At its recent quarterly meeting, the Wildlife Conservation Board approved approximately $28.7 million in grants to help restore and protect fish and wildlife habitat throughout California, including one for the Los Angeles River, according to its website.
A $1.4 million grant to the Council for Watershed Health for a cooperative project with the city of Los Angeles, the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, the Friends of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco Foundation for a planning project to provide designs, permits and environmental review for addressing impaired mobility for southern steelhead trout and other native fish along more than four miles of the Los Angeles River in downtown Los Angeles.
Los Angeles’s twin challenges of building more housing while restoring its namesake waterway are clashing along a shady 11-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River between downtown and the hills of Griffith Park.
On a 7-acre parcel in that stretch, a developer wants to build the riverfront’s first major development, Casitas Lofts, a 419-unit mix of mostly upscale apartments, offices and restaurants bordering neighborhoods on the east side of the river, Glassell Park and Atwater Village.
The Los Angeles River continues to be scalding hot, and that’s not just the summertime temps of the water. Two big river events in two days this week, the official groundbreaking for the Taylor Yard Pedestrian Bridge, followed by the sixth annual River Day at City Hall.
The city has worked on being “riverly” since — 1988 — according to former Councilmember Tom LaBonge who retired in 2015. It’s been a long road with our community still waiting for promised federal dollars to the tune of $2.6 billion to restore the river’s habitat.
Let’s count down what’s happened since the last River Day. The slogan could be “connect, don’t neglect” as underserved communities regain the connections lost to the construction of a concrete flood control channel:
— Four new and-and-bike friendly bridges to connect communities: Taylor Yard Pedestrian Bridge, North Atwater Village, Red Car Pedestrian Bridge and Verdugo Wash Bridge that will connect Glendale to L.A.
— Friends of the Los Angeles River’s celebrates the 30th annual LA River Clean-up and begins #CrackTheConcrete fundraising campaign. It’s a classic FoLAR campaign that is pro Taylor Yards/G2 River Park and its long-promised habitat restoration and con Casitas Lofts, a 420-unit housing development.
— Opening of Albion Riverside Park in Lincoln Heights.
— $18 million in state funding for a continuous bike path along the river. Remember, this is a 51-mile waterway.
— Last week the Environmental Protection Agency awarded $500,000 to help clean up the polluted soil of Taylor Yard/G2.
— Councilmember David Ryu takes on chairmanship of river committee from Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell.
“Some day the LA River steelhead will come back,” Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell said at the river celebration, echoing what FoLAR co-founder Lewis MacAdams said for many years to anyone who would listen.
In another first, the advocacy group Friends of the Los Angeles River has installed three tubes for fisherfolk to safely discard used line in selected spots along the river’s upper banks. Trout Unlimited provided the funding, while both Councilperson Mitch O’Farrell (13th District) and the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council provided their political imprimatur.
“We support FoLAR taking a stance on discarded fishing line, while educating anglers who are new to fishing the L.A. River as well as the anglers who have fished the river for decades,” wrote AVNC co-chairs Torin Dunnavant and Courtney Morris in their letter of support.
Both the AVNC and O’Farrell’s office cited a trigger event for better line management, the death of a Great Blue Heron, called Fred by locals, who was caught in fishing line, seriously injured and subsequently died as marine biologists attempted to nurse him back to health.
Monofilament may seem harmless enough, but it represents both an eco-hazard as well as a possible deadly ensnarement for the wildlife so abundant on the river. According to FoLAR, birds can be attracted to the fishy smell on used line, then become hopelessly ensnared while digging for it in convention trash cans. Also, monofillament does not degrade over time leaving what amounts to an ageless hazard if not dispossed of properly.
As awareness has increased among state agencies, fishing clubs and individual anglers, these recycling tubes have become more common on streams. For example, a tube sits next to the angler survey box at the beginning of the catch and release section of the West Fork of the San Gabriel, a popular area for local flyfishers.
Each week, the tubes’ contents will be sent to the Berkley Conservation Institute in Iowa. The company, which produces conventional fishing line, recycles used line into 4-foot cubicle fish habitats it calls “Fish-Habs.” According to the company’s website, since 1990, BCI has recycled more than 9 million miles worth of fishing line. That’s enough line to fill two reels for every angler in America.
At the close of recreational zones on Labor Day, the program results will be re-evaluated to measure impact and the tubes could become a permanent fixture on the river.
Currently, the tubes are located at the Glendale Narrows Dover Street river entrance in the yoga pocket park, Acresite Street and FoLAR’s own Frog Spot. Future rollouts include the Bowtie Parcel and Marsh Park, if the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority that patrols the area agrees.
Fishing has only recently become legal on the river, during a certain time — Memorial Day through Labor Day — and within certain places, the carefully defined recreational zones below Fletcher Bridge, the so-called Elysian Valley River, and in a stretch in the Sepulveda Basin River in the San Fernando Valley. The fact that the pilot line recycling tubes lie outside these boundaries speaks to the growing number of anglers who search for the best places to fish, regardless of geographic boundaries.
