When I first started researching an article on paddling the newly-opened LA River, which ran in Sunset’s August issue, I was hooked on the story of activism and recreation working hand in hand in a way that isn’t so common. That there was an irony to turning an environmentally degraded place into an ecotourism destination made the tale seem that much more clever.
But that slumming, “gee-whiz, isn’t this an urban jungle?” aspect of the story is just the tip of the irony iceberg, something that California’s extreme drought has kept on my mind. The LA River in its current, channelized form is a monument to the way we tried to control nature over the last two centuries. Today, the concrete-lined river seems to be an especially bad match for the chaotic, unpredictable weather we’ve been having. By trying to control the river we paved ourselves into a corner.
You see, the city didn’t grow up on the river’s banks by chance. As EPA administrator for the southwest Jared Blumenfeld put it to me, “we think of the Hudson and we think of the Mississippi River; Los Angeles would not have been founded where it is but for the river.” But as the city grew, the river kept jumping its banks, flooding buildings and killing people. So, starting in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers did the modern thing, straightjacketing it so that the floods would rush out to the ocean, leaving the city unharmed.
The problem is, the city still wants water. Today, Los Angeles gets only 11 percent of what it uses from local sources, and a major one–the San Fernando Aquifer–suffers from a plume of pollution that has been forcing wells to close. Most of the other 89 percent comes from the Colorado River, the Sacramento Delta, and Sierra snow pack. Those sources face high demand from many users and are declining due to climate change. (Here’s a cool map of water rights across the state.)
Meanwhile, enough rain falls in the 815-square-mile LA River Basin every year (on average) to meet half the city’s need. The city couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, use all of it. But in a natural-bottom river with flood plains, a good portion of the water would sink into the ground, recharging local aquifers. Instead, the concrete riverbed collects it and flushes it away like a drain. As activist and kayak guide George Wolfe told me, “that’s fresh, free water from the sky.” If Angelenos can’t find a way to make use of it, he added, “where are we going to go? To Canada to get water? Will we push up into Oregon next? And how crazy is that?”
The droughts, fires, storms, and floods of climate change are upsetting the way we see our relationship with nature. We thought we could harness or bury it at our convenience. Now it’s becoming obvious that we’re still at nature’s mercy. It’s a frightening thing to accept, but it could be a hopeful one, too. By reconsidering our place in nature and trying to work with natural systems instead of against them, we may find ways to make our lives easier. That seems to be happening with the LA River, where plans are in development to return it to a more natural state.
The revitalization’s starting point will be an 11-mile stretch in the Glendale Narrows (the place in these photos), an area where the bottom remains unpaved because pressure from a high water table is so strong it buckles any concrete laid in the riverbed. Here, Wolfe told me, “the geology of the river saved itself. It provided these places from which the river movement is going to grow.”
This spot where nature pushed back, surely a point of frustration to engineers in the last century, has become a toehold for a new relationship with the river and a point of celebration. Now that’s ironic.