LA River Clean-Up: Willow Street Estuary

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Yesterday I went down to Long Beach to take part in the annual LA River Clean-Up, organized by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR). The Willow Street Estuary isn’t far from where the river flows into the ocean, and it’s one of the few stretches where the bottom is earth instead of concrete.

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It wasn’t hard to find the clean-up.

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Dozens of people beat me down there.

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The people working the registration table were keeping busy.

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Everybody got a pair of gloves and a bag.

There were already plenty of people there when I showed up a little after nine. It took just a few minutes to sign the waiver, grab a trash bag and do the orientation. Then I joined the crowd of people climbing down the bank to the river.

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Heading down the bank to the river.

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Hundreds of people combing the river bed for trash.

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Lots of families showed up.

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Kids were some of the hardest workers.

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It wasn’t all trash.  I found this face staring at me from among the rocks.

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A few guys waded all the way across the river.

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This is just some of the trash that was collected.

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The work wasn’t hard, and it was a great day to be outdoors.

If you don’t know what an estuary is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t either until I looked it up on the net. Generally speaking it’s where a river nears the ocean, and fresh water meets salt water. They’re an important part of the ecosystem, filtering runoff and serving as a breeding ground for fish and birds. Watch this video from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to learn more.

What Is an Estuary?

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The water is placid as it emerges from under the Willow Street Bridge.

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The surface gets a little roiled where the river narrows.

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From the estuary, the river rolls down to meet the ocean.

Aside from organizing the LA River Clean-Up, FOLAR presents events throughout the year. They’ve been working to preserve and restore the river longer than anyone else, and they’ve racked up an impressive list of accomplishments in their 30 year history. If you want to get involved, start by visiting their web site.

FOLAR

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Keeping the River Clean

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Yesterday I got up earlier than I usually do on a Saturday. It took some effort, but by nine o’ clock I’d made it to Marsh Park so I could take part in the annual LA River clean-up event organized by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR).

This stretch of the river is bordered by a mix of older stucco homes and industrial buildings. Marsh Park seems to wind its way through the neighborhood, I’m assuming because it was planned to take advantage of unused open space. It’s nicely landscaped, and has a cool play area for kids.

The entrance to Marsh Park.

The entrance to Marsh Park.

A grassy expanse in the park.

A grassy expanse in the park.

There's a cool play area for kids.

There’s a cool play area for kids.

These yellow flowers caught my eye.

These yellow flowers caught my eye.

The gate that leads to the river.

The gate that leads to the river.

A shot of the river with the freeway in the background.

A shot of the river with the freeway in the background.

You'll find a mix of residential and industrial on the streets adjacent to the river.

You’ll find a mix of residential and industrial on the streets adjacent to the river.

An artist's effort to beautify a wall.

An artist’s effort to beautify a wall.

Dozens of people had made it there ahead of me. I got a pair of gloves and a trash bag, and after a brief orientation they set us loose on the river. The guy who gave us the ground rules said that twenty seven years ago, when FoLAR started doing these annual clean-ups, they came across all kinds of things in the river bed. In the early days they’d be hauling out mattresses, shopping carts, and even cars. These days, he went on to say, it was mostly a matter of picking up plastic bags.

A quick orientation before we got started.

A quick orientation before we got started.

Heading out to tackle the trash.

Heading out to tackle the trash.

Exploring the river bed.

Exploring the river bed.

Looking high and low for trash.

Looking high and low for trash.

When the bags were full, we left them along the bike path.

When the bags were full, we left them along the bike path.

And this guy threw them in the back of a truck.

And this guy threw them in the back of a truck.

FoLAR has been taking care of this long-neglected natural treasure for thirty years. Unlike the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, a latecomer with a pro-development agenda, FoLAR’s members have been trying for decades to realize the river’s tremendous potential as a public resource. Back when most of us were making jokes about this massive concrete channel that wound its way through the landscape, Lewis MacAdams and his cohorts saw what the river had once been and could be again. They’ve been working diligently since the eighties to protect and restore the LA River, and to educate the rest of us about its past and possible future.

Developers have realized that there's money to be made by building along the banks.

