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River Rally, River Heroes and the Los Angeles River


Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR)
is a non-profit organization founded in 1986 to protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat through inclusive planning, education and wise stewardship. This weekly column will support our efforts toward a swimmable, fishable, boatable Los Angeles River.


In May I attended the National River Rally, an annual event where river advocates from across the country gather to share ideas, to celebrate accomplishments, and to encourage one another to keep advocating for the places that we love. This year's conference was an historic event, as the River Network joined forces with the Waterkeeper Alliance to create the largest gathering EVER of clean water advocates -- more than 750 nonprofit agencies and business leaders converged in Portland from May 4 through 7. Keynote speakers included Lisa P. Jackson, Administrator of the U.S. EPA; Alexandra Cousteau, Jaques' granddaughter who is also a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and director of Blue Legacy; and Robert F. Kennedy, Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and President of Waterkeeper Alliance.

I had nominated George Wolfe for a River Hero Award -- he's the kayaker who formed L.A. River Expeditions and embarked upon a three-day journey down the Los Angeles River in 2008, to prove that the river is indeed navigable. He was thrilled when he was selected, and I was thrilled and to have the honor of introducing George for his award at the Rally's culminating banquet. I get to share the Los Angeles River with all these people -- how great will that be?

I arrived in Portland early, with time to explore the area's waterways. A drive up the Columbia Gorge to Multnomah Falls was lush and green. It was inspiring and refreshing to walk along the Willamette River through downtown, where I shared the waterfront path with cyclists, joggers, rollerbladers and other pedestrians. I thought of the Los Angeles River and the efforts to create bike paths, walkways and gathering places along her banks.

Paddling down the Tualatin River, a tributary of the Willamette River in Portland | Photo by Meredith McKenzie

At the River Rally, there was no need to explain what a watershed is -- we all spoke the same language. We chatted about the importance of outdoor education, to ensure that the next generation continues to advocate for natural places, both rural and urban.

When we all came together in the large hall that first evening, I learned that members of the Waterkeeper Alliance are a special breed -- ever vigilant about defending the Clean Water Act. "Show us your tattoos," someone called out and several Waterkeepers stood up to reveal the organization's logo emblazoned across their backs, on their arms, and other locations that were best not shown in public. Apparently Bobby Kennedy even pays for these permanent symbols for these tribal leaders.

This was my second River Rally and I knew how inspiring and engaging the River Hero Banquet can be -- peppered with humor and tales of determination and dedication. This year, so many important, accomplished people are in the audience -- clean-water warriors. I'm sitting with George and his filmmaker wife, Thea. Sean Hecht from the UCLA Environmental Law Clinic, and Meredith McKenzie, the Arroyolover and founder of the Urban Rivers Institute, are also at our table; L.A. is in the house.

Susan Heathcote from the Iowa Environmental Council receives the first award for her tenacity on many issues, including water quality, water monitoring, agricultural drainage wells, livestock manure management, and Iowa's hazardous site program. Dr. Azzam Alwash of Nature Iraq is recognized for a life of activism -- he founded the Eden Again Project, prompted by a report detailing 90 percent of the Mesopotamian Marshlands as "one of the world's greatest environmental disasters." Then John Wathen, Friends of Hurricane Creek, is called to the stage. With a demeanor befitting the place he defends, John was one of the first waterkeepers to go to Tennessee to investigate a coal ash spill in the Emory River. And when the BP Oil Spill began, he immediately went to the Gulf to document damage. In 2011 when John's home and community were destroyed by a tornado, after ensuring people were safe and that supplies were distributed throughout the community, he turned his attention to leading restoration efforts in the creek. We're all standing, cheering and clapping.

"Next, we go to California." Deep breath, it's time to introduce George, to celebrate his accomplishments and to enlighten this group about the Los Angeles River.

"I want you all to close your eyes and imagine a swimmable, fishable, boatable Los Angeles River," I begin and I hear spontaneous laughter.

"I hear you laughing and I know what you're thinking -- isn't that the concrete-lined movie set I've seen on CSI where car chases and explosions happen?" I told George's story of how one person who loves rivers and kayaking embarked upon a journey that caused a chain reaction of recognition for our much-maligned and misunderstood waterway. "When the EPA's Lisa Jackson stood on the banks of Compton Creek and declared that 'the Los Angeles River's watershed is as important as any other,' I knew that anything was possible."

Now it was time for the crowd to rise to their feet again to recognize George's efforts and I shared that proud moment -- an opportunity to change the way people think about our river.

Shelly Backlar and George Wolfe at River Rally | Photo by Meredith McKenzie

One of the things that I love most about the work we do at Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) is the opportunity to host programs and events that connect people to the river. Many still only know the river from Terminator 2 and Grease, so it's especially gratifying to see their expressions and their perceptions change when we visit a natural and unlined section, where they see plants and herons and egrets, and cyclists speeding by along the bike path. "Wow, this really IS a river."

Yes it is. There's a difference between telling someone about the river and providing an opportunity to actually experience it. It's time to take a break, listen to the flowing water, watch the swallows dart overhead and drink in all the sights, smells and sounds. You should give it a try.

Top: George Wolfe kayaks the L.A. River. Photo by KCET Departures

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