“As the LA River is reborn, it needs the help of a variety of river huggers: fisherfolk, bird watchers, dog walkers, nature strollers. It’s important that everyone who has a particular interest respects the interests of others, and lost or discarded fishing line can ensnare the birds and other creatures that call the river home,”” Robert Blankenship, president of Trout Unlimited’s south coast chapter, said. “We encourage all fishermen to discard used line in the collectors, and would appreciate anyone who sees old fishing line in the river area to please use the collectors as well.”
With the upcoming river cleanup happening Saturday, it’s an appropriate time to check in with California State Senator Kevin De Leon SB1201, a bill that could bolster efforts to open up the Los Angeles River for lawful recreational uses, such as fishing. For context and the finer points, read this excellent summary from Legal Planet, a collaboration between UC Berkeley School of Law and UCLA School of Law. The site defines itself as “providing insight and analysis on energy and environmental law and policy.”
As a fly fisherman, here’s my beef in a nutshell: I’m tired of being in a legal access morass as soon as I cast into the water.
“We want to see legal access to the river for kayaking, fishing, and swimming. This won’t be the panacea that changes the river over night, but it will create a legal basis for people to come down to the river, FoLAR’s Lewis McAdams said to the wonky The Planning Report late last month.
“Fishermen have been ticketed. The City just uses a loitering ticket because they don’t have any L.A. River tickets. Of course it usually gets thrown out, but people have to spend the day downtown dealing with it. We want people to feel that the river is open. When I started Friends of the Los Angeles River, my first official act was cutting a big hole in the fence, declaring the river open. It’s only taken 25 years to get to this point. We’re at the point where the river is about to be opened, and we’re pushing the door gently open wider.”
It may be a ridiculous notion to think the Los Angeles River could ever support a resident steelhead population. In fact, it may be ridiculous to contemplate that this gritty icon of shoot-‘em-up movies like “To Live and Die in L.A.” will ever shed its miles of concrete, flood-control skin in favor of a sustainable habitat. Yet, talk to the various players in the multi-year, multi-million dollar reconstruction drama and a common theme emerges: steelhead restoration. Whether it’s actually feasible or not, the steelhead has become a symbol of the river’s potential rebirth. In the years to come, whether flapping fins or flummery will triumph, remains to be seen.
Problems abound with a restoration effort of this size, 51 miles through a morass of cities, from the San Fernando Valley to the port of Long Beach. Those reading these pages outside of Los Angeles must wonder if steelhead ever swam in the river to begin with. The answer, which is ironic even to those of us locals who regularly ply the water for carp, is “yes.”
“The southern steelhead Distinct Population Segment goes from the Santa Maria River in San Luis Obispo County down to the Border. Say 50-75 years ago, the size of that population run was about 30,000 adults,” said Trout Unlimited’s Chuck Bonham, who will be the new director of the Department of Fish and Game, if his appointment is confirmed by the state senate. If you pull out a map and take a look at the enormous area he’s talking about, it’s obvious that even during the heyday, there weren’t a lot of fish.
Today, those numbers have plummeted in the area and are at zero in the river, itself. Southern California Steelhead have been on the Endangered Species list since 1997. To be put on it, a species must be viewed by scientists as imminently in danger of becoming extinct.
Although anecdotes (and the iconic picture above) point to the last steelhead being pulled from the Los Angeles River in 1940, activist and poet Lewis MacAdams, one of the three founders of FOLAR, has kept that mythology alive. The river mantra is his: “When the steelhead return, we’ll know our job is done.”
In 1995, political restoration activities began with the county, which led to the City Council’s approval of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan in May, 2007, created with $3 million from the Department of Water and Power’s deep coffers. The plan contains many items – revitalizing the river, greening adjacent neighborhoods and creating value through economic opportunities – and includes more than a dozen references to steelhead. Key among them are “… ideally, developing fish passages, fish ladders, and riffle pools to allow for restoration of steelhead trout habitat.”
“It was a recognition by the design team and the city that fish habitat would be good and to strive for it as a goal,” said Ira Artz, the project manager at Tetra Tech, the environmental engineering and consulting firm responsible for the plan. According to the plan, “the long-term vision for the river involves restoring a continuous, functioning riparian ecosystem along the river corridor.” Improvements should include:
— Decreasing water temperature through shade
— Improving water quality
— Creating an unimpeded path from the ocean to the headwaters, along with areas to rest and to spawn
— Inducing a natural flow regime of high and low-flows
Two of the four have improved incrementally as of this writing, water quality and pathways.
Steelhead aside, getting any project shovel ready faces a myriad of political hurdles. According to city documents, the river flows through seven U.S. Congressional districts, 10 city council districts, approximately 20 neighborhood councils and 12 community plan areas. On top of that with about 10 million people, L.A. is the nation’s second largest urban region, and Long Beach down the road is one of the world’s busiest ports. It also happens to be where the river exits to the ocean.
Yet, there are the beginnings of a solution if you look north to one of the L.A. River’s main tributaries, the Arroyo Seco. If fact, the founding of the city in 1781 took place at the confluence of these two bodies of water. As part of the restoration plan, Confluence Plaza was inaugurated in the shadow of the I-5 freeway earlier this year.
