It Takes a Village to Clean the L.A. River

Willow Street Estuary in Long Beach. Photo by Tom Underhill.
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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.



On Saturday, April 28, Friends of the Los Angeles River enjoyed great weather for the 23rd La Gran Limpieza: The Great Los Angeles River CleanUp. Fifteen river sites, from Van Nuys to Long Beach, hosted 3000 volunteers who pulled 22 tons of trash out of the river by hand; waste equal to the weight of 11 automobiles was diverted from entering the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach. As the cleanup coordinator, I had a rare perspective of the event, visiting site after site within the span of a few hours, witnessing schools, clubs, churches, and local neighbors and families all connecting with THEIR RIVER.

Each year four months of planning culminates with a truck launch in the morning, dispatching equipment and supplies from the headquarters of our partners, Los Angeles Conservation Corps and Conservation Corps of Long Beach, to the cleanup sites across the county. For years the LACC has partnered with FoLAR to clean the river, and these teams literally make this massive event possible, contributing a vehicle fleet and a dedicated workforce.

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While the armada rolls out, an army of volunteers dispatch to the 15 river sites. Most of these locations are soft-bottom river sites with riparian environments, where the vegetation and rocks snag and trap trash. Even though the L.A. River has received unprecedented media attention since the EPA designated it a "traditional navigable water" in July of 2010, it's obvious that there is a lot of work to be done to educate the public about the river and its many access points.

Sunnynook Footbridge in Atwater Village. Photo by William Marta.
Sunnynook Footbridge in Atwater Village. Photo by William Marta.

The river environment is degraded, and many locals are not familiar with this mixed sandbar and concrete terrain, as they typically enjoy nature in parks, gardens, or on maintained nature trails. Our safety talk focuses both on the protection of the volunteer and also on the well-being of those creatures who live and traverse this important wildlife corridor. In a nutshell: don't drink the river water, don't squish the critters you may find in the riverbed, don't drag your bags over the native plants, keep a distance from the birds. Stay in groups of at least two, and wear a hat and sunscreen -- seriously, the concrete embankment reflects light and may give you an unusually severe burn.

This year, thanks to a grant from Keep LA Beautiful, we were able to provide volunteers with reusable cloth work gloves. This saved the single-use of 6000 plastic gloves. Inspired by Heal the Bay, we also incorporated some reusable 5-gallon plastic buckets this year for trash collection, which reduced our use of plastic bags; in the past, a large plastic trash bag might waste more plastic than the amount of trash collected in it. Next year, the goal is to take more steps to reduce the carbon footprint of the event.

Sometimes, when advance scouting a river site, it can seem deceptively clean. More than once we've nervously joked about needing to call in an art department to set-dress some trash for those people coming out to work. But volunteers ALWAYS ferret out camouflaged mattresses and hidden shopping carts, plastic workhorses, washed up signposts, plus every manner of weird "river treasure." Some discards get dumped illegally by the public, but many things are simply washed from the streets to the storm drains which funnel to the river. At Fletcher Drive alone, I spied spray paint cans, skateboards, a trampoline, a leopard-print blanket, a library card, Christmas ornaments, and an office chair, peppering a trash line equal to two blocks along the riverbank, prepared for transport to the dumpster. Of course, plastic bags are ubiquitous, knitted in layers around trees and reeds, but if the City of L.A. Single-Use Bag Ban proceeds as planned, this type of pollution should be greatly reduced in future years.

Trash wrapped in vegetation at Steelhead Park in Elysian Valley. Photo by Grove Pashley.
Trash wrapped in vegetation at Steelhead Park in Elysian Valley. Photo by Grove Pashley.
Trash gathered at Fletcher Drive site. Photo by Esther Kim.
Trash gathered at Fletcher Drive site. Photo by Esther Kim.

There comes a point each year when the volunteers are fried, dirty and exhausted, and even the crew, including me, wants to go home. You would expect everyone to fizzle out and wobble off. What happens instead is astonishing: a passion for nature and the frustration of seeing a river full of trash is transformed into a raw fuel, propelling everything in a last push. After you've spent the morning with majestic birds, buzzing flameskimmers, and wriggling fish, pulling endless piles of trash from the sandbars can feel irksome, ridiculous, even stupid. It can make people angry. But river people are dedicated, sometimes to the point of feverish obsession and madness; they will clean 'til the bitter end because they have simply had enough of watching beautiful things destroyed.

The task of thanking the endless list of contributors is daunting. At a certain point, one realizes that philanthropy has its own reward, because nothing anyone at FoLAR can say will be equal to the gift of time, money or goods given toward the river, from corporate sponsorships to free
advertising to raffle prize donations, to a loan of rubber boots.

Compton Creek at Del Amo Blvd. Photo by Brian Minami.
Compton Creek at Del Amo Blvd. Photo by Brian Minami.

Many people miss the date of La Gran Limpieza and call the office asking FoLAR to host smaller cleanups throughout the year. There are several reasons why that would be difficult. First, US Army Corps of Engineers and the County of Los Angeles Flood Control District claim a patchwork of jurisdiction over the river bed, and they declare rainy season to be October 15 through April 15 -- so cleanups are generally not permitted between those dates. We also secure permits from river-adjacent parcels and parking lots, some of which are not open to the public -- our tally for event permits this year was fifteen. It is quite labor-intensive to organize cleanups, so the tradition since the 1980s has been to hold one big cleanup each spring.

There are one million people living within a one-mile footprint of the Los Angeles River, and there are 9-10 million people living in the L.A. River watershed. Three thousand volunteers is a great start, but we need more. Now that our annual cleanup event has passed, here's what you can do to help the revitalization plans: explore the river, and share it with those who have never experienced it. Show friends and family the many pocket parks, historic bridges, murals, and decorative gates. Pedal the bike paths, birdwatch in the estuary, and ride a horse on the equestrian river trails. If everyone shares their discoveries of the magical nooks and crannies on the river greenway, then volunteers for next year's cleanup will already know how to visit Bette Davis Picnic Area and Steelhead Park. It's hard to clean at Sunnynook Footbridge if you can't find it!

Marsh Park in Elysian Valley. Photo by Susan Nickels.
Marsh Park in Elysian Valley. Photo by Susan Nickels.
The Arroyo Seco Confluence. Photo by Roman Krajewski.


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