Monday, July 19, 2010

New Life for the Los Angeles River

What recycling/rehabilitation project is larger than reestablishing the Los Angeles River as a living river? In the last two weeks the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared that the Los Angeles River is a waterway deserving of the protection of the Clean Water Act–in other words a real river.

For all of my life the Los Angeles River has been confined between concrete walls. But in recent years we have seen sections of the river reclaim its freedom. In forgotten corridors vegetation has flourished, wildlife has returned.

Many L.A. residents who have relocated here from the east regard the Los Angeles River as a glorified storm drain. They cite flooding in the 1930s and use it as evidence that the river only flows seasonally and is "dangerous." But if they would look back in history a little bit further, they would realize that there were human settlements along the river long before tract homes were built and agricultural lands were sectioned off. The native people and the Spanish lived here because there was water and they built on higher ground up from the meandering and somewhat marshy river because they respected the natural forces that caused the waterway to fluctuate seasonally.

I grew up in West Hills (when it was still Canoga Park) along Bell Creek, one of the three small streams that start the Los Angeles River. Though wild in the hillsides, the creek was cemented in by developers once it met the valley. Still, was a place where you could find tadpoles and raccoons. Though it trickled in the heat of summer, Bell Creek always flowed. Local folklore tells of a Native American village that stood here at the base of the foothills above the flood plain of the central part of the valley.

Leonis Adobe in Calabasas is built along Arroyo Calabasas which joins Bell and Chatsworth Creeks to form the River (just east of Canoga High School). At its beginnings this stream has been cleaned of debris in recent years and bubbles freely past the ranch house built in 1844. That is until it flows into Los Angeles County, where it too is confined in concrete. Topanga Mall is actually built over it.

The first house that my husband and I lived in was in Van Nuys along Bull Creek, another tributary confined by the Army Corp. of Engineers. This stream was contained so that Van Nuys Airfield could be built. In the last two years, the lower section of Bull Creek, just before it joins the river, has been rehabilitated. If you want to see what our waterways could have looked like prior to the paving of the San Fernando Valley visit Lake Balboa Park and stop at the dirt turnout before you reach the lake area. Walk along newly liberated Bull Creek and you will be surprised at the wildlife. This island of habitat is home to ground squirrels and desert cottontail rabbits. The sandy cliff banks are perfect nesting areas for swallows. Ducks and herons thrive.

To experience what marshy wetland areas were like and the myriad of birds that lived there, visit Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area. The surrounding grasslands, just slightly elevated above the wetland, feed a variety of native sparrows and finches visiting in the winter. These areas are flooded following storms, just as they should be, so the grasses can grow in the silt enriched soil.

Travel down the Los Angeles River beyond Burbank and you will come to areas where you can see the ground water bubbling up in the channel. In some areas it is lifting the concrete. The natural river is trying to return. Embracing the Los Angeles River.

Yes, applying the Clean Water Act is going to mean that each of us as individuals is going to become legally responsible for what runs off of our property and into the river. If you needed more than ethical and health reasons for limiting pesticides and herbicides sprayed on your property, this is it. For me, I'm excited. I have always loved the Los Angeles River, even when it was nearly dry. It could become the green heart of our city if we can all come together and find the positive thread that connects us together, the Los Angeles River.

For more on the recent status change of the Los Angeles River visit our local state representative, Julia Brownley's webpage.

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