L.A. River Cleanup: Small Gestures that Make a Big Difference

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A team removes a huge broken mirror from the river

It was a hot sunny day in Los Angeles as the second weekend of Friends of the Los Angeles River's La Gran Limpieza went underway.

As I pulled into a quiet street in Atwater Village, there were no signs yet that I could find telling me I was on the right track. In order to decide where to go, I did what any logical human being lost would do, follow the crowd. To my left and right, I saw young couples, families, and individuals walk confidently ahead of me, as if they knew where to go. Their gait seemed to indicate this weekend walk had a purpose. My instinct, it turns out, was right. After a few blocks, where Legion Lane and Sunnynook Drive meet, bright blue signs waved in our direction. It said, "FoLAR River Clean-up."

The Sunnynook clean up spot, like many Los Angeles River sites, doesn't give itself away easily. I had to walk a few steps uphill, past a brown wooden gate, before my eyes were treated to an wealth of wilderness, amazingly tucked behind this serene community of bungalows.

A soaring footbridge hung above my head, offering views of treetops and wildlife. Below it, islands of green sprouted, as if forgotten by mankind and time. Our mission today was in this piece of the Los Angeles River. Though at first, it may already seem perfect, closer inspection tells me that isn't so. Small pieces of plastic and other debris littered the piece of the river before me.

To the left, the volunteer table was already filling up with excited applicants manned by the Friends of Atwater Village (FAV). Made up of an active group of volunteers, FAV literally wrote the book on the neighborhood. The members have long had an interest in the Los Angeles River. They've been working to clean up the river for 15 years now, said Netty Carr, a native Angeleno and longtime resident. "The river is our backyard," she said.

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Armed with a plastic bag, gloves and hats, volunteers walked down the concrete waterway making their way gingerly toward the greenery. Before some of them could get to their goal, Michael Watkins, from Griffith Park maintenance and a volunteer for the day, explained how other volunteers can take trash out, while still being respectful of the native fauna. "It's nesting season," Watkins informed me.

Volunteers came from all over, not just Atwater Village. Libby McInerny from Eagle Rock took this opportunity to finally get to know the river. The developments along the Los Angeles River intrigued her, especially the pop-up coffee shop by Cafecito Organico. It was only a matter of time when the river would have a bed of activity, she reasoned, what better way to learn about it than now when grand plans for the river are beginning to materialize.

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It was the first time Bret Carter from the Rotary Club of Santa Monica had gone to the Los Angeles River clean-up. He drove about 30 miles to get a glimpse of the Los Angeles River he had heard so much about. Though it was a trek, he said, "Everything comes to the river and eventually ends up on the ocean." By cleaning up closer to the source of the river, he figures he's helping his neighborhood as well as Atwater Village. Carter also said, "It's nice to be out, not to mention help out."

I spied Carter rooting around the shrubs, looking for something to pick up. At the river, not only do trash wash up on the sides, they can often be found in difficult places, tangled in the branches or stuck in the middle, where one has to slosh through the riverbed to get to the them.

It was Joy Hepp's second time cleaning up the river. A resident of Los Feliz, Hepp's introduction to the river came courtesy of her dodgeball group, who invited her along last year. Despite the work under the hot sun, she agrees with Carter: the work is "relaxing" because of its proximity to nature. I caught her working to free a few plastic bags caught around trees.

Sandra Caravella holds up one of the earliest LA River clean-up shirts she has.

Sandra Caravella holds up one of the earliest LA River clean-up shirts she has.

Libby McInerny and Aaron Zuber sign up for their first clean-up.

Libby McInerny and Aaron Zuber sign up for their first clean-up.

Mike Watkins gives volunteers a safety talk

Mike Watkins gives volunteers a safety talk.

Olivia Cottrell from Larchmont Charter School was an old hand at clean-up. It was her third time there. She organized a group of 41 parents and children that weekend in order to experience the river. Whatever the children experienced would also add to their general awareness of the Los Angeles River; they've been studying the historic waterway with the help of FoLAR.

She and small group of people from the charter school eventually teamed up to help move a large broken mirror out of the riverbed. It was quite an undertaking since the mirror wasn't easily accessible by the banks. It was an island, glittering by its lonely self.
Though a team of volunteers can only typically take a portion of the trash, it is a portion that still makes a difference.

According to FoLAR, a typical clean-up can remove as much as 25 tons of trash from the river. Compounded for 25 years, that means a lot of trash that doesn't pollute our waterways. The trash picked up by volunteers will be weighed and sorted. Its data will go toward a report to be released by FoLAR. Though it's still too early to tell, volunteers have told me the amount of plastic has noticeably decreased since the plastic bags ban was instituted.

In the quarter century since FoLAR first began their yearly clean-ups, more and more people have gotten on board. "Twenty-five years ago, I called for 10,000 people to show up," recalls Lewis MacAdams, president and co-founder of FoLAR. "About ten did. But it's continued to grow and grow."

There's nowhere to go but up from hereon, given the amount of investments that are being poured into projects by the river. Nowadays, we see new parks opening, bicycle routes, even kayaking programs. It isn't far out of the realm of possibility that where once tourists would flock to see the beaches, now they might also come to see the Los Angeles River.

The last weekend of the L.A. River Clean-up is May 10 in the Long Beach area. Check here for details.

Kids discover the river

Kids discover the river.

Olivia Cotterell tries to reach a piece of plastic trapped above her.

Olivia Cotterell tries to reach a piece of plastic trapped above her.

Joy Hepp shows off her haul so far.

Joy Hepp shows off her haul so far.

Bret Carter around the shrubs

Bret Carter around the shrubs.

Photos by Carren Jao


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