Some Summer Reading Picks

July 31, 2008 § 5 Comments

The best way to learn about your local creeks, watersheds, and rivers is to go there and walk, bike, throw stones, kayak, etc., but, in case you’re looking for something to read on the bus on the way there, I offer some recommended reading. I will recommend other electronic reading and other books and publications again soon.

Rainwater Harvesting by Brad Lancaster

Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond: Volume 2 Water Harvesting Earthworks by Brad Lancaster (Rainsource Press, $32.95), Foreword by Andy Lipkis

This is one of the best books that I’ve read all year! It’s filled with lots of clear illustrations and step by step details on how to retool your landscape to catch and infiltrate rainwater. It features lots of real life examples, too. It’s a bit wonky, hence probably not for everyone. For us to remove concrete from our local waterways, we’re going to need to heal our watersheds. Brad Lancaster talks about treating rain as a welcome guest – invite it to slow down and stick around a for a bit. If we can allow rainwater to slow down and soak in, then we solve lots of problems for our waterways – water quantity (flooding), water quality (pollutants break down in the earth), water supply (increased infiltration means more groundwater available locally to drink), and greening our neighborhoods.
Excerpt: [A] well-designed and built [rainwater havesting earthwork] system can operate as a “beneficial ruin” once established since it can be largely self-maintaining. Long-abandoned earthworks located throughout the world still function and help support pocket oases of vegetation. Examples in the Southwest U.S. include check dams, terraces, contour berms, and stone mulches constructed by prehistoric Native Americans and more recently by the 1930’s Civil Conservation Corps projects. Each time I come across one of these old earthworks, I find a lost world full of life.
Totem Salmon : Life Lessons from Another Species by Freeman House (Beacon Press, $17.00)
This is another of my latest favorites. It’s a great narrative about an intrepid band of very human river activists in northern California who endeavor to preserve and restore salmon runs on the Mattole River.
Excerpt: A race of salmon is an expression of the river, the intelligence of the terrestrial home traveled to far seas – always to return to its place of birth. Salmon return to their riverine homes with the wealth of the great sea embodied in nutrients they will deliver to the waters and plants and animals of the forest at the completion of their lives. Migration is an adaptation toward abundance: more fish are born than the river can support; thus out-migration to the pastures of the sea. In the case of salmonids, migration and return is a dynamic ritual binding population to place.
The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Re-Birth by Blake Gumprecht (Johns Hopkins University Press, $21.95)
A perennial favorite (and I am happy to be mentioned in the foreword to the paperback edition.) This well-written and very readable book is full of maps and historic photographs. It shows the histories of flooding, water supply, agriculture, and current efforts to restore. I learned a lot about the history of Los Angeles from this book.
Excerpt: [The 1768 Portola Expedition] entered “a very lush green valley,” [diarist Father Juan] Crespi wrote, where they found the [Los Angeles] river … It was a “good sized, full flowing river,” about seven yards wide , he estimated, “with very good water, pure and fresh.” … Just upstream from the point where they first saw the river, the explorers noticed another stream that emptied into its channel, but its large bed was dry on that late summer day. This stream we now know as the Arroyo Seco. “The beds of both are very well lined with large trees, sycamores, willows, cottonwoods, and very large live oaks,” Crespi wrote. … He noted the presence beside its channel of great thickets of brambles, abundant native grapevines, and wild roses in full bloom. Sage was plentiful near the river, and the calls of turtle doves, quail, and thrushes filled the air near the camp. It was “a very lush and pleasing spot, in every respect,” he wrote. “To (the) southward there is a great extent of soil, all very green, so that it can really be said to be a most beautiful garden.”

