L.A. River: Tour Operators Gain Access, Recreational Zones Identified

Jenny Price leads a L.A. River tour in 2007 | Photo by Zach Behrens

Over the years Jenny Price has taken thousands of people on tours of the Los Angeles River, and these days interest is surging more than ever. Once thought of by the public as a 52-mile channelized storm drain (or a ditch or whatever) between the San Fernando Valley and Long Beach, the river is now getting its due after a decades long education campaign by some who saw it for what is.

But getting people to recognize the river was just the first of three main struggles environmentalists have faced in the journey to revitalization. The second has been land use, which has basically been accomplished through such documents as the river and bicycle master plans, and the EPA's decision to categorize the natural artery as navigable, giving it eligibility under the Clean Water Act. The last and current challenge is the implementation of those plans -- accessibility.

"The river has gotten to a point where people are clamoring for access, but there's no real established policy yet," said Price, who beyond her duties as a UCLA research scholar and writer, has been a longtime advocate of the river by sharing it intimately with the those willing to tag along on her tours. But murky understanding of laws by government agencies, uneven police enforcement and confusing signage have left things unclear. "It can be frustrating for people," she said.

Price has directly experienced that exasperation over the last six months. In the fall, she took a group from the popular Hidden LA Facebook page into the river, which drew the attention of a police officer who told them to leave. Price was surprised because there have never been any problems without a permit -- the city always turned a blind eye -- but she persevered and obtained a one four and a half months later from the Army Corp of Engineers. With that in hand, she led another tour in January and encountered the same officer, who, once again, kicked her and the tour group out.

Technically, the cop was right. A permit -- actually a letter of no objection -- from the Army Corp of Engineers is required to enter the river. An additional revocable right of entry permit is then required by the city of Los Angeles for land it owns abut the waterway. The process, thanks to Film LA, has been easy for the plethora of production companies seeking to shoot films in the river, but everyone else was pretty much left out to sea.

A group heads into a tunnel leading to a section of the L.A. River under the 6th Street Bridge | Photo by Zach Behrens

That was until this week. On Tuesday, the L.A. City Council approved a motion to give tour operators like Price a clear process in which to obtain a city permit for access at two spots: a ramp under Avenue 19 near the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and L.A. River and a long, dark, sketchy tunnel under the 6th street bridge in downtown.

There's a lot more access work to be done, but Price called this a "good step."

More of those steps are on the way, some of which moved forward on Monday at the city's Ad Hoc River Committee. Of note was Councilmember Ed Reyes' request for a motion to support recreational use zones along the river, based on a presentation from the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR).

The 18-page document details "near-term recreational access and use" of the river, suggesting the Sepulveda Basin, Glendale Narrows and Long Beach Estuary as recreational use zones for activities ranging from bird watching to kayaking. Combined the areas make up about 12 miles, or 20%, of the river. Reyes' motion would not have jurisdiction over the estuary.

FOLAR's Executive Director Lewis MacAdams called the report a common sense approach that should be adopted by the city, county and federal agencies (at the meeting he also said this common sense quotable: "You don't need a permit to go to the beach, why do you need one to go to the L.A. River?"). Created by FOLAR and a team of lawyers nicked named the A-Team -- "A" for access -- the document combs through a number of issues such as user safety, signage, enforcement and permitting, all followed up by recommendations.

Price talks to a tour group at the Arroyo Seco confluence | Photo by Zach Behrens

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Also discussed at the meeting was a pilot program to allow non-motorized boating along a three-mile segment of the river in the Sepulveda Basin. The program, which may end up being weekend-only kayaking tours with a naturalist, could begin in May. Next year it could be opened up to individual kayakers and expanded to the Glendale Narrows.

George Wolfe, a kayaker who has traveled the river numerous times and founded Los Angeles River Expeditions (you should really check out these photo galleries by photographer Tom Andrews on LAist), said that after the EPA's decision last summer he received over 800 e-mails from people wanting to take a kayak tour with him. He tried and was stopped by the city, but is cautiously optimistic what the pilot program will mean for private operators and hopes to work with officials in the process. According to the city, those details have not been finalized.

The Glendale Narrows | Photo by Zach Behrens

The program was intended to begin on April 30th (and could still possibly end up on that day) to coincide with the Los Angeles River Day of Service, when clean-up projects across the city are taking place. 2,000 miles away in Chicago, a similar event will be occurring pinning the two cities against each other in an urban river challenge that has beget two eco-spirited contests: what city will attract more volunteers and which non-profit will attract the most Facebook fans? So far, FOLAR is winning the latter. Ultimately, however, it will be the people and visitors of Los Angeles that will win when the full dream of the Los Angeles river is realized.


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