LA Has Plan for Network of Waterways in the Land of Cars

In an arid land, the Los Angeles network of waterways abounds with big birds, bike riders, hikers and horsemen. Now the city has a plan for it.

Silva pulls mud from the Los Angeles River, saying it makes the perfect base for the start of a freshwater aquarium. (Courthouse News photo/Bill Girdner)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Kneeling on its concrete bank, Silva reached down through the water of the Los Angeles River and pulled out the perfect thing: a handful of mud.

He makes freshwater aquariums, and the mud of the river makes for the perfect base. “It has worms, nemotodes, rocks, it’s all there.”

With long hair banded back, he put the precious mud into two Home Depot orange buckets.

Stretching his hands a yard apart, Silva said he had seen huge fish in the urban river of recycled water. “A lot of people think it’s just a big old dirty river, and in some ways it is,” he said. “But it is full of life.”

In a famously thirsty land, the tableau for great struggles over water, the network of rivers between the ring of mountains around Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean serve as a sudden contradiction to the millions of cars and acres of asphalt that surround it. Fed in large part from the highly treated byproduct of wastewater-treatment plants upstream, the river owes its very existence to the vast industry surrounding it.

Great birds, long-necked, white herons, brown migratory ducks with five-foot wing spans and Canadian geese abound in the river, standing in the water or perched on rocks and trees on small islands within the river. Groups of cyclists kitted out in their team colors rush quietly along bike paths above its edge, a freeway runs right alongside it at some points, and intermittent homeless encampments, complete with electric generators, occupy and foul its environment.

Small businesses have sprung up along the bike path that runs alongside the Griffith Park section of the river, where artesian water naturally wells up and prevents full concrete encasement. The Spoke Cafe, a bike shop combined with outdoor tavern, sits in an odd-shaped industrial space and opens on the river bike path.

“This is pretty much the heart of Frogtown,” said the man serving pints of pilsner, take-out cheese sandwiches and burritos in the heart of a pandemic.

Frogtown, an area of hair salons, coffee shops, tastefully designed apartments is just one of a sort of slide show of Los Angeles life that runs along the edge of the river. In other sections, plant nurseries and stables back up against the river where a bike rider can see a trainer putting a young horse through paces and groups of Hispanic riders, two or three abreast, decked out in country finery, taking a slow Sunday ride along the edge of the river.

Map of the Los Angeles River and the LA County region. (Credit: LA County / Paul Appelgren)

On Wednesday, Los Angeles County officials released their preliminary master plan for the river “reimagined” to support both ecosystems and people who live along its 51-mile corridor.

People from all corners of the region access the river: more than 1 million live within one mile of the river and 10 million, nearly a quarter of the state’s population, can access it within an hour’s drive.

The long-awaited plan — the result of five years of input from community residents, organizations and people like renowned architect Frank Gehry — will provide a foundation as the region balances its duty to protect properties from flooding with the need for more access to natural environments.

From its headwaters in the San Fernando Valley, the LA River courses for miles through LA County before spilling into the Pacific Ocean at the Long Beach waterfront.

The river was a vital transit route and life source for the native Gabrieleno-Tongva people before engineers covered its bottom channel with concrete in the 20th century to divert flood waters into the ocean.

For decades, the river was treated primarily as flood-control infrastructure, but open space and wildlife advocates fomented a movement to make it wild and accessible to all.

The pressure resulted in county officials creating a 1996 plan for river restoration and led to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to list the river as a “navigable” waterway, opening access to recreation opportunities.

Recycled water discharge, pumped out from multiple reclamation plants in the region, is the river’s main source of water. To get here, though, the water is first imported from the Colorado River, watersheds in the Eastern Sierras and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Wednesday’s nearly 500-page draft plan provides the latest look at LA County’s vision for expanding recreation opportunities, improving existing riverfront parks and building new green spaces near riverbanks. 

The plan also includes designs for water fountains, benches, bike racks and restrooms for the throngs of new people officials hope will be visiting the river corridor. 

It also takes into account concerns that new development will spark gentrification in low-income communities along the corridor and suggests building affordable housing for a region that has more than 66,000 homeless people.

LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis said in a virtual press conference Wednesday the plan was a “significant milestone for all Angelenos” who’ve seen green space decrease as the region has grown.

“We know our health in communities is directly linked to access to park space,” Solis said.

View of Los Angeles River bike path from the bar at Spoke Cafe. (Courthouse News photo/Bill Girdner)

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl called on residents to share their reactions to the master plan and offer their input to ensure it provides the community benefits it promises.

“It could be and should be a unifying artery that runs through the county,” Kuehl said of the LA River. “It should be a reflection of a creative reimagining of the county.”

Kuehl said the county is hoping the incoming Biden-Harris administration will provide funding for the river revitalization through a national infrastructure bill.

Officials will accept public comment on the draft plan for 60 days and have said they’ll incorporate suggestions into the final plan set to be released later this year.

The plan contemplates data-driven tailoring of projects based on each communities’ needs. For example, restoring waterfront trails in one area or building new green space in areas with low per capita access to parks. 

Solis said it’s a priority for officials to ensure that current residents, especially those in low-income communities, can still access the river once more entry points are added and new infrastructure is installed.

Two of the “park-poor” neighborhoods that were mentioned Wednesday by officials are South Gate and Bell Gardens, both in southeast LA.

Mark Stanley, executive director of Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (RMC), lives in Bell Gardens and told Courthouse News his community will benefit from river projects described in the plan.

Stanley, who oversees RMC’s efforts to make waterways like the lower LA River more accessible for residents, hopes his neighbors will give feedback on the master plan.

“Different areas will require different things,” Stanley said. His organization has also done its own community engagement and education about the river and has hosted movie screenings and carnivals on the concrete river bed itself.

After officials spoke Wednesday about ensuring equitable access to the river, Stanley said he didn’t want the plan, or the river, to overshadow the people in adjacent communities and the rich histories and cultures they’ve built.

“We should be remembering that people that are currently in these communities are people who should benefit from these plans,” Stanley said. “I want to see my next door neighbor enjoy what we’re doing. I don’t want to see something that replaces my neighbor.”

Standing on the bridge Wednesday above the upper section of the river, Dennis Parlato, a retired actor, noted the riverbed’s collection of small contorted trees bent by raging waters fueled by recent rain storms.

He walked toward Sunnynook River Park, a section of greenspace on the riverbank opened in 2013, and commended the numerous staff and volunteers unknown to him who he believes have done a great job keeping the river relatively clean.

Parlato said he wasn’t familiar with the master plan but said he hopes it increases biodiversity along the corridor.

“It will be better for oxygen intake, better for our health and better for wildlife,” Parlato said of his own vision for increased greenery on the riverbed. “I should make a point to visit more parts of the river.”

Great birds, including long-necked, white herons, brown migratory ducks with five-foot wing spans and Canadian geese abound in the Los Angeles River. (Courthouse News photo/Bill Girdner)
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