On plastic parasites, an open letter to the Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council

July 31, 2008 § 1 Comment

Dear Progressive Bag Affiliates of the American Chemistry Council and The California Film Extruders and Converters Association,

Thank you for your fancy flier “Stop the Bag Tax” today.  If I could have a quarter – the amount per bag that this “tax” will levy – for every plastic bag I’ve yanked out of the LA River, Compton Creek, and other places, I’d be a very rich woman.  The fact is, lots of really lazy people let their plastic bags fly, where they end in our streams, wetlands and ocean.  They become plastic parasites, leaching chemicals and killing animals.  The unaccounted costs to society are tremendous – the effects on individual animals irreversible, and voluntary programs do not work. Your concern for the impact of this “tax” on low income families, seniors and anyone living on a fixed income – and the potential loss of “thousands” of jobs – is admirable.  I encourage you, as a “Progressive” organization, to show your true support for these families and do your part to relieve government of this burden: you can personally fund the trash collection and stormwater management programs that will keep free plastic bags out of our rivers, creeks and ocean, that will keep these waterways swimmable, drinkable, and fishable for the enjoyment of all people! Plus, your private financing of this will create thousands of jobs! 

Yours sincerely,

Jessica Hall

P.S. Maybe your friends in the polystyrene industry can help you cover the costs.

Oceans of water, water to waste

July 30, 2008 § 4 Comments

We began by draining our own aquifers, drying up springs and streams, converting a once impressive Mediterranean (not desert) landscape into, well, an urban desert:

“At the date of the settlement of Los Angeles a large portion of the country from the central part of the pueblo to the tide water of the sea through and over which the Los Angeles River now finds its way to the ocean was largely covered with a forest interspersed with tracts of marsh.  From that time until 1825 it was seldom, if in any year, that the river discharged even during the rainy season its waters into the sea.  Instead of having a river way to the sea, the waters spread over the country filling the depressions in the surface and forming lakes, ponds and marshes.” Colonel J.J. Warner, interviewed by James P. Reagan, 1914.  

Next we dried up Owens Lake, made a significant contribution to the depletion of the Bay Delta, and have deprived Mexico of about 90-95% of its historic Colorado River Flows.  And while few in Southern California shed tears for the Delta Smelt, even charismatic species like the Vaquita Porpoise (whose double-whammy is huge habitat loss historically + shrimp trawlers today) suffer in silence while we water our lawns and splash in our private swimming pools (or take very long baths, a personal failing).

And now the LA Times editorial staff is saying it’s time to bring the ocean into the mix.  They admit it’s so costly it will only provide for a small fraction of our water supply.  The enormous start up cost doesn’t scare them off.  They do responsibly point out we need to employ other methods.  But why go here at all?  Desal makes no sense:  it is costly, it is energy intensive at a time when we need to conserve energy, it has impacts to marine life, and it is bien posible that we will be creating hypersaline zones in the ocean near the plants.  

On the other hand, we consume 102 gallons of water per person per day, on average.  Some places consume more – I hear Beverly Hills averages 250-300 gallons/pp/pd and woe-betide-us La Cañada is in the 400-600 gallons/pp/pd range.  France and Spain, our Mediterranean brethren, consume an average of 42 and 69 gallons/pp/pd respectively.  Chic Barcelona averages 37 gallons/pp/pd.   

Clearly we can do better.  For starters, we need a water consumption target that isn’t based on current averages.  We need to decrease overall consumption.  We can easily do this: 50-60% of water consumed in LA goes to yards.  We can change our landscaping.  We can work out safe greywater harvesting – which is currently technically illegal for surface irrigation.  And we can continue to make advances with reusing our wastewater.  I do have serious concerns about pharmaceuticals and other drugs in our wastestream, but either way it’s going in rivers and into the ocean, or into our groundwater.  But most compelling to me are the opportunities to marry urban design with water recharge and river restoration.  We need water.  We also need (desperately) open space & housing.  We could stand to recover some lost and endangered species, like steelhead trout.  And thinking about food security – locally produced food – also makes sense.  