“Historically,” Tim Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, an environmental group, said in his offices at the River Center, “the Arroyo Seco had a really rich trout culture, including steelhead. And there are lots of historical references to steelhead on the Arroyo Seco and, really, in the L.A. river system. Brick is a “money where your mouth is” kind of guy, who recently with the help of CDM corporation and a $2 million grant from the state’s Water Resources Control Board, spearheaded the return of 300 minnowlike native Arroyo Chub to a newly restored native habitat. “We view the re-establishment of the Arroyo Chub as the first step toward the re-establishment of steelhead in the L.A. River.”
Wendy Katagi, CDM’s environmental planner, who worked with Brick on the restoration project, naturally agreed. “We should focus on doing steelhead recovery in the upper watershed. They miraculously hang on, these populations. The best thing we can do is create and mimic natural stream morphology elements through whatever is needed. Then the likelihood of species recovery goes way up.”
Moreover, Gordon Becker, a senior scientist with the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, based in Oakland, Calif., spent months – if not years – analyzing Department of Fish and Game stocking records, field notes and surveys from the 1920s into this century for all of Los Angeles County. His study, published in 2008, speaks to the small number of fish currently present.
Unfortunately, it’s virtually impossible to provide an estimate for the number of steelhead in streams of L.A. County, according to Becker. The surveys he reviewed were not population estimates, which is what one would need to say anything at all about abundance.
“Essentially,” he continued in an e-mail, “steelhead in the county are opportunistic at this point. In some years, successful spawning may occur in Malibu Creek, or Arroyo Sequit, or Zume Canyon Creek, or Topanga Creek, but we can’t describe the situation as a steelhead ‘run’ of any particular size. It is my opinion that supplementation will need to be pursued if we are to have a real run in a SoCal stream in the future.”
Today, the city’s point person for the massive river project is Carol Armstrong. After serving in the Peace Corps in Thailand and witnessing firsthand the toll Asian development took on the environment, she enrolled in the University of Southern California’s Sustainable Cities program and received her PhD.
She coined “riverly,” which you’ll hear at most meetings about the subject. She explained another of her creations, Steelhead Fred, while standing next to the bike lane overlooking the river at three-acre Marsh Park, which is a “detention park,” meaning it’s designed to partially fill with water during heavy rain. As she looked across the river toward the San Gabriel Mountains, sporadic afternoon two-wheel traffic filled this newly opened stretch of the bike path, another sign of the river’s rebirth and its increasing connection to the community.
“Environmentalists say ‘we will not have accomplished L.A. river revitalization until the steelhead trout returns,’ so we came up with Steelhead Fred, the steelhead trout, and we ask developers and project proponents, all of them, is it riverly?”
Currently, consensus is that the most riverly project to finish is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers L.A. River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study that began in 2006 with the city as the local partner. It looks at the 10-mile stretch of soft bottom that stretches from Glendale Narrows, plus Headworks Reservoir in Burbank, through downtown to First Street. This area, part of which is across from Griffith Park, is the most popular with fly fishers looking to hook carp. Besides having a soft bottom – as opposed to concrete – it contains what the Corps calls “ecological value” and has the most water in it year around.
The Corps controls the concrete. So without the study, which would then possibly lead to an actual project, okayed by Congress, no concrete will be exchanged for terracing or plantings, or improving fish passage. It will remain what it was constructed to be – a flood conveyance channel with the aim of getting high-flow water from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Currently, completing the feasibility study will cost $2.6 million, according to Armstrong, and it’s nowhere to be found in President Obama’s 2012 budget, even though it’s a No. 1 priority of the Urban Waters Partnership Program. Recently, Councilperson Ed Reyes, the river’s chief and most dogged proponent, was in Washington asking President Obama to fund the study.
Josephine Axt, the Army Corps planning division chief, is a civilian, a PhD. biologist and rides her bike to work, changing into appropriately conservative work attire, picked from a closet inside her office. “There’s a lot of functionality that we can restore that then might create conditions that would be conducive to fish,” but she stresses that the goals and objectives for the long-awaited study were established some years ago and they’re not to bring back fish.
“To me, if steelhead come back or not, it’s not the measure that I hope the restoration study is measured by. To me, it’s much more about habitat in general.”
Paradoxically, of the 240 potential river projects, not one deals specifically with steelhead restoration.
“We know steelhead won’t be back tomorrow,” continued Armstrong, “but each and every thing we do should build to a place where it’s possible. And by looking at it now, it’s not absurd, but there’s a reason that we do what we do. It’s respecting life, bringing life back … .”
And nature’s clock continues to tick – albeit slowly. About a quarter-mile up from the Figueroa Street Bridge, lie slabs of concrete that the river has started to reclaim. The water’s going underneath the channel there and taking out the concrete. Eventually the river will have to be rechannelized, one way or the other.
“Maybe next time they rechannelize it, they do it to the specifications of the steelhead,” mused Lewis MacAdams. “Have a panel of steelhead, fins up, fins down. Let the steelhead decide the shape of the channel. I’ve always felt that what we were doing was calling things home. You know, ‘it’s OK to come back’. There is something to that.”