, she and Toy's predecessor at the corps reached a settlement and she left the agency. Neither side admitted doing anything wrong.
A year ago, the EPA formally deemed the river navigable and subject to the protections of the Clean Water Act for its entirety, from Chatsworth to Long Beach.
The river program will be offered on weekends from Saturday through Sept. 25 at $50 per person, and on Fridays for free to youth programs in neighborhoods along the river in the San Fernando Valley.
The program could be expanded later to include other scenic portions of river such as a lush, eight-mile stretch north of downtown known as the Glendale Narrows and the river estuary at Long Beach.
"This is the culmination of a new chapter in the history of the Los Angeles River," Cardenas said. "Just because it runs through the city doesn't mean it has to be a dirty, forgotten place."