Developers have realized that there’s money to be made by building along the banks.

One of the river's current residents.

One of the river’s current residents.

The Griffith Observatory was visible off in the distance.

The Griffith Observatory was visible off in the distance.

Standing under the freeway you could hear the steady din of the cars above.

Standing under the freeway you could hear the steady din of the cars above.

I spent a while collecting trash, and then I wandered off to take pictures. I’d never walked along the river bed before. It was pretty cool. I don’t know about you, but for most of my life I barely noticed the LA River. Encased in concete, bounded by industrial parks and rail lines, running beneath dozens of bridges, it’s as if the river has been buried by the city. We’re only starting to dig it out now. It will be many years before we uncover its real potential.

I’m so glad I made the effort to be there for the clean-up. It was a great day. And it’s just one of many events that FoLAR holds throughout the year. Check out their web site for more info.

FoLAR

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Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge

Looking north from the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge.

Looking north from the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge.

A while ago I took a walk across the Sixth Street Bridge to get some photos of it before they tear it down. Looking out over the landscape, I saw the other bridges that span the LA River, linking Downtown and East LA. I started thinking it would be cool to take pictures of them as well.

I started walking on the Downtown side of the bridge.

I started walking on the Downtown side of the bridge.

It’s taken me forever to get started on that project, but recently I took a walk across the Cesar Chavez Bridge. There is something kind of thrilling about seeing the surrounding area from that vantage point. Much of the landscape is hard, grey concrete. Power lines criss-cross the sky. But you can also see the hills in the distance, and on the day I crossed the bridge there were massive clouds billowing all along the horizon.

A view of the First Street Bridge.

A view of the First Street Bridge.

Today the bridge is part of Cesar Chavez Avenue, created back in the nineties to commemorate the courageous labor leader who helped organize California’s farm workers. The segment that includes the bridge was formerly called Macy Street, but it’s also part of the historic Camino Real, the road built by the Spanish to connect their missions back when they governed California. The first bridge built on the site was erected in the nineteenth century, but it was demolished at the beginning of the twentieth. In the twenties, the City of LA began an effort to construct a series of viaducts across the LA River, and this bridge, then called the Macy Street Bridge, was part of that effort.

A huge mound of debris on the north side of the bridge.

A huge mound of debris on the north side of the bridge.

For years I’ve seen this massive mound of debris resting on the north side of the bridge. I have no idea where it came from or if it’s ever going away. If you look closely you can see that plants have started to grow here and there. It’s become part of the landscape, an artificial hill rising up over the river and the rail lines.

A view of the bridge heading toward East LA.

A view of the bridge heading toward East LA.

The bridge is lined with lampposts on either side, and decorated with porticos ornamented in the Spanish Revival style that was popular in the twenties. There are plaques affixed to the porticos explaining that the bridge is dedicated to Father Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions. Serra’s legacy is controversial, since he was a major player in Spain’s effort to subjugate the native population. The Vatican’s recent decision to canonize him has ignited the debate all over again.

One of the porticoes that decorate the bridge.

One of the porticoes that decorate the bridge.

Another view of the same portico.

Another view of the same portico.

If you want to learn more about the Cesar Chavez Avenue Bridge, below is a link to an article on KCET’s web site that talks about the origins of a number of LA bridges. To see more images and to access info about it’s history, check out the links to the Library of Congress.

A Brief History of Bridges in Los Angeles County from KCET

Cesar Chavez Avenue Viaduct from Library of Congress

Photos of Cesar Chavez Bridge in the Library of Congress

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Transformations

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Around the middle of the twentieth century, over a period of decades, the LA County Flood Control District did their damnedest to encase most of the city’s waterways in concrete. Apparently it seemed like a good idea at the time. From our contemporary perspective, it looks like a colossal mistake. But what can we do? We don’t have the means to break up the hundreds of miles of concrete that were poured back in the last century. So we’re doing what we can, getting behind small projects that we hope will eventually have a cumulative impact.

I’ve lived in LA all my life, and it still amazes me how little I know about this city. The Tujunga Wash runs from the San Gabriel Mountains, across the San Fernando Valley and feeds into the LA River around Studio City. Recently I started paying attention to the stretch that runs along Coldwater Canyon between Burbank and Oxnard. What I found was pretty interesting.

