LONG BEACH, Calif. (CN) – Elizabeth Castillo looks on as her daughter Reynata plays with children at a playground near the Los Angeles River in Long Beach, California, in mid-October, hoping one day the river will be clean enough to kayak on.
From its headwaters in the San Fernando Valley, the Los Angeles River journeys for 51 miles through LA County before meeting the Pacific Ocean at the Long Beach waterfront.
For thousands of years, indigenous people including the Tongva inhabited the area the city now occupies, establishing a coastal village called Puvungna where a state university now sits.
In the last half-century, the LA River served primarily as flood control infrastructure, but open space and wildlife advocates fomented a movement to make it wild and accessible to all.
In Long Beach – where a third of the lower river is located – residents bike along trails at riverfront parks including C. David Molina Park, where Castillo visits with her daughter once a month.
Traffic from the 710 Freeway roars in the background as a stream of treated water flows down the concrete channel.
The Castillos and other families play on swing sets and climbing walls, but none trek across the park’s dirt path to engage with the river.
Concerns about safety weigh on Castillo’s mind; a friend was assaulted on the bike trail and she fears the unscrupulous characters who hang out under the bridges.
Still, Castillo says she feels a connection with Mother Nature and wants to spend more time connecting with the energy of the river.
“My faith in God compels me to care for nature,” Castillo said. “I would like to be connected to his creations, including the river.”
Long Beach faces its rivers
Long Beach resident Georgiana Esquivias grew up near refineries in the city, hardly seeing a side of the river that didn’t include abandoned shopping carts and deviance.
“LA wouldn’t be what it is without channelizing the river, but we’re not taking care of it,” Esquivias said in an interview.
Mark Stanley, director of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, or RMC, oversees projects that make waterways accessible for residents.
“Just because [the LA River] goes through a major metropolitan area doesn’t mean we can’t take advantage of the fact that it is a river,” Stanley said in an interview. “We can provide opportunities for people to enjoy it as opposed to turning our backs on it.”
Stanley envisions a future where residents can safely bike downstream and even kayak in the soft-bottom portion of the river near downtown Long Beach.
But he also wants wildlife to have a home in city waterways and parks.
Efforts are underway to protect and restore the 500-acre Los Cerritos Wetlands, a rare coastal wetland and wildlife refuge straddling LA and Orange counties.
The wetlands are a patchwork of pristine areas and oil fields slated to transfer, and potentially expand, over in a nearby plot as part of a California Coastal Commission-approved plan.
“Our restoration plan is looking at how we can consolidate these well sites to bring it back more to its naturalized state,” Stanley said.
With coastal wetlands having all but vanished across California, Los Cerritos is a critical buffer from rising sea levels and a sanctuary for wildlife, including Belding’s savannah sparrows, Pacific green sea turtles, and the California boxthorn.
Threats from climate change
Long Beach evolved over centuries from a ranching community to an industrial hub, thanks largely to bustling ports, rail yards and oil drilling operations.
From the city’s waterfront, residents can spot a handful of manmade islands dotting the horizon that conceal wells tapping into offshore oil fields.
Elliot Gonzalez, a candidate for a Long Beach City Council seat, believes the city should pull out entirely from oil operations and invest in alternative energy sources.
“We need to radically transform our energy systems away from oil,” Gonzalez said. “But Long Beach was founded on oil. We get money from it so it’s like asking a city to change its way of life.”
Gonzalez said offshore wells pose a threat to wildlife and the safety of residents’ water supply.
Instead of the city’s bodies of water being treated “like a common industrial sewer,” Gonzalez said he believes they should be listed as wildlife preserves and receive federal protection.
“Who ever heard of concrete river,” Gonzalez said. “It should be as wild and natural as any other river. It can become a thriving ecosystem, but it will take some investment.”
Stanley said that while safety plans exist for oil operations in the city’s bay, a spill is always in the realm of possibilities.
“The risk is out there,” Stanley said. “The risk isn’t zero.”
Riverfront development and displacement
Lower LA River projects include bridges and restored habitats such as the Dominguez Gap Wetlands, an RMC-funded project located between the river and Molina Park.
In an interview, Dan Sharp, a civil engineer with LA County Public Works, said the wetlands were originally constructed as a flood control basin but were converted in the last decade into wildlife habitat and a site where water can seep naturally into aquifers.
During community events, residents praised the wetland and offered feedback on other projects, but they also expressed concern that similar projects could cause displacement.
“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community that they don’t want projects done in a way that causes displacement,” Sharp said. “Our department is taking those concerns very seriously.”
One plan to prevent displacement involves providing a small business incubator for residents who want to earn a livelihood from river-related activities.
Sharp said the river should be respected – especially during the rainy season when fast-moving water can flood the channel – but that residents should also see the river as an extension of their community.
“There’s an innate human desire to be around water,” Sharp said. “Even if it’s not all the way natural, there’s still something special about it.”