WHILE MOST ANGELENOS WERE trapped in cars on rush-hour freeways July 26, a group of 13 kayakers and canoeists took to a hidden stretch of the Los Angeles River most people have never seen in the Sepulveda Basin, which traverses the San Fernando Valley between Balboa Boulevard and the Sepulveda Dam. While the Valley fried in the upper 90s, the group glided through shaded waters, as lush greenery and a cool breeze eased their journey.
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Taking the waters: Performance artists the Mud People show their support.
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The basin was the first leg of a three-day, 52-mile trek from the Los Angeles River’s headwaters in Chatsworth to its end at the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach, baptized “L.A. River Expedition 2008” by its organizer, George Wolfe. The next day, the retinue kayaked through the territory more familiar to those who mock the “river” — past the bleak concrete walls erected by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after the river flooded and devastated much of Los Angeles in the 1930s.
Wolfe and his kayaking cohorts were breaking the law. In denying a permit for their expedition, Eda P. Garcia of the Construction Division/Permits section of the county Board of Public Works cited safety issues and lectured that “the Los Angeles River is currently configured and operated as a flood-control facility.”
The question of whether the Los Angeles River is a river or not, and of what constitutes a river, has sparked a debate that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and could well determine whether miles of river-adjacent land in Los Angeles are made more green, or more asphalted, in the coming decades.
“In all my years, it’s always been a river to me. It wasn't till I got older that people told me — it was flood channel,” says Ed Reyes, a Los Angeles City Councilman who represents several communities along the river, including Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights, Elysian Park, Solano Canyon and Chinatown.
It’s not geological or scientific reports that are shaping Reyes’ view of the river. To Reyes, it’s personal. Growing up in the hot, dense, impoverished neighborhoods of Lincoln Heights and Cypress Park, he says, “for me, [the river] was a quiet spot. We had our own private beachhead in the Glendale Narrows” — in essence, a swimming hole in the Frogtown area just north of downtown, where he spent a summer as a boy.
As a politician, Reyes is not inclined toward acts of insurgency, but as a child of the river, he can’t help but admire it for rebelling against man. “The river’s been very stubborn over the last decade. They tried to encase [the Glendale Narrows] with cement, but the river broke through the cement, and today, you see these whole corridors, whole strips” of natural-bottomed islands containing dense trees and bird life.
More than 2,500 miles from Reyes’ childhood swimming hole, in the formal halls of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., the river does not evoke much personal warmth. There, environmentalists accuse the court of diluting the Clean Water Act, established in 1972 to protect rivers and waterways from pollutants. For years, the protections were applied to all “navigable waterways” past or present — and even waterways that could become navigable in the future.
But opinions connected to a 2006 ruling by the Supreme Court, in a case titled Rapanos vs. United States, added two new legal definitions that waterways must fit in order to earn Clean Water Act protection.
According to Joan Mulhern, an attorney for Earth Justice, Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion added the term “traditional” to the “navigable waterway” phrase. Using a 1954 Webster’s Dictionary, Scalia defined “navigable” as conditions in which a boat could clear the waterway. In a separate opinion written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court removed the automatic protection of “tributaries” from the act, requiring the Army Corps of Engineers to study whether a tributary being proposed for protection has a “significant nexus” with the waterway it feeds.
Despite the Scalia opinion, “[the L.A. River] loses no protection,” says Jay Field, with the Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs Office. But now, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, which both have jurisdiction over the L.A. River, have classified only two out of four sections along the river’s 52 miles as “traditionally navigable.”
According to Field, waters leading into those sections could still be protected if they impact a “traditionally navigable” section, but Earth Justice’s Mulhern says it isn’t so.
“If all of the tributaries that are feeding into the river aren’t protected, then of course the river becomes more polluted,” says Mulhern. She says the real “game” afoot is an effort to remove from protection parts of the L.A. River that are already polluted so that they needn’t be cleaned up, as well as to strip protections from areas “where somebody is proposing to fill in and destroy streams for development purposes.”
Despite this debate, Reyes says, the revitalization of the L.A. River is far from lost, and that the Army Corps will still consider defining other sections of the river as traditionally navigable. Field, the corps’ spokesman, suggests the Glendale Narrows in Frogtown as the next stretch to which the definition could be applied.
George Wolfe and the Los Angeles River Expedition aren’t waiting.
If Scalia wants a river that can be navigated by boat, he’ll get one.
“The [trip was] to demonstrate that [the river is] navigable,” asserts Wolfe. “Boating, as silly as it sounds, is essential to this whole discussion as to what is a river. On the permit side, they call it a ‘flood-control access permit.’ It doesn’t even say ‘river’ on it. It’s defined by the disaster it’s trying to avoid” — a massive future flood.
So, from July 25 to 27, rather like Lewis and Clark 200 years ago, Wolfe and other kayakers defined a route, demonstrating that the river is, indeed, traditionally navigable from its cement tributaries in Chatsworth to the Long Beach estuary at the Pacific Ocean.
The technicalities of Supreme Court definitions weren’t the only reason for the trip. Wolfe and friends are part of a larger movement to fight for natural recreation space in a city starved of it.
Even the Sepulveda Basin, the river in its natural state — or, “undeveloped,” as the corps calls it — is marred by bottles, cans and shrouds of plastic bags, creating a nasty soup for the birds and fish that thrive there.
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Ultimately, however, what may drive the fate of the L.A. River has less to do with environmentalism than with economics.
“When they channeled the river, they never thought they would need it” as a river again, observes Lewis MacAdams, who founded Friends of the Los Angeles River. But today, allowing the waters to be polluted with runoff and trash has denigrated the largest freshwater source on the Southern California coast.
Given the water shortage this area faces, the $1 billion it spends annually to import water, and the voluminous amount of river water pouring into the ocean, the L.A. River could one day be seen less as a flood channel than as a key ingredient in the region’s livability and survival.