So what to do?  Take the inevitable (and for many inexorable) – urban densification, and be strategic about it.  Plan for greater density, and aggressively create open space around it. Re-establish floodplains, restore rivers.  Let the rivers bring back the fish, and utilize floodplains for parks and agriculture…and flooding and recharge. Find the soils of highest permeability (like in the San Ferndando Valley) and unpave areas below the canyons, let floods flood and groundwater recharge. Need I say it?  Exercise political will for the greater good.

We could re-shape this city, which is so often decried for its placelessness, sprawl, and concrete, into an ecological haven.  The Carlsbad desal plant will generate 50 million gallons of water a day. The Times states it costs between $850-$1500 per acre foot to desalinate ocean water – a cost to Carlsbad of $47.6 to $84 million/yr based on their estimates.  The plant itself will cost in excess of $300 million. Instead of encouraging a wasteful and destructive way of life, how about committing to investing at least as much money to make our landscapes work for us – using the existing natural processes of our region to not only provide us with water, but also bring back the life and environment that made this such an enticing place to early settlers?

Oceans of water – Los Angeles Times.

Planned Sunnynook River Park

July 29, 2008 § 2 Comments

Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge and the city Bureau of Engineering held a meeting tonight to share plans for a new 3.4 acre park on the L.A. River. It’s located in the elongated property bounded by the river, the Sunnynook Footbridge, the 5 Freeway, and the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge.

It’s a $1.7M dollar project, with $1.35M coming from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and another $350K from a Caltrans Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation grant. That’s fairly cheap for a park this size, mostly because there’s no land acquisition costs – as the site is publicly owned (looks like it’s partially Caltrans and partially County Flood Control District.)

Draft designs presented via powerpoint (the slide show is available on the city website) show a habitat park with plenty of native trees and shrubs, some interpretive signage, a small outdoor classroom, berms to mitigate freeway noise, a picnic area, and a small depressed swale area that will collect and infiltrate stormwater. Mercifully, there’s no new parking. Folks can access the site from the bike trail or the Sunnynook Footbridge. If need be, they can park at the nearby Griffith Park Rec Center parking lot and walk across the ped bridge over the freeway.

Community members present seemed fairly supportive of the concept, though a few did express concerns about graffiti and homeless persons. Another concern expressed was that the city hasn’t worked on sites closer to where folks live on the northeast side of the river. After the meeting, one longterm river supporter expressed concern to me that the site is planned to be used as a construction staging area for the city’s planned widening of the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge and that this could put much of the new park out of commission for a few years.

The city is taking comments on the draft plan now through August 8th. Learn more about the proposal by downloading the slideshow, which includes contact information details for your comments.

Kayaking the Los Angeles River: Day 3

July 29, 2008 § 5 Comments

Day three was exhausting. We put in at Marsh Park in Elysian Valley and paddled our way to the river’s mouth in Long Beach. This is about 25 miles, more than 20 of which are three-sides concrete. A quick apology – I didn’t take any cell phone photos that day. It seemed like there were lots of photographers all over much of the time taking photos – see links at the end of the blog below for excellent photos – especially LAist and Ted Soqui. I did paint one watercolor of the river at Marsh Park, while we were running late on the put in.

Los Angeles River at Marsh Park

Los Angeles River at Marsh Park

Marsh Park is located in the Glendale Narrows, pretty much the nicest stretch of the whole river. Due to groundwater coming up in this area, the bottom of the river is unpaved, so there are lots of tall willows, turtles, ducks, heron, egret, and more. It’s where people who visit for the first time gasp and say “wow – it is a river!” Also at Marsh Park are the best rapids of the whole river. It’s a short chute that has plenty of slope and plenty of flow. Very fun, but it also can capsize folks like me who haven’t had much kayaking experience. On a test run, a week in advance of the trip, I did flip my kayak, though on a second try and on the official expedition, I was able to shoot through it unscathed. A few of crew flipped and received a river baptism that morning. The trick is not to lean upstream, so the river doesn’t catch the lip of your boat.

