Concrete Jungle: The Quest to Make the LA River Wild Again

Fernando Gomez, chief ranger with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, leads kayakers on a tour of a wild, tree-lined portion of the Los Angeles River located in the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Preserve. (Martin Macias, Jr. / CNS)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A dozen kayakers paddled down the tree-lined, sandy-bottomed Los Angeles River in late August, running their hands through sycamore and willow leaves and gliding over carp and steelhead trout as traffic noise from the nearby 405 Freeway buzzed overhead.

Park ranger Fernando Gomez led students and wildlife advocates down the river in the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Preserve, a flood basin and park also called “the symphony of sounds” for its proximity to city infrastructure.

As kayakers passed homeless encampments and piles of trash lining the riverbank, a Cooper’s hawk darted out of a tree and lunged at a night heron with its talons.

Some kayakers removed phones from plastic bags to photograph the scene. Others shifted attention to a spider wrapping a trapped dragonfly in its web.

“It’s like we’re in a National Geographic documentary,” a student said.

Another student asked Gomez – chief ranger with the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) – whether alligators lurk in the waters.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Gomez. “If I found an alligator in here, you’d never find me on the water again.”

For many LA County residents, up-close encounters with wildlife on the river – much less a kayaking trip – feel out of reach if not impossible in the traffic-heavy clatter of the concrete jungle.

Los Angeles high school students Nathan Rocha and Salma Valladares, standing with mentor Edin Enamorado (far left) after a kayaking trip in August, said they were happy to learn wildlife-filled sections of the LA River exist. (Martin Macias, Jr. / CNS)

Salma Valladares, a high school senior and “eco intern” with William C. Velasquez Institute, said she was surprised to see a variety of wildlife on the river.

“Not a lot of people know the LA River has water in it and has recreational activities we can participate in,” said Valladares, who studies in LA’s Boyle Heights community. “Growing up, when I thought of the river I mostly thought about cement and it being near the freeway, dried up.”

Nathan Rochas, a high school junior and eco intern, said he wants his classmates to get involved in restoring the river.

“You know the scene from “Grease” where they race the cars in the river? That’s what I thought of the LA River,” Rocha said. “[The internship] teaches us about the environment that our city is in.”

Concrete river

From the San Fernando Valley, the river flows east and then south for 51 miles, passing the San Gabriel Mountains and downtown LA before streaming past Long Beach and into the Pacific Ocean.

The river was a transit route and life source for the native Gabrieleno-Tongva people before serving the 18th century colonial settlement that later became LA.

In the 20th century, after decades of dangerous flooding, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers cut off access to the river and turned it into a concrete channel.

The main source of water in the Los Angeles River – including in this segment located near Dodger Stadium – comes from treatment plants, such as the Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys, California. (Martin Macias, Jr. / CNS)

But LA River advocates in the 1980s fought to restore natural habitats and open access to the river for walking trails, bicycling and even fishing. In 1997, after waves of pressure, LA officials released the city’s first plan on river restoration.

Two decades later, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency listed the river as a “navigable” waterway, opening access to spaces like the wild stretch of river in the Sepulveda Basin.

Gomez said the Sepulveda portion of the river – where the water table was always too high for concrete to be poured – could hold signs of what’s to come for LA County.

“Where’s there’s a river there’s life. This is what the river used to look like and could look like in the future,” Gomez said. “People need to realize there’s life here and learn to respect it.”

“Where habitats thrive, people thrive” 

Bicycling is one way residents access the river, and while paths exist currently, the regional transit agency Metro has announced plans to close an 8-mile gap in the path between Elysian Valley and Vernon, a city in the lower river region.

The plan is among a set of transit infrastructure projects Metro aims to complete before LA hosts the 2028 Summer Olympics.

In Los Angeles’s Elysian Valley neighborhood, commonly known as Frogtown, a bike path runs along a section of the LA River where a sloped riverbank connects Marsh Park to the bushy, rocky riverbed below. (Martin Macias, Jr. / CNS)

On the bike path adjacent to Lewis MacAdams Riverfront Park in LA, Julia Callahan pulled her bike over for a water break.

Callahan said she is “eagerly awaiting” completion of a full bike path and that pocket parks like MacAdams should be included to give bikers a shady rest stop.

Conservationists like MRCA’s Sarah Rascon work to ensure Metro’s bike path plan includes pocket parks, restored habitats for wildlife and water recreation areas.

“We want any river project to be multiuse so that people can coexist with nature,” Rascon said in an interview.

Planning and construction of many river projects is overseen by MRCA, where Rascon works on developing plans for the upper LA River and its tributaries, which she says are often overlooked in plans.

“The main stem of the LA River often gets the focus, not its tributaries,” Rascon said. “That’s like creating a plan that focuses on the heart and main valves but not the veins or arteries.”

A healthy watershed coupled with a network of accessible green space could reduce temperatures in the city, restore the natural water table, capture carbon and reinvigorate the water cycle, Rascon said.

But privatization or closing river access is something Rascon monitors closely as interested parties claim stakes in the river’s future.

“We don’t want only those with means to have access. There are so many healing properties to the river,” Rascon said. “Where habitats thrive, people thrive.”

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