Above Oxnard, I found the Tujunga Wash Greenway and Stream Restoration Project. What used to be a drab stretch of land running alongside a drab stretch of concrete has been transformed into a lush green walkway which helps to replenish our groundwater.

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For a better explanation than I could give, click on this link to a page at the Landscape Architecture Foundation. They also provide before and after pictures to give you a sense of how dramatic the change has been.

Tujunga Wash Greenway

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Below Oxnard, I found the Great Wall of Los Angeles. This is a massive, amazing public art project which presents a history of Los Angeles starting with the first people who lived in the area and ending in the fifties. The project is the brainchild of Judy Baca, founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC). It was begun in the seventies, with over 400 young people and their families working over five summers to create the mural that currently covers a half mile of concrete inside the Tujunga Wash.

The mural starts with images of the Chumash Indians.

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It covers the construction of the the massive projects that helped build the city, like the railroads….

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….and the aqueduct.

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It illustrates the multiple waves of migration the populated the area.

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There are images of the traumatic upheavals that shaped LA.

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It takes us through the baby boom….

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….and the beginnings of rock n’ roll.

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There are plans to paint another four decades, which would bring the project up to the end of the twentieth century. For more information, and to find out how to donate, visit SPARC’s web site.

The Great Wall of Los Angeles

You won’t find much water in the Tujunga Wash these days. But you will find some other things that are worth checking out.

What Price Water?

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A few months ago a friend and I were going down Forest Lawn Drive near Griffith Park. While she drove I was gazing out the window, and I was surprised to see a huge construction site spread out across the bed of the LA River. I hadn’t heard anything about a project planned for that area, and at first I was alarmed. What the hell were they doing to the river?

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After investigating a little, I found out that this was the Headworks Reservoir, and it involves the construction of two huge underground containers which will hold 110 million gallons of water. The idea is that when the project is completed it will provide drinking water to area residents who are now served by the Silverlake reservoir complex. In large part this effort was spurred by new rules handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency. Open reservoirs, like those in the Silverlake complex, are subject to contamination from many different sources. The Headworks project will comply with the new EPA rules and provide safe drinking water for thousands of Angelenos. Aside from improved water quality, the deal includes a 4-megawatt hydroelectric plant to provide more power for the city. And if that’s not enough, once the tanks are completed there are plans to turn the surface area into a park which would include riparian wetlands, bike paths and equestrian trails.

Sound cool? Well, the finished project probably will be pretty nice. The DWP had to find some way to comply with the new EPA standards. And the park/wetlands component will surely be a big improvement over the sterile concrete channel that exists now. But…

There are some questions about the cost of the project and the process that was followed to make it happen. The City of LA initially said the price tag would be $230 million. That figure has now risen to $319 million. Those who follow local news already know that the DWP has been accused more than once of scamming its customers. The fact that the tab for Headworks has gone up almost 40 percent is definitely troubling. There are also questions about why the City chose this option when there were other, cheaper proposals on the table. If you’re a DWP ratepayer, you’ll want to read Jack Humphreville’s breakdown of the project on CityWatch.

Is Headworks Project Another Example of Corruption?

For a general overview of the project, here’s a summary from the DWP.

Headworks Reservoir Fact Sheet

Bottom line, the project is happening. And I do believe it’s a good thing over all. But it bothers me to think that we’re getting ripped off by the DWP once again. I’m glad Garcetti is pushing for an audit of the agency’s shady non-profits, but I’d really like to see a full audit of the DWP. We deserve to know where our money is going.

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A Bridge from the Past to the Future

Figueroa Bridge

Just today I learned about an interesting proposal for the old Riverside-Figueroa Bridge. It was slated to be demolished following the completion of a new bridge, but some people think it could be redesigned to create a public space. Sounds like a good idea to me. If you want to learn more, click on the link below.

LandBridge at Figueroa

The photo above was taken by Osceola Refetoff, and I found it at the LA Creek Freak blog. The author gives an exhaustive history of this bridge, which you can access by clicking here.