The next two miles were very nice, despite a few spots where we’d get stuck among rocks and have to portage a bit. It’s plenty navigable, and very beautiful. I kayaked up at to two older Latina women and a man whom I chatted with a bit with. They said, in Spanish, that they were harvesting “yerba mora” and another plant, which they used to make soups.

Just upstream of the Riverside/Figueroa Bridge the soft-bottom stretch ends and the all-concrete canyon begins. We gathered the troops and spoke a bit about the historic confluence with the Arroyo Seco and a bit about safety, then started down the concrete low-flow channel.

We cruised under the great historic City Beautiful bridges. The North Broadway Bridge (originally and formally the Buena Vista Viaduct) located along the Cornfields is the great early progenitor of the series. It features some of the earliest compound arches made of concrete – a technological advance that made the understructure of the bridges lighter, though still majestic. As we went under each of the historic spans, I was noticing that as time progressed (ie: the later date that the bridges were built), the understructures become lighter and more airy. Unfortunately, as time progressed, these become so light that they skip the arch and just put the straight flat girder across.

There was a construction site at the First Street Bridge, where crews are widening the bridge to make space for more cars… er… I mean to make space for the eastside extension of the Metro Gold Line, while allowing for lots of cars. I am cynical about this because nearly all these bridges had streetcars running down them originally, and now when we want to run the trains down them again, the experts tell us that we have to tear out the original structures. The First Street Bridge widening isn’t as bad as some others proposed. I will write more about the threatened bridge demolitions in other posts later. We portaged around the low temporary construction bridges and continued downstream.

I was surprised at how shallow the low flow channel is. When I’ve led tours of the river, I get questions about how deep it is, and I’ve always responded that it’s 3-4 feet deep, based on seeing folks in it occasionally… but actually being in it, paddling a kayak, I now realize that it’s quite shallow. My paddle was frequently scraping bottom. It’s really only 1-2 feet deep. That doesn’t sound like a lot of water, but it’s enough to float a kayak – without much scraping – yay! It can still be a bit treacherous to cross on foot – the water is moving fairly fast and the sloped sides can be pretty slippery.

Near the Washington Boulevard Bridge and the start of the city of Vernon, the walls of the channel go from sloped (trapezoidal channel) to vertical (box channel.) The river makes a left turn. The smells get bad and the low flow channel splits and gets shallower. I had expected that we’d have to portage this area, but were able to float and scrape and get by. The walls go trapezoidal again and the central low-flow channel resumes where the river flows under Bandini Boulevard in Vernon.

I have to say that I was somewhat impressed with the stark featurelessness of the river below Bandini. Seems like nearly everywhere in nature there are differences and variety, but, here on the river in southeast Los Angeles, there is surprisingly little variation in slope – for miles. The engineers and the construction crews did a great job of creating a nearly entirely continuous smooth unrelenting gradual drop all the way from downtown to the ocean. There are a very few places where the slope increases slightly – very short drops, often after bridges, and one small chute around Southern Avenue in South Gate. If the slope were more uneven, perhaps there would be more problems with sediment settling out of the water. It’s an impressive feat of engineering.

I was also impressed with how nature is reclaiming the river. In many places, from the mouth of the Arroyo Verdugo, to just upstream of Willow Street in Long Beach, there’s a fair amount of vegetation growing either through the cracks or on a layer of silt atop a concrete bottom. Most of the vegetation is opportunistic weedy, but there are occasional cattails and even willows. Even in middle of Vernon (at a location I don’t want to disclose for fear of alerting the flood control bulldozer crews), I saw a 10-foot tall willow tree growing out of the concrete along the low flow channel. This vegetation creates eddies, slowing down the water, causing it to deposit sediment, building up sandbars and making way for more vegetation. It’s nature’s cycle of reclaiming disturbed areas. Microorganisms move in, then bugs, then ducks. It’s great to see it starting to happen in the concrete moonscape areas downstream.

