Go down to the river and play
In 1985, poet Lewis MacAdams and a couple of his compatriots split open a fence barring entry to the Los Angeles River with wirecutters. It was a small act of civil disobedience. The point? To "(declare) the river open," MacAdams recently told The Planning Report. They made their way to the river's confluence with Arroyo Seco, which MacAdams has described as "a clanging urban Hades of railroad tracks and freeway overpasses and flapping plastic," and asked the river if they could speak for it. “We didn’t hear it say no," MacAdams has said, "so we went to work.” In 1986, they founded the nonprofit Friends of the L.A. River. Their mission: to give the dirty, frequently dry, concrete-bottomed waterway new life.
It's been a slog. Among the most basic but formidable obstacles was building a constituency for the river, which as we discussed in the latest episode of our podcast, West of 100, on lost and found rivers and streams, most locals barely knew existed. As Jennifer Price wrote for LA Weekly in 2001, "As a flood-control solution, the concrete looked final; as a river, it looked unredeemable." In an interview with public broadcaster KCET, MacAdams said that soon after founding Friends, he realized that before he could make people believe the L.A. River was worth redeeming, "I had to convince people that there was a Los Angeles River."
Most people had no relationship with the river. Legally speaking, they weren't really even allowed to. Since the river is technically managed primarily for flood control, public access is tightly restricted. It's illegal to recreate on the river without a permit, or for that matter, to gather a group of people to pick up trash along it. MacAdams told The Planning Report that his group had to obtain 15 permits for their annual river cleanup.
A bill now being considered in the California Senate would begin to change that. The bill would change the L.A. County Flood Control Act to require to river to be managed for recreation and education as well as flood control. And, according to Legal Planet, it would create "a new interjurisdictional state agency ... to plan and manage river access," and relieve the government of liability for any accidents and the like that occurred from public use of the river.
"The problem that we’re dealing with is that we’ve got a concrete cult, which has been in place for a hundred years, and we’re trying to expand that definition to include all the things people do on a river," MacAdams told The Planning Report. "If this bill actually passes, we’ll begin to be able to do that."
The legislation would build on a couple recent victories. A major breakthrough came in 2010, when Lisa Jackson, chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, deemed the L.A. River a "traditional navigable waterway," which basically meant the government would start thinking of the river as a river and extend to it Clean Water Act protections. HCN contributing editor and L.A. resident Judith Lewis Mernit blogged at the time that it was "hard to predict what this means for the day-to-day management of Southern California’s watersheds. But with the region being forced to look toward local sources to replace depleted imports from the Sierra Nevada and Bay Delta, a heightened regard for local watersheds can only bode well."
Last year, the first officially sanctioned boaters paddled the river, but all in all, says MacAdams, the river isn't much more open to the public than it was pre-2010, nor is it much closer to being the centerpiece of city life that he hopes it will one day be.
"This is inside baseball to a lot of people," he admits, of the bureaucratic rejiggering now proposed. But it serves a larger purpose: "A hundred years ago the river was a conduit for railroads. Before that, it was the LA water supply. What should a 21st century post-industrial river look like? That’s the question we’re trying to begin to answer."
Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.
Photo: L.A. River, courtesy of flickr user lavocado, licensed under Creative Commons.