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Restore, Reclaim, Revitalize: Meet the Communities Working to Make the L.A. River Better for All

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The California coast is one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, meaning that there are many different biological organisms living there, but they and their habitats are deeply threatened. The most prominent threats are human activities and land development. Over the years, ecosystems like wetlands and riparian woodlands have dwindled to just 10% of their original area.

The Los Angeles River, which is home to many of the state’s wetlands and riparian habitats, has suffered greatly as well. But progress is being made as its revitalization has been ongoing since the ‘90s thanks to the work of many agencies, from California State Parks to the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as from plenty of lesser-known organizations and individuals. 

Here are some of the people and organizations who are passionate about the river and are working to make it better, often behind the scenes.

Clockshop

Moonrise reading. | Gina Clyne/ Courtesy of Clockshop
Moonrise reading at the Bowtie Project. | Gina Clyne/ Courtesy of Clockshop

Thanks to a partnership between the nonprofit multimedia art organization Clockshop and California State Parks, people are experiencing the river through the Bowtie Project

Bowtie Storytellers campfire. | Gina Clyne/ Courtesy of Clockshop
Bowtie Storytellers campfire. | Gina Clyne/ Courtesy of Clockshop

Located north of Dodger Stadium near Glassell Park, the Bowtie is an 18-acre post-industrial lot along the river. For the past six years, this area has seen over 90 arts and culture events including installations, book readings and field trips. Clockshop regularly hosts educational programs like Bowtie Storytellers, where teens and pre-teens become interpreters who can effectively communicate stories of the river’s plants and wildlife.

Upcoming events include a residence by local artist Carmen Argote starting at the end of March and a fireside reading by writer Fernanda Melchor on May 6.

Julia Meltzer, founder and director of Clockshop, explained that the goal of the events is to bring people to the river so that they can explore and learn about the site and the local environment. She said she hopes that these experiences will make them feel invested in the Bowtie and that they will become advocates for its future as it transitions into a park. Meltzer said she believes that this transition will be complete in just five to seven years.

Friends of the Los Angeles River

Great L.A. River CleanUp. | Courtesy of Friends of the Los Angeles River
Great L.A. River Cleanup. | Courtesy of Friends of the Los Angeles River

Clockshop isn’t the only organization inspiring advocacy for the parks along the river. Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) also focuses on community education and involvement to ensure improvements being made keep the community in mind.

Its events — like bird surveying, writing workshops and cleanups — let people learn about and experience firsthand all the river has to offer.

"Giving people an experience on the river connects them to it. And providing them with additional advocacy opportunities gives them a place to channel their energy and their love and their desire to protect the river and to improve it for themselves and others,” said Michael Atkins, senior communications and impact manager at FoLAR.

Right now, FoLAR is fighting against the development of the Casitas luxury apartments near the north entrance of the Bowtie. The organization believes this will limit what can be built in the future and make it difficult to enter the park at this location. 

Instead, FoLAR wants the land to be combined with the neighboring sites that are slated for revitalization — the Bowtie, the G2 Taylor Yard parcel and the Rio de Los Angeles State Park. Together, they would make 100 continuous acres of open space.

Looking forward, the organization hopes the revitalization makes up for how the river and surrounding environment were treated in the past and that it becomes an inclusive space that allows all communities to experience wildlife without having to travel large distances to get there.

“Restoring the river is a key opportunity to serve that biodiversity, serve the wildlife. But also the communities who are walking distance to the river, who deserve better parks, better recreational opportunities, and access to nature that doesn’t require them to drive miles out of the city," Atkins said.

Sotomayor Arts and Sciences Magnet School

Sitting adjacent to those 100 acres is the Sotomayor Arts and Sciences Magnet School. For the past three years, the school has been offering students an opportunity to help restore their local habitat to its native form.

Through classes taught by Reies Flores and a partnership with the Audubon Center, students are removing invasive plants from the school’s campus and the Rio de Los Angeles State Park and are planting ones that are native to the region. Since native plants can be sustained by the rainfall of the region and nutrients in the soil, they don't require additional water and fertilizer unlike lawns and ornamental plants. They also provide food and protection for native animals.

But, according to Flores, the importance of restoring the habitat to its native state goes beyond saving resources and wild animals. It also provides a connection to the original inhabitants of the area — the Tongva people.

“By learning about the ethnobotany of plants, our students learn about this often marginalized group that is all but absent from the historical cannon taught in schools. It gives students deeper connection to not only the roots of the place they live, but also the indigenous roots of most of our Latino students who have indigenous culture that is often latent in their own families," Flores said.

Lila Higgins

Lila Higgins kayaking the L.A. River in the Sepulveda Basin in July 2016 | Kat Superfisky
Lila Higgins kayaking the L.A. River in the Sepulveda Basin in July 2016 | Kat Superfisky

Lila Higgins fell in love with the river when she stumbled upon an idyllic stretch near the L.A. River Bike Path in Elysian Valley, also known as Frogtown. Now she helps others discover and learn about the river. 