We stopped for lunch at Maywood Riverfront Park, located at Slauson Avenue. I checked out the now-open park; its opening had been delayed for years due to concerns over possible contamination from a chemical factory that occupied a portion of the site. There were lots of families enjoying their Sunday afternoon and the recently-very-pristine ball fields were showing signs of plenty of use – a good sign in my book. The adjacent mini-park built by North East Trees looked good too, though it’s clear that the battle against graffiti has resulted in a lot of beige paint coating the river rock retaining walls.

We continued downstream. The concrete gets pretty relentless. Though I am not a big fan of them, I was actually really glad to see the Adel Rakhshani murals in the city of Paramount, as they helped break up the unrelenting grayness of it all.

There were quite a few birds hanging out in the all-concrete channel, including black-necked stilts, gulls, ducks, killdeer, and occasional herons and egrets. Closer to the ocean we saw more shorebirds – a few different types that I am not too good at identifying. As Jeff Tipton and I kayaked under a bridge, one black-necked stilt, with three cute small stiltlings in tow, became very animated. She (I am assuming it was a female) shrieked and flew near us, keeping just ahead of us, seemingly trying to draw our attention to her and away from her kids. Small families of ducks would swim in the channel. When l saw them downstream in front of me, I would kayak faster to catch up with them. The mother duck would corral her youngsters getting them to do their wobbly half-runnning double-speed maneuver to evade their pursuer. The ducklings would pop underwater to get away as I passed them. My other trick to punctuate the monotony of the lower river would be to paddle strongly to each bridge, then to slow and coast and rest in the precious shade underneath.

The way was only slightly punctuated by passing landmarks that I was familiar with. In the city of South Gate, the river’s confluence with the Rio Hondo was very anonymous. I almost didn’t notice it. The broad channel hardly contributed any flow to the LA River. The historic 1937 concrete-railing Atlantic Boulevard Bridge marked our entry into Long Beach. I thought that, at least, now we could say that we’d made it to Long Beach… though we still had a good half-dozen miles to go. Soon thereafter we passed the mouth of Compton Creek.

The concrete bottom ends at Willow Street in Long Beach. The river widens a bit more there, so the engineers added features to create turbulence to make the river spread out to to it’s full width. Before the bridge are a series of concrete block baffles. Unfortunately this meant another short portage. Where the concrete ends and the estuary begins is a fairly good looking place when you’re walking and bird-watching above it… but when you’re down in the water, it’s kinda nasty. This is another thing I learned from this trip. At the very start of each of the three areas where the concrete ends (below the Orange Line Bridge in Sepulveda Basin in the San Fernando Valley, at Bette Davis Picnic Area, and at the estuary in Long Beach), there are nasty smelling areas with duckweed and small bubbles of foul-smelling gas surfacing. When I stepped in the sediments in these areas, my foot sunk down into the quicksand-like sediment sending up clouds of gunky black cloudy water.

We pushed on down a very nice short rapids and came into the tidal zone of the river. Signs on the bridges told us that all kinds of activities weren’t allowed here, but that if we did them, we’d have to keep within a 5 mph speed limit. We saw more cormorants, herons, pelicans, and occasional fish jumping out of the water.

The sun was beginning to set as we rounded the final bend and caught sight of the Queen Mary. Lots of families were fishing from the breakwater. We passed beneath the Queensway Bay Bridge, pulled up along the breakwater and pulled out at Shoreline Park. Families and friends were there to greet us. We began to tell our tales and to speculate on future trips down our very navigable local waterway.

Here are some links to trip photos/articles/blogs:

LAist Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Lala Times River Page

Paper Architecture Blog

Surviving L.A.

Ted Soqui’s Blog

Kayaking the Los Angeles River: Day 2

July 27, 2008 § 2 Comments

The second day of kayaking, in which the crew puts in at the Sepulveda Dam and takes out in Frogtown, was considerably more exhausting than the first. If this entry is shorter than the last, it’s because the day was longer.

