In the late 1930s, in response to a pair of deadly floods, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors called in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control the unruly Los Angeles River, which had, over millenniums, shifted its course innumerable times on its way to the sea.
Taming L.A.'s river was the Army Corps’ first major flood control project, and its mission was to get the water to the ocean as fast as possible. The idea that it might make sense, in a city that gets less than 15 inches of rain a year on average, to conserve some of those hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater seems to have never occurred to the corps.
It took many years, thousands of workers and some 3 million barrels of concrete to bring the river to heel. By some measures, the project was a triumph: Floodwaters have not topped the river levees since. But it was also an ecological disaster.
Within a very few years, important native species were largely gone. Yellow-billed cuckoos and least Bell’s vireo no longer sang in the watershed. Red-legged frogs, which hibernated by burrowing into the river bottom’s mud, couldn’t penetrate the concrete. The river had once claimed the southernmost steelhead trout run, but the last steelhead was caught off a bridge in Glendale in 1940, two years after that section of the river was paved.
All but 11 of the river’s 52 miles ended up encased in concrete. The river’s only stretch of natural bottom was through the Glendale Narrows, where the river turns south and runs past Griffith Park and Atwater. The Army Corps concluded that the water table there was too close to the surface and might eventually undermine the concrete.
For half a century after the work was finished, the river was little more than a concrete scar, separated from the city by chain-link fences topped with razor wire and signs warning visitors to keep out or face fines and/or jail. On maps the river was labeled a flood control channel, and its only regular visitors were the County Mosquito Abatement District and location scouts seeking backdrops for noirish tales.
In the winter of 1986, Roger Wong, Pat Patterson and I, fortified by coffee and brandy, borrowed some wire cutters, snipped the fence that separated the river from the city and declared the river open. We then walked to the confluence of the Los Angeles and the Arroyo Seco, just north of downtown, and asked the river if we could speak for it in the human realm. We didn’t hear it say no, and Friends of the Los Angeles River was born.
FoLAR began life as a performance piece in a basement theater on skid row. We called it a “40-year artwork to bring the river back to life.” I donned a white suit and painted myself green as if I were the ghost of William Mulholland. Patterson built an immense, ungainly totem from junk we found in the river.
A reviewer for this newspaper was unimpressed. “With friends like MacAdams,” he snorted, “the river needs no enemies.”
In the mid-1980s, a lawsuit by Heal the Bay forced Los Angeles to build a water reclamation plant that would ultimately send millions of gallons a year of tertiary-treated, reclaimed water through the Glendale Narrows. For the first time since the last Ice Age, the Los Angeles was a year-round river. Willows and sycamore trees began to reappear. But not everyone saw the change as cause for celebration.
In preparation for a predicted El Niño, the county and the Army Corps decided to bulldoze everything growing in the river’s natural bottom. Making a stand in front of the machines to try and stop them, I nearly got myself killed. But the action got FoLAR its first meeting with the head of the L.A. County Department of Public Works. Every time he said the words “flood control channel,” I interrupted him and said “river.” We almost came to blows. I walked out feeling like I needed an anger management class, but I had planted the linguistic seeds. Today nearly everybody calls it a river.
In the late 1990s, FoLAR sued the Army Corps and L.A. County to stop a massive flood control project on the lower Los Angeles River to raise walls on top of flood control levees for 23 miles. We lost the battle, but the settlement forced the county to create the first L.A. River Master Plan. The city of L.A. created its own, much more ambitious Revitalization Master Plan a few years later.
In the years since, more and more Angelenos have discovered the river. FoLAR’s annual Gran Limpieza, the Great Los Angeles River Cleanup, has grown from 10 people to several thousand. Two former railroad yards along the river are now state parks. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority have created half a dozen riverfront pocket parks, and a bike path continues to grow. In 2010, Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson stood on the bank of Compton Creek, an L.A. River tributary, and declared the Los Angeles a “traditionally navigable waterway”
Every one of these victories was the result of patience, willpower and perseverance. Yet none of them opened up the channel itself. In 2010 it was still a crime to stick your toe in the river. Then, this fall, after seven years of work and almost $10 million (the last million a gift from one of Friends of the Los Angeles River’s most generous donors) the Army Corps released its Los Angeles River Ecosystem Feasibility Study, which proposed a range of alternatives for the river’s future.
It was a stunning development. FoLAR could now work hand in hand with the Army Corps to restore miles of habitat, to eliminate miles of concrete, to restore wetlands and to reconnect the main stem of the river to the Verdugos and the San Gabriel Mountains. There are still battles to be fought, including which of two alternative plans will ultimately be embraced, but we are on the way to a far more vibrant river for the city.
On Sunday, I’ll join Mayor Eric Garcetti and a dozen others on a lobbying trip to Washington pushing for the plan, known as Alternative 20, that would best serve the river. For me, the trip will be more than a cross-country flyover. It will be a chance to look back on a lifetime of poetry and politics, on 27 years of working on the Los Angeles River. It has been a journey from confrontation to cooperation, and it has created a wider and deeper community not just of humans but of flying, swimming and four-legged creatures as well.
Lewis MacAdams is president of Friends of the Los Angeles River. His poetry collection, “Dear Oxygen,” was published last year.