Wading into the L.A. River's Braided Past

Jenny Price leads a tour in the Los Angeles River. View more photos from this excursion on KCET Departures' blog, Land of Sunshine, here. | Photo: Justin Cram/Departures/KCET

I thought I knew what to expect when my students and I went down to the river.

After all, we had read Blake Gumprecht ("The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth"); dug into Norris Hundley ("The Great Thirst"); and were jolted by Jenny Price's essay, "Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A."

These master narrators (and let us not forget KCET Departures' deep and thorough presentation) of the history of the Los Angeles River frame its past condition and contemporary state in ways as interwoven as the river's threaded course once was as it flowed down the San Fernando Valley, pressed through the Glendale Narrows, and then fanned out across the basin on its way to the sea.

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Photo: Courtesy student Nathan Yale
Photo: Courtesy student Nathan Yale

Through differing lenses, Hundley and Gumprecht focus on the lengthy process by those who have resided along the river have responded to its periods of dry and wet. The arid months were much less dangerous, of course: the thunderous winter floods that could swiftly crash over or blow through the river's banks, and pummel the surrounding built environment, were properly feared.

Or were so most of all by Euro-American colonists, who were more flat-footed than the seasonally savvy and mobile native peoples who knew where not to live in a time of heavy rain.

Those floodwaters posed another dilemma for those who planted themselves so firmly within the river's watershed -- the floods' sediment-packed, scouring energy ("damaging debris discharges" is what the L.A. Department of Public Works calls this process) could churn new paths to a new mouth.

This volatility and variability is hard to appreciate today, as the river follows a concrete-fixed course out of the downtown area, on a relatively straight shot before it pours into San Pedro Bay, near Long Beach. Prior to being boxed in, however, it streamed into the Pacific anywhere between San Pedro and Santa Monica bays, an unpredictability that drove real-estate developers, civic leaders, and flood-weary residents nuts.

They went a little vengeful-crazy following the 1938 floods, which pounded the Southland, killing more than 100 people, wiping out earthen levees, and ripping through neighborhoods and commercial districts. A quick-setting political consensus drove the call for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the L.A. County Flood Control District to do what they do most -- pour concrete (estimates range upwards of 3.5 million barrels went in to the reconstruction of the river by the late 1950s).

In a post-Katrina age, it's inevitable as well that we might doubt the knee-jerk reaction to make rigid what had been a flexible natural system.

But in the late 1930s and early 1940s -- and well into the next decade -- there were few naysayers as the Corps and District laid down cubic yard after cubic yard into the construction of upstream dams (Hansen, Sepulveda, Big Tujunga, among others); full channelization of the river's banks; and countless culverts and storm drains to capture and flush water into a river that now largely functioned as a flood-control device for its 834 square mile watershed. We had formed up nature to our liking.

That structural reconfiguration was what my students and I anticipated seeing when we rendezvoused at Steelhead Park, just off Riverside Drive in the Glendale Narrows. We weren't disappointed.

This pocket park, one of several designed to open up some greenspace along the river's hardened course, demarcates the southerly end of a short stretch of soft-bottom riverbed; its hard-wall slanted banks and the fully concretized channel that runs south beneath the Figueroa Street Bridge, makes it an ideal spot to consider the confluence of social and natural forces that define this space.

Helping us think about some of these tensions was Peter Enzminger. He had taken the first iteration of my class on Water in the West in the spring of 2008, and is finishing up his masters in urban planning at USC (and in his spare time is a freelance blogger for SPUR: Ideas and Action for a Better City).

As part of his studies, Peter has been developing a model for how during the summer months people could make more use of the hardened river bottom itself, drawing them off the bike/walk path that runs along the bank to deepen their connection to the river as a river. I asked him to share his insights with us, and as we sat in the small amphitheater-like seating at the park, he located his project within the larger effort to revitalize the river.

Dating from the quixotic founding of the Friends of the LA River in 1985, whose idealistic enthusiasm has pushed public dialog to such a point that we now have a fully developed river revitalization plan, the goal has been to elevate Angelenos' consciousness about the watershed they inhabit.

Photo: Courtesy student Kristen McCormack
Photo: Courtesy student Kristen McCormack

Seeing the river afresh initially required cutting through the chainlink that fenced it off from the curious; and punching holes in the hard-and-fast politics of flood control that dominated civic conversations about its place in the community.