On my bus ride in, I spied a gentleman across from me reading the Daily News. I asked to look and sure enough there were photographs and a very short text about the kayak expedition. The print edition even features this photo of me. Folks have mentioned that the L.A. Times also ran a photo… but I can’t seem to find it on their website.

There was a delay in getting things going at the preordained 9am start time, so Connor Everts and I put in at Burbank Boulevard and cruised our kayaks back upstream into the Sepulveda Basin. We saw ~5 carp, plentiful heron and even a turtle. Urban nature writer extraordinaire Jenny Price gave her talk. I’ve heard it before, but I really like what she says about the river. Take one of her tours if you get the chance. And we were off.

First portage (that’s where you walk, dragging the canoe… not all that fun) was immediately under the Sepulveda Dam. These photos are from my cell phone, which I really did want to keep dry, so I didn’t take too many and only in places where there wasn’t too much water splashing. I like to run more pictures of the greener parts of the river, but I was busy kayaking there, so you’re getting concrete shots today.

We were able to kayak through much of the East Valley – Sherman Oaks and Studio City. Not a great deal of water, so there was some scraping, and occasional brief portaging. We encountered a truck of county maintenance workers in the channel. I showed them my saran-wrapped sign stating “FILM PERMIT”, with the permit number, and they let us continue unmolested. We stopped for lunch at the ramp at Coldwater Canyon Avenue. Folks were in good spirits. The channel hadn’t been easy, but not too difficult.

Just east of Radford Avenue in Studio City (at CBS Studio Center), the flat bottom channel that we had been traversing gives way to what’s called a low flow channel. It’s basically a notch in the middle of the flat concrete channel, especially designed for fast, easy kayaking… er… I mean… designed to keep the flow in one place to make for easy maintenance. The initial lip of the low flow channel can be a little tricky, potentially dangerous – sort of a stair-step waterfall rapid. We took our kayaks out before it, lowered them in after and were on our way. At the east end of CBS, the Tujunga Wash meets the L.A. River. Visible from the Colfax Avenue Bridge, it’s a sort of wye made of notches, easy to shoot though on a kayak.

The low flow channel water moves fast, and it’s actually plenty deep, so it was certainly the most pleasurable and fastest moving part of today’s leg, though I found myself paddling quickly and sometimes bouncing off the sides, until I got the hang of it. The things you can do in a rental canoe! All good things must end… and the low flow channel peters out in the area around Forest Lawn. The picture at the left is looking back (west) upstream, with the Griffith Park hillside on the left and Burbank on the right. We then walked about a mile, canoes in tow, until we arrived at the soft-bottom stretch alongside Bette Davis Picnic Area. We were greeted there by supporters who buoyed our spirits with ice cream and cold drinks (thanks Ramona of Friends of the LA River!).

And this is where our troubles began… Most of the folks were smart and decided to portage (via truck) down to Atwater River Walk. But a few intrepid (or perhaps foolhardy) souls continued in the channel. The next couple miles either contain lots of rocks positioned perfectly to immobilize foolhardy (or perhaps intrepid) kayakers, or, like the photo on the left, have expansive flat areas with only a few inches of sheet flow. The picture shows Jeff Tipton portaging before the 134 Freeway. The shot is downstream, where you make a right turn and can actually start to see the downtown skyscrapers in the distance (though you need a better camera than my cell phone to prove this… you’ll just have to take my word for it.) Griffith Park is on his right and the Arroyo Verdugo (which runs through Glendale) is on his left. Just downstream (a mere 15-minute walk), there’s a rocky area that looks like it should be kayakable… but I kept going for about 20 seconds before getting caught on rocks. I ended up pulling out and towing my boat on the east side of the river. I would see an area that looked good, put back in, then get stuck again. Perhaps a lighter and/or more experienced kayaker could navigate it better. I found it pretty frustrating.