She gives walking and kayaking tours of the river, leads picnics and, when she and her colleague Kat Superfisky had the idea for a campout on the river, they helped Clockshop and California State Parks organize their first one in 2014. 

Higgins also uses her position as the senior manager of community science at the National History Museum of Los Angeles County to educate those who are revitalizing the river. When she served on the county's L.A. River Master Plan committee, she made sure that the data from museum scientists was incorporated in the plan. She also connected those scientists with the engineers responsible for the construction of the new Sixth Street Bridge to create a wildlife habitat adjacent to it. And, through the museum and a partnership with Heal the Bay, she helped develop and lead a river cleanup where Compton Creek meets the river and a bioblitz event where the community tries to identify as many species as they can in a certain amount of time.

LACCD Sustainable Environment Institute

The Los Angeles Community College District’s Sustainable Environment Institute (SEI) is taking a more academic approach to the river. Its efforts include an ecological study of part of the Tujunga area called Gold Creek. 

Located in the west end of the Los Angeles National Park, Gold Creek is a tributary that feeds into the river. During the last two fires the vegetation in this area burned, but the group is using this opportunity to study how the plants are coming back. 

The group is currently watching to see which species are growing — ones native to the region, or aggressive, invasive species that grow more easily in the changing climate and decreased precipitation. These changes to the local ecology can be permanent and, in some cases, these aggressive species have had to be removed to help the native species flourish.

SEI is also one of several groups measuring levels of contaminants in the Los Angeles River’s water. These harmful substances get trapped in the water by the concrete riverbed rather than being able to filter out through surrounding soil. 

According to George Leddy, director of SEI, decontaminating the river would be a massive job involving rerouting the storm drains of hundreds of miles of roads and treating the water. While SEI’s contributions may be modest compared to the other organizations, locating the sources of contamination is crucial, so that they can be regulated and, in some cases, responsible parties made accountable. 

These are just two of the projects the SEI is busy working on to improve the river. Others include a campaign for a watershed study and the installation of weather stations and air quality monitors throughout the basin.

Beth Abels

Pierce College students exploring the L.A. River. | Courtesy of Beth Abels
Pierce College students exploring the L.A. River. | Courtesy of Beth Abels

For more than a decade, Beth Abels has been getting hundreds of students involved with the river. She is a professor of architecture at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, which sits about a mile from the headwater. Through her architecture design course, students gain what Abels calls an affection for their place along the river as well as a relationship with it.

The class includes a two-day tour of the entire river with 25 stops along the way. During this time, students observe how people use the river, what the wildlife is like, how easy or hard it is to access each point, and which areas are wild or lined with concrete.

They then spend the semester answering a brief, such as ways to mark headwaters or address runoff water. This past fall, they designed ways to showcase the locations along the river where they saw wildlife. They came up with signage, kiosks and visitor centers.

Most important to Abels is her students’ newfound recognition of the river and environment. She says that, as a result of her class, they become conscious of how they use water and dispose of their trash. Many develop higher expectations for the future of the river and what decisions are made in its regard. Some have gotten involved with the L.A. River Project by attending community sessions or participating in river cleanup events. She estimates that she’s had roughly 1,000 students take her class and considers them all river experts.

UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability

Los Angeles college students are getting involved in the river revitalization effort as well. Through UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, students are working on new ways to improve the river. 

One group is focusing on the contaminated sites along the river. Students are developing an interactive map that shows what type of contaminants are found at the 110 brownfields, 16 superfund sites and 154 toxic release sites within one mile of the river and its tributaries. 

"We believe these areas in particular are hindering progress for the river's restoration," said project team member Julia Campbell. "We wanted to create some sort of visual aid to make it easy and clear for the local communities in charge of the restoration to determine where to allocate funds for a cleanup."

They are also developing a fact sheet that compares the risk of toxin exposure at these sites to everyday risks like driving a car. They believe that these risks — which depend on the type of toxin, the concentration and the time spent in its vicinity — are lower than people would think, but do have a greater effect on the local plants and animals.

Another group is hoping to educate the public and influence the decisions of the Taylor Yard landscape architects on which native plants and animals will be the most resilient to climate change. They plan to share their recommendations through signage, videos and fact sheets.

The project builds off of students' research into the fossil records of native plants and animals to determine which ones will be able to adapt to the consequences of climate change, such as drought, storms and extreme heat.

"Simply put, the team is looking to the past to plan for the future," said Dylan Readel, who is part of the research group and communication effort.

He said he hopes that as areas along the river are developed, they are planned and revitalized with science in mind. 

Top Image: Children at the Great L.A. River Cleanup. | Courtesy of Friends of the Los Angeles River

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