This year, Frogtown Artwalk, 4 p.m.-10 p.m., is dedicated to the vision of Lewis MacAdams of the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), now in its 30th year of protecting and restoring the natural and historic heritage of the LA River. At the Artwalk hub, the Frogspot, an award ceremony at 6 p.m. will honor MacAdams for his work; CD13 councilman Mitch O’Farrell will also be thanked for his involvement in the Artwalk. See you on the river, Jim Burns
Back in the day, Dick Roraback represented the journalist I wanted to become: after being graduated from The Sorbonne, he’d worked on the Herald Tribune in Paris (While on assignment in Africa, he’d somehow bamboozled the desk into publishing his story with the byline “By Ghana Rehah,” which got him suspended.); he was worldly, snide, grouchy, looked very old, and ripped through my fledgling restaurant reviews in a torrent of computer red ink. He seemed to me a refugee on the Los Angeles Times copy desk, a bit of the lion in winter. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to be like him — bold, intelligent and brash, thumbing his nose at the world and having a great time doing it.
I did wonder how this talented writer landed on the copy desk, reading the works of others, but no longer producing himself. Maybe “be brash in moderation,” I thought to myself.
By the time he’d again taken up ink and plume, I’d moved across town to become the travel editor for the Herald Examiner, and I didn’t read his series “In Search of the L.A. River,” published between 1985 and 1986.
In a recent paper entitled “Writing a river: how journalism helped restore the Los Angeles River,” academic Tilly Hinton argues a strong case for Roraback’s contribution to raising awareness about the river, and how this awareness helped to create the political will for change. She credits him alongside poet and FOLAR founder Lewis MacAdams as two pillars of the event.
I think Roraback would feel peeved to think of himself as a pillar of anything, and from what I’ve read MacAdams was none too pleased with the snarky tone Roraback used in his pieces. (For that matter, MacAdams also seems a wholly unlikely pillar, yet that he is, with a recent riverside plaque to prove it.)
For the series, which began at the river’s mouth in Long Beach and moved up to the headwaters, Roraback invented a character named “The Explorer.” At one point, The Explorer visited a man who kept an aquarium of fish captured from the river:
“Up in Atwater Glen on the other side of the channel, Tom Babel, manager of the riverside Port of Call apartments, allows as his community is a peaceful enough place to live –“You just gotta watch your back.” Just north, it seems, is “Toonerville, where anything goes.”
Even so, Babel likes living by the river, though he keeps his RV primed for a quick exit. “There’s been occasions when the rain got heavy and the river got two feet from the top of the bank,” he says. “I’d already started packing my important papers in the RV, ready to head for the high ground. . . . “
Larry Wickline, Babel’s stepson, takes a kinder view of riparian life.
“After the rains,” he says, “there’s rainbow trout this big! Keepers! You get catfish, carp, crayfish. Come up to my apartment. I have something to show you.”
Indeed he does. In Wickline’s flat is an illuminated fish tank holding an amazing variety of fish — gold, brown, white — all taken, he says, from the Los Angeles River.
“Good fishing when the river comes up,” Wickline says, “Except sometimes you can’t take a step for all those tiny snakes.
“It’s not so much the snakes, though, as the gangs. I wouldn’t go down there without a gun. At night, I wouldn’t go down there at all. . . . “
What I find particularly interesting about this passage is that, if true, rainbow trout were still in the river in the mid-80s, contrary to everything I’ve read about their disappearance from the river decades earlier.
The series certainly sparked interesting letters, including this one from Gene Lippert of Hacienda Heights:
“Just a note of appreciation for all the hard work Dick Roraback put in to bring us his fascinating story of the present Los Angeles River (‘In Search of the L.A. River,’ an occasional series.) I am following his tale with great interest.
“You see I lived my Tom Sawyer youth on the Los Angeles River in the area of the Imperial Highway bridge. That was before the ‘big paving extravaganza.’ We skinny-dipped in the pools, caught crawdads by the dozen and boiled them in an old can filled with river water and a dash of vinegar. We always kept supplies such as salt, pepper, coffee, cigarette butts (good for a couple of more puffs) in tin cans buried in the river bank. Small-sized trout were plentiful and easy to catch on a bent pin (had to jerk the fish out of the water and onto the bank the first time he nibbled or away went your bait). We slept overnight in the river bed most of the summers (dry, clean white sand). We were almost ridden over by a bunch of horses one night while sleeping. We had made camp in weeds four or five feet high and the fire had gone out.