Just downstream of Colorado Street, the Los Angeles-Glendale Water Reclamation Plant pumps out about 3 million gallon a day of tertiary treated water… and the kayakers are back in business… albeit exhausted by this point. We continued downstream, under the Los Feliz Bridge (another brief portage) then met up with the rest of the group. A police helicopter was circling overhead, and two uniformed LAPD officers greeted us at the Sunnynook Footbridge. They had received a call. I showed them the magic aumulet… er… film permit and they looked it over and over and asked to see it again and conferred and looked again… and told us we could proceed. (One of them told us that he’s a kayaker.)

The stretches below the LA-Glendale Plant are very pleasant. There are areas where you get trees and other vegetation on both sides and it feels like you’re not in L.A. anymore. Once we passed under the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge, we were greeted by a tribe of mudpeople (surreal tribal L.A. performance troupe) and another group of dancers (a group I don’t have the name for) all dressed in flowing white dresses. We lingered and spectated, then continued downstream.

We crossed under the Fletcher Drive Bridge. In the deeper (comparatively) water area under and downstream of the 2 Freeway, we encountered families, couples and individuals sitting on the sloped concrete wall with their fishing lines in, waiting. We asked and it sounded like folks hadn’t caught much that day, but they appeared to be having fun – hanging out, pointing at the nutty gabacho kayakers scaring off their carp.

We took out at Marsh Park where Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority staff were telling stories with a dozen kids around a campfire. I am sore and tired… but I will be back out on the Mighty Los Angeles at 9am with my prow pointed toward Long Beach.

Kayaking the Los Angeles River: Day 1

July 26, 2008 § 6 Comments

It’s day 1 of a 3-day kayak trip down the Los Angeles River. The trip was organized by George Wolfe of the Lala Times – see his river trip page. Today we did the Sepulveda Basin in the heart of the San Fernando Valley – from the Orange Line Bridge to the Burbank Boulevard Bridge. It’s about 2 miles, and probably the most scenic and easiest-to-kayak stretch of the 52-mile river.

Right away, let me say that kayaking can be a little dangerous – and so can the L.A. River. We did just fine – but I would recommend it only for folks who know how to kayak and who know how to swim. We went in mid-summer, when there’s no real chance of floodwaters. We wore life vests. There were 10+ boats and more than a dozen people. Kayaking is fun and safe, but, if you’re going to try it someday yourself, please be responsible! Wear life vests, go with a partner, and don’t go when it’s raining. The Los Angeles River can be deadly when it’s raining. Please be careful and safe!

I didn’t take or draw pictures today. I’ve added links so you can tell what it looked like… and I will link to other folks photos in a subsequent post. Soon. I promise! The photo above is from a test run we did a week ago.

The group did a ceremonial put-in at the river’s “headwaters” where Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek come together behind Canoga Park High School. See this confluence yourself from Owensmouth Avenue just north of Vanowen Street. I put headwaters in quotes because the actual headwaters are the streams way up in the local mountains. The site that folks call headwaters is where the L.A. River proper begins. The group wasn’t actually kayaking from there, but, after convening there, the plan was to drive down to the Sepulveda Basin located ~5 miles downstream. It’s pretty rough kayaking in the West Valley. Portions of it have no central low-flow channel, and little water this time of the year, so we would’ve had to walk much of the way. I had a meeting downtown, so I took the Metro Red Line and Orange Line and met the group at the put-in site, immediately upstream of the Balboa Boulevard Bridge.

There were reporters, TV cameras, and photographers. We put in about 8 bright yellow sit-atop sea kayaks and a couple of bright green canoes. We tooled around and struck poses and positioned for the cameras. This stretch is earthen bottom, so there’s lots of tall trees. The sides are concrete, but from the kayak, you can’t really see the concrete. It was a treat to see night herons, great blue herons, and mallards. While you kayak, you get close to the herons and they fly off. Now and then fish splash away in front of the boat.

