Monday, June 26, 2006

Embracing the Los Angeles River

It is hot in Los Angeles. For the last two weeks the temperature has been hovering at or near 100˚ F.

Today is day three of “trying to fly” for the three red-shouldered hawk fledglings hatched in a nest above our yard. The heat, however, has complicated their flying lessons. Thirst is driving them to land beside the neighbor’s pool. They are vulnerable on the ground and risk falling in the pool while trying to drink.

We quickly mobilized and moved our patio fountain out next to the birdbath. The splashing movement helped the hawks recognize the available water in the bird bath and, carefully, one at a time, they are coming down to drink the fresh water rather than visiting the danger of the chlorinated pool.

Water in our dry Mediterranean climate is beyond valuable. The small canyon into which our house is built is one of many emerging from the Santa Monica mountains that in the past carried water down to the Los Angeles River. But these streams and creeks have been paved over, built on and made inaccessible to the wild creatures that depend on them.
Instead, the animals that can adapt find water at pet bowls, leaking sprinklers and swimming pools. The lucky ones find an oasis in landscaped ponds and well-maintained birdbaths.

Mention Los Angeles has a river and people scoff. They envision a glorified concrete storm drain. But in the half century since the river was confined to a cement straightjacket, nature has valiantly tried to reclaim the sanity of its once wild and meandering waterway.

Not all of the Los Angeles River is concrete. Sections of the riverbed are “soft-bottomed”: natural mud with cemented sides. A three-mile stretch known as the Glendale Narrows is just such an area. The river bottom couldn’t be cemented at this low spot because underground aquifers carrying water from the San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Monica Mountains and the San Fernando Valley meet in the narrow valley where the city of Glendale is located. The water from these aquifers bubbles up to the surface in this region. If the river bottom had been cemented the power of the rising water would have lifted up the concrete.

Today the soft bottom regions of the river are lined with trees and riparian habitat attracting abundant wildlife. Here’s a list of what we saw in a short section along the Glendale Narrows of the L.A. River on 6/24/06:
mourning cloak butterfly, Western tiger swallowtail, European cabbage butterfly, pastel skimmer dragonfly

mallard, cinnamon teal, double-crested cormorant, great blue heron, osprey, red-tailed hawk, killdeer, black-necked stilt, western gull, mourning dove, black phoebe, American crow, northern rough-winged swallow, barn swallow, bushtit, northern mockingbird, red-winged blackbird, house finch, American goldfinch; Exotic Imports: domestic Asian ducks, rock pigeon, European starling, house sparrow, nutmeg mannikin

Various organizations like Friends of the L.A. River and North East Trees are working with the city and the state to create parks and environmentally inclusive development along the rediscovered Los Angeles River: Pocket parks in Studio City, Elysian Valley and Atwater Village invite access to bike trails and walking areas along the river. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan calls for greenway development along the length of the L.A. River and its tributaries from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach where the freshwater flows into the Pacific Ocean.

Like the red-shouldered hawks learning to fly, nature is resilient. It doesn’t need us, it just implores humans to be aware. The young hawks don’t want me to give them a drink, they just need a sharing of resources–water made available. The Los Angeles River is restoring itself, but it has so much to offer us: natural cooling, relaxing green views and flourishing wildlife. If Los Angelenos can embrace the river, sharing resources and space, it could be a magnificent natural heart for our city.

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