The Inside Line: The L.A. River

Bringing our August issue story on reclaiming the iconic river to life

Raising the Concrete Curtain

 
In its straitjacket of graffiti-tagged storm drains and ruler-straight concrete banks, the L.A. River has been a set for car chases and post-apocalyptic thrillers. Thousands of homeless people shelter in tent camps along its concrete banks. Forgotten by most Angelenos, it also feeds gray foxes, egrets, swallowtails, kingsnakes, and lush vegetation on its 51-mile course to the Pacific. Most of the river is off-limits to paddlers. Five years ago, George Wolfe led a rogue trip down the river to prove that it is not only navigable, but also worth saving. The resulting documentary, Rock the Boat: Saving America’s Wildest River is billed as “a film about Los Angeles and the Little River That Could.” Its many memorable scenes include cops in helicopters, civilians walking their kayaks, and fish stranded on concrete.

Wolfe, who has a degree in urban studies, took to this riparian underdog. “It had great potential as a rags-to-riches story,” he says, “and that’s appealing to people.”

After Wolfe’s 2008 downriver run, the EPA designated the river a “traditional navigable waterway,” thereby protecting the watershed under the federal Clean Water Act. In a coalition with various local partners, Wolfe next launched a pilot program to test the feasibility of guided, educational kayak and canoe trips on his backyard river. Last year, 2,500 people explored the river that most had previously thought of as a giant concrete sewer. This Memorial Day saw the opening of a 2.5-mile “soft-bottom” section near the megacity’s downtown to public day-use during the summer. Wolfe booked all of his available weekend trips in one day.

“It’s satisfying to be part of the rebound,” acknowledges Wolfe, and “great to get caught up in a cause larger than yourself.” As part of its mission, L.A. River Expeditions, which Wolfe co-directs, has chaperoned inner-city youths down the river, while another new outfitter, L.A. River Kayak Safari, has put locals to work. One of the frustrations for an urban outfitter is the painstaking bureaucracy, although Wolfe says, “local agencies are getting more adjusted to new ways of interacting with the river, shedding some fears of liability responsibilities.” While the river is flat and nine days out of 10, it is not to be underestimated. “When it rains,” Wolfe says, “it channels a massive volume of water moving at 45 mph.”

Wolfe’s wife, Thea Mercouffer, has not been idle either. Her 54-minute documentary about her husband’s exploits—which began as a video clip of the infamous first run—is making waves on the festival circuit. It has garnered several prizes, including the People’s Choice Award at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. Its appeal, according to Wolfe, stems from the message that “one person—or a small group of people—can make an enormous difference.” In addition, it showcases a timely yet timeless story. “On a deep level,” says Wolfe, “we know that water is becoming increasingly scarce. Unlike the 20th century, we’re not dealing with infinite resources. How we deal with this one section, which is just a foothold, will determine if we change our ways. If we can do it in L.A., we can do it anywhere.” —Michael Engelhard

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  • Tony Taylor

    Have no idea why you folks don’t write stories about the real LA River and how it is being misused by these people using it to make money. The water in the LA River is full of heavy metals and chemicals that are hazardous to people and even more so the little wildlife still left trying to live there. Please start reporting the truth about the LA River and not stories about these individuals whose whole purpose is to make MONEY!!

    • Scott Richardson

      Tony,
      Please explain how renting canoes and kayaks and guiding people down the river is a misuse of the river?
      What is proper use of the river?
      Please link to the report you read that shows the levels of heavy metal in the river. I would like to read it