After a while, we started upstream. Due to the presence of grade control structures (a fancy name for low stair step dams that the water spills over), so the water stretches out in long flat pools in the Sepulveda Basin with little current and no riffles. These are separated by little waterfalls spilling over rock and concrete steps. Going upstream we had to portage over to a couple of grade control structures to get to the Orange Line Bridge (just downstream from White Oak Avenue) where the vegetation ends and the river becomes three sides trapezoidal concrete. Right before the all-concrete area, there’s a nasty stinky area with lots of what I think is duckweed on the surface.

The approximately two-mile kayak ride down stream was great. It was punctuated by three or four portages over those pesky grade control structures, but the glassy stretches between were calm and pleasant. Herons flying overhead. Carp occasionally jumping. Canoes sometimes jockeying, but mostly meandering slowly downstream.

We took out at the Burbank Boulevard Bridge in view of the Sepulveda Dam. The sun was setting. A dozen thirsty boaters smiled and loaded up our vessels into the Uhaul Truck.

Come see us off as we depart downstream. Join us tomorrow (Saturday July 27) we put in at 9am at the Burbank Boulevard Bridge, just west of Woodley Avenue. The excellent and insightful urban nature writer Jenny Price will be speaking. The kayakers will be traversing the East Valley, Griffith Park area, and ending up at Marsh Park in Frogtown. The day after (Sunday July 28 ) at 9am, we put in at Marsh Park and kayak to the river’s mouth in Long Beach. See you down by the river.

A quiet revolution comes to Calabasas

July 25, 2008 § 2 Comments

I’ve been told it couldn’t be done.  To take a concreted stream and return it to a (semi) natural condition couldn’t be done in Southern California.

You just don’t understand.  It’s the “uniqueness” of our Southern California flashy arid streams.  Our urbanization.  Our rainfall patterns.  We’re different, not like all those hippy crunchy places that love their salmon and enact stream protection ordinances and clean up their water in concert with endangered species recovery.  We can’t do that here. Oh, and why would we want to?

Tell that to Calabasas.  Last January the City of Calabasas unveiled their restoration of Las Virgenes Creek.  They indeed took a concrete channel, removed the concrete, and re-established a natural channel, right next to a shopping center.  Not without some sacrifice, or some debate over the design.  The sacrifice:  Calabasas had to take on “ownership” (read:  liability) of the channel.  Now that takes some serious cojones, or shall we just call it political will?  And as to the debate – well, some of us wanted a rock-free design, and loss of a few parking spaces could have granted that.  The design has the rocks, buried beneath the toes of the slopes, and some small check dams.  It’s a compromise that today seems reasonable to me.  More important is the test of time, watching the creek as it evolves and responds to big rains.  

Congratulations, Calabasas.  I hope you’ve started a quiet revolution.

Check it out:

Or go see it yourself:

101 Fwy to Las Virgenes Road, right at Agoura.  Look for the Starbucks and you’ve found it.  I’ll insert a map as soon as I learn how…





Welcome to the Los Angeles Creek Freak Blog!

July 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Welcome to the Los Angeles Creek Freak blog. This will be a joint effort by Jessica Hall and Joe Linton. We’ll be exploring and expounding various facets of how water interacts with our Southern California landscape – from Los Angeles River restoration/revitalization, to historical contours of waterways, to water conservation, water supply, water quality, flooding, and much more. Some of the features we expect to bring you include:

  • how to get involved: volunteering, clean-ups, and more!
  • how to be waterwise at home: water harvesting, graywater, native plants, and more!
  • historical information on where the streams used to be and where they can flow again!
  • places to explore: recommended places along our local creeks and rivers to walk, bike, fish, kayak, explore, play, picnic, birdwatch, and/or make out!
  • recommendations: our favorite books, blogs, websites to read, stuff to buy, and more!
  • watershed headlines: latest news and blogs digested, summarized, linked and delivered to you!
  • watershed calendar: exciting (or at least important) meetings and events!
  • and, of course, the usual highly personal and subjective rants and raves that blogs feature all over the known universe!

Lots more ideas, which we’ll share with you as we go along. So get your RSS on, wear sensible shoes and we’ll see you down by the river.

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