Over the years and as a result of countless local hearings, neighborhood confabs, and planning charettes, a new politics about the river started to emerge that reflected FOLAR's grand ambitions of the mid-1980s. To turn the LA River, as one of its co-founders Lewis MacAdams then wrote in Whole Earth Review, from an "urban hell" into "a sylvan glen, a thicket, an avalon, a marsh, a place of great blue herons, where a kingfisher darting at a steelhead's flash might accidentally flush a doe."

Peter's playful project -- employing wooden pallets to make a platform on the river bottom that can be moved around like puzzle pieces during the dry months and serve as an informal gathering spot; and then forklifted out during the wet ones -- fits within this larger ethos that conceives of the river as a living resource and communal responsibility.

Before pedaling away to sketch out new ideas upstream, Peter brought us back to the river's current structure and the cavernous space it created; its vastness, its monumentality is overwhelming, he said.

Standing right beneath the Figueroa Bridge, everything appeared out of scale: the channel conveyed something of the magnitude of the engineering project of which it is a part; and its depth and width (roughly 50 by 200 feet) bespoke the sheer volume of water that could sluice full speed (it's been clocked at 45 m.p.h.) through this site on its way to the Pacific. The flood-controllers' ambition was out-sized.

Yet also palpable. As struck as we were by the geometric angularity of the space -- bed, wall, bridges; by the energy and transportation grids that arc overhead; by the muffled hum of cars and the screech of Metrolink brakes -- running beneath this urban dynamic was another pulse; small, unmistakable, and surprising.

The river was animated.

Some of this had to do with the fact that we were there but two days after heavy rains, so there was a good flow running across the concrete. Some with the bobbing presence of a clutch of Black Stilts feeding in the waters just south of the natural-bottom narrows; some with a pair of mallards wriggling through a tangle of root and trunk.

More consequential, I think, was how -- and sneakily so -- the river came alive for us as we stood in its midst. "I did not expect the inner channel," Jess later reflected. "Of all the things that I saw last Tuesday, I don't know why that inner, two-foot deep, channel full of water rushing along made the biggest impression, but it did."

Certain in advance that it would not "feel like a real river," later she realized that "inner channel gave it life. In its rush, "the currents played, swirling the water and creating my favorite sounds, as it hurried off downstream. The river seemed alive because it did not behave perfectly -- water from the inner channel sloshed out, soaking the rest of the riverbed in a few inches of water and allowing the algae to grow even on the concrete."

Photo: Courtesy student Nathan Yale
Photo: Courtesy student Nathan Yale

Jenny Price taught us to look for markers like that; to see nature in the cracks, like the six-inch waterfall the river is making as it slowly undercuts the seam between two concrete slabs, a tiny cataract that if you stood still, roared.

I took that as an instance, however microscopic, of what Price asserts: "Nature is never passive."

Because every place "has an active, very particular ecology, climate, topography, geology, flora, fauna," the task is to locate its constituent elements, peculiar and prosaic, and to write about them, dream about them, affirm them. "What we need in L.A., as elsewhere, is a foundational literature that imagines nature not as the opposite of the city but as the basic stuff of modern everyday life."

The Los Angeles River is that wellspring for Price, and it became so for another of my students. Initially repelled -- "The river is a hodge-podge of cement that looks like sand, trash that looks like trees, and life that is so surrounded by the city that you feel like you need to poke it to make sure it's alive" -- Kristen found her perspective shifting as she headed down the steep bank.

"From the bottom up, it's hard to forget that it's enormous and moving, and as I experienced it, it seemed to regain some of the life that its ugly urbanization had taken from it."

Then a childhood memory surfaced, of hours spent in the concrete-lined irrigation ditch that runs behind her Boulder, Colorado backyard. It's "a place where I could see snails and moss peeling in the fall and chase water spiders that didn't know I was cherishing their river as a form of Jenny Price's urban nature, a form which I saw as both beautiful and alive."

The prospects are beguilingly complex: "When we begin to believe, as I did when I was young," Kristen wrote, that "our rivers, even our artificial rivers, are magic, we allow ourselves to care about them, and in doing so we give them potential, a potential which, while painful, can also be liberating."

I didn't see that coming, either.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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