      • Tony Taylor

        I have no idea if you are connected to this river rafting concession but suspect you probably are. This pilot project was pitched as being “free” and of course it isn’t it is in fact quite expensive. I’ve heard estimates of anywhere from $3 million to $10 million dollars being spent on it. The community was not involved in this project until the very end when two very small meetings where held for the public and most of those who attended those meetings were against this project. Of course it did not matter how many people were opposed, could have been thousands or hundreds of thousands, it had already been decided and was a go.
        I have been going to the river since the late 70′s, long before these river people came along with dollar signs in their eyes came on the scene. What is going on at the river is spending huge sums of money on parks, bridges and bike paths that few use other than the homeless, druggies and gangsters, that are not maintained, and most of the communities along the river did not and do not want. There has been no effort made to clean up the water to make it even safe for the wildlife that lives in it, or to clean up the trash out of trees and bushes or the water, there has never been an effort to provide security at the river, to set up a system to contact first responders or to put up signage listing rules (of which there are few), hours of operation or anything else of that nature.
        I don’t know if you are a regular river goer as I am, I am there at least four days a week, if you are then you like me have seen a tremendous decline in ducks, geese and birds on the river over the last several years, in the project area where there used to be a lot ducks and different kinds of birds, there are practically none anymore. The number of species that comes to winter on the river has also dropped drastically and this year the number of mother ducks with young could be counted on one hand. This program is not good for those few birds and ducks, and geese that remain on the river. I have seen what happens when people are in the water in boats or fishing or whatever. Particularly with boats those that can fly, all cannot fly due to age or damage to wings, flea in terror. * I have rescued three Canada Geese with fishing line entwined in their legs and currently am trying to rescue one with a injury and one with a twisted leg. Every time I am at the river I pick up discarded fishing line and hooks and encounter people who think it is fun to let their dogs and kids chase the wildlife. Those who let their kids and dogs do this think its cute and when they told, no matter how nice, that its wrong they will cuss you out, threaten or assault you. I have had my hand torn up by an off leash and its owner thought it funny. I have had my cameras stolen, my phone and more than once been assaulted. As for water quality those of us who go to the river regularly do not need a report to see that it is unhealthful, even those who are not frequent river goers can see it is unhealthful. I have posted info out of water quality reports I have found online and am currently working on getting the most recent one and when I do I will post it. I have little doubt it will show that the water is not clean and contains bacteria, chemicals and heavy metals. If those who promote the river say its not clean as does BOS and when some of those who have kayaked in it post that they are hurrying home to take a shower and put on clean clothes, well they know that its bad. Also, the LAFD knows its not healtful. Seven years ago, I believe it is this year, a young fisherman, 14 years old, drowned at Taylor Yard after becoming trapped a piece of broken concrete that is still there. When the firemen who went into the water, which they described as “murky” came out after retrieving his body they were hosed down due to the water. I was there I saw them. I also have posted press reports from LAFD about this incident. I have also seen people who have been in that water who come will come down with boils and sores on their bodies from being exposed to the water. And let me ask you this would you drink a mouthful of LA River water or eat a fish caught in its putrid waters? Those who are sponsoring these paid kayaking tours don’t want the truth to be known about the water and the danger it presents-what people don’t know won’t hurt them.*

        • Scott Richardson

          You suspect that living in Illinois, that I am involved in the project? Put your tin foil hat back on.
          Yes, I live near many rivers including the Missisippi River. And use the rivers near me all the time.
          I heard of this story in 2008. And the kayaks and canoes are drawing people to the river. Enough interest by enough people will force a take back from those you don’t like being there

          • Tony Taylor

            I did not know you lived in Illinois. And I do not wear a tin foil hat. I don’t know why you folks want to get a little testy, but that’s all right. I grew up in Indiana and I too know a little about rivers. The LA River is made up of reclaimed sewage water. There is little interest in the LA River except for a small, small number of people. The idea of “if we green they will come” may work in the Midwest but it didn’t work, and isn’t working in LA. Glad you heard of this story in 2008. I have went to hundreds of meetings about the LA River since like when it became fashionable in the late 1990′s. The kayaks and canoes (of which there are just about zilch) are not drawing people to the river, only a few who have bought into boating in water that can make them ill. I guess you might think that is okay for people to be frolicking around in water that is full of chemicals and bacteria. .

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