“One time we stole redwood from an irrigation flume and built a boat. We got our caulking by digging the tar from between the expansion joints in Imperial Highway and melting it over a bonfire. The boat was a bust — it kept tipping over.”
So now I find Dick’s shadow once again moving across my writing life. Sometimes unlikely people follow you through time in the most unexpected ways.
See you on the river, Jim Burns
While river advocates await the public unveiling of the Los Angeles River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study (nicknamed ARBOR), the p.r. battle for Angelino hearts and minds has already begun. In September, after several years of drafting and almost $10 million in cost, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will release four alternatives, each with a different cost, and each with a different impact on the river. The public will then have 45 days to comment before a single alternative moves forward.
“It’s a doozy,” said one person close to the study, which is currently undergoing legal review.
As Carol Armstrong, director of the Los Angeles River Project office, told me last year,“Remember that the fundamental purpose of the study is to improve the ecosystem values in the LA River– and that means riparian habitat that is good for wildlife, including fish species. The study will go public with its alternatives early next year. Once finished, it will recommend one of those as its recommended project, which will then go to Washington, DC, for approval by the federal powers-that-be.”
Think of it in terms of a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon’s menu of procedures. You could go for some Botox injections to temporarily solve that wrinkly face, or throw in for a full-blown, long-lasting, facelift.
The facelift alternative is what the nonprofit Friends of the River advocates with the “Piggyback Alternative,” known to the Corps as Alternative 20. It is the most comprehensive approach to river restoration, according to FoLAR president and founder Lewis MacAdams. The estimated price tag is $1 billion-plus to restore and remake 11 miles of the river between Union Station and Griffith Park.
Today, the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp, another nonprofit, threw down with its 51-mile greenway project, which aims to have that much yardage in bike paths and foot trails along the river by 2020. That would essentially cover the entire length of the river from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. Currently, 26 miles along the river are open to bicyclists before they have to hit the mean streets, just north of downtown. Although not one of the alternatives, the 2020 Greenway plan aligns itself more naturally with Alternative 20 than with Alternative 13, said to be the Corps favorite in these times of tightening budgets.
See you on the river, Jim Burns
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.”
See you on the river Saturday, Jim Burns
This from Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the River:
Dear River Lovers,
Last week State Senator Kevin de Leon introduced a bill (SB 1201) into the State Senate that would significantly widen access to the Los Angeles River.
Authored by Friends of the Los Angeles River in collaboration with the Environmental Law Clinic at UCLA, the Bill would amend the 1915 Los Angeles County Flood Control Act, which limits the County Department of Public Works role on the River to flood and stormwater control, to add recreation and educational purposes to its mandate.
The Bill would also establish a State Los Angeles River Interagency Access Council whose members would include the State Department of Fish and Game, the State Lands Commission, and the California EPA, chaired by the Secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, to coordinate the actions of State and local Agencies with responsibilities for River access.
We strongly urge you to write or e-mail Alfredo Medina in Senator De Leon’s office (alfredo.medina@ sen.ca.gov) in support of the SB 1201 immediately And as soon as you do that we want you to join FoLAR. If you like what we do on the River, in advocacy, science and education, if you’ve gone on one of our river walks, or taken part in our River Clean-Ups, and our river walks, then send us $50 for a one-year membership. For almost 25 years, we have been the voice of the River. the Voice of the River Users, your voice on the Rio de Los Angeles.
See you on the river, Jim Burns
“The River Study is moving. For the first time, it made it to the President’s budget,” Carol Armstrong said to a group of about 100 participants at the River Update event, held this evening at the L.A. River School.
Armstrong, the point person for the city’s many river projects, went on to explain how Councilmember Ed Reyes, Nancy Steele of the Council for Watershed Health, Lewis MacAdams of Friends of the Los Angeles River and others went to Washington to talk to legislators about the important of funding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers L.A. River Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study. The study is key to virtually all future plans to restore the river to a more natural state. Begun 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.
Although only $100,000 will come from the 2013 federal budget, the Los Angeles Dept. of Water and Power contributed $1 million, as did the leadership of the Army Corps, committing $350,000. When completed in 2013, the study will have cost almost $10 million.
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, including revitalizing the river, greening adjacent neighborhoods and creating value through economic opportunities
As Josephine Axt, the Army Corps lead planner told the audience, don’t expect any real result until June, 2013. Still, the funding was good news for river advocates.
See you on the river, Jim Burns
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.”
See you on the river, Jim Burns