a river koan

December 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

No Boating, No Swimming, No Wading, No Guru, No Master, No Teacher (from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission website)

No Boating, No Swimming, No Wading, No Teacher, No Guru, No Master (from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission website)

This week’s puzzle comes from listener David Smith of the San Francisco office of the Environmental Protection Agency. He’s in town and posed the question at tonight’s meeting about Los Angeles River navigability.

A hint: in determining navigability, the EPA considers four factors:

1 – Is there enough water to float a boat?

2 – Is there a history of boating?

3 – Can the public access the waterbody?

4 – Are there plans for improvements in the future that would increase boating?

Of Nexus and Navigability, Part 3: The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs

December 1, 2008 § 2 Comments


Creek Freak continues our exhausting alliterative four part series on the navigability rippling through the waters of the mighty Los Angeles:

Part 1 – Of Nexus and Navigability, a lament for our waterways
Part 2 – Journalistic Journeys
Part 3 – The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs
Part 4 – Action Alert

Of Nexus and Navigability – Part 3, The Boater, the Biologist and the Blogs

By way of background, federal waterway protections are being weakened through recent governmental decisions.  For the federal Clean Water Act to protect a river, creek or stream, it must be a “traditionally navigable waterway” or have a “significant nexus” to one.  See Part 1 for more detailed background and historical accounts of boatingSee Part 2 for some 20th century accounts of boating. And this blog is where we bring boating into the present day.

A couple years ago, while I was working at Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), I got an email from George Wolfe who runs the Lala Times – a website mostly humor/parody site that bills itself as “California satire, wierd and bizarre news.”  I have to confess that, at first, I mistakenly thought that I had been contacted by the LA Times and was always quick to respond to media requests.  I soon spoke with George, a boater (who kayaks and canoes) with a idea to do a big expedition down the Los Angeles River.

George and I kept in touch.  At one of our lunches discussing possible expedition parameters, he pulled out the most raggedly well-used copy of my book that I’d ever seen.  He’d done a lot of advance scouting and even some negotiations with the County Flood Control District and the Army Corps. of Enginneer to  permit the trip.  The date was set for July 25th-27th 2008.

I met up with George for a trial run a week ahead of the expedition.  We put in just below the Los Feliz Boulevard Bridge and kayaked down to the best rapid on the whole river, just below Marsh Park in Frogtown.  Under the tutelage of FoLAR’s Denis Schure, I had been in a kayak a couple of times briefly in a calm nearly-currentless stretch of the Los Angeles, adjacent to Balboa Boulevard in the Sepulveda Basin.  After kayaking that sweet well-flowing natural stretch with George, I was excited and hooked at how fun it was!  I was disappointed in myself that I had been around the river all these years and hadn’t boated there often.

The three-day expedition was a blast.  You can read my blog account of it here: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.  There is a fair amount of documentation now online, including this recent trailer for a planned documentary feature about the trip:

Army Corps of Engineers biologist Heather Wylie accompanied the second day of the trip.  She was later threatened with a 90-day unpaid suspension from work for participating.  It turns out that her superiors didn’t know of her participation until they saw this photo of her posted on the LAist blog. Some links to her story are available here and an excellent editorial she wrote is linked here.  Check out this short video where she tells you some of her stories: 

The kayak expedition, in addition to being lots of fun and a great workout, proved to me personally that the vast majority of the Los Angeles is indeed very navigable.  There are a few spots that required some portaging, mostly in the San Fernando Valley, but certainly all the way from the 134 Freeway downstream to Long Beach are easily kayaked any day of the year.  Contrast this with the Army Corps of Engineers’ designation of only two short stretches (in the Sepulveda Basin and in Long Beach) as navigable.  We’ve still got a long way to go in convincing our public agencies to respect the Los Angeles River.

Next: Part 4 – Action Alert – wherein you, the reader, take action on assuring federal protections for western waters. **12/3/2008 – Correction: this is an important meeting that’s still happening – but it’s not about navigability.  Navigability meeting is a different one planned for December 16th – more info about that soon!   Also, plan to attend the city of Los Angeles’ public meeting this Thursday night from 5:30pm to 8:30pm at the Metropolitan Water District in downtown Los Angeles.  The meeting will include a presentation on and an opportunity to comment on the navigability issues.

Of Nexus and Navigability, Part 2: Journalistic Journeys

December 1, 2008 § Leave a comment


Los Angeles River navigation is a critical issue right now! It’s not just about defiant kayakers, but about ensuring federal waterway protections prevent all our waterways from further degredation. Jessica has already done one post on this, but now Creek Freak is expanding our coverage into a four part series.  If you’re not already familiar with this issue, you might want to go back and read Part 1 before reading this entry.

Part 1 – Of Nexus and Navigability, a lament for our waterways
Part 2 – Journalistic Journeys
Part 3 – The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs
Part 4 – Action Alert

Of Nexus and Navigability – Part 2, Journalistic Journeys

The reason that navigation is important today is due to legal wrangling over interpretations of the federal Clean Water Act and which waterways are deemed important enough to receive federal protection. For an explanation of the navigability issue, see Part 1, in which Jessica’s fills in the background and boating’s early history. Her account covers the historical records from the 1800’s.

This blog shares some 20th century journalistic forays into Los Angeles River boating. Though these accounts do offer evidence that the river is navigable, the overall tone of the articles are rather mocking – as in how big a surprise it is that anyone would be boating on such a river. See Part 3, and bringing the situation up to the present date with some wrap-up coverage of the recent kayak trips and recent developments regarding official determinations regarding whether the river is navigable or not.

Los Angeles Times boaters xxxx

April 1st 1925 Los Angeles Times Los Angeles River boating article with "Pictorial Evidence Presented to Skeptical Public.

On April 1st 1925, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled Scribe on Wonderful Trip: Cruises the Los Angeles from Griffith Park to Seventh Street Bridge; Skipper Admires Nature by Otis M. Wiles. In a very joking tone, the article tells the story of the intrepid correspondent and Skipper Ed’s journey in the good ship Mud Hen. Some excerpts:

“The Times exploration party set forth in a makeshift craft at eventide yesterday to explore the mystic splendors of our much-maligned river and prove to the world that it’s navigable.”

The journey through the Glendale Narrows sounds fairly nice. The article describes “tall green bullrushes” and “a staircase rapid resembling Angel’s Flight.” The river through downtown wasn’t quite as nice. The boaters encounter “several hobo camps” along the “wooded river bank.” Near the present day 101 Freeway, they pass “a city dump reeking with garbage smells … The dump was afire, clear to the water’s edge.”

“Your intrepid correspondent dumped the water out of his boots and came ashore, thoroughly satisfied that the Los Angeles River has been grossly wronged and maligned. It has water in it, contrary to all reports otherwise – wet water, cold water and muddy water. And it can be navigated. from Griffith Park to the Seventh-street bridge at least, in a seaworthy duck-boat if fortune favors the navigator in ducking rocks, bridges, sharp curves and railroad ties and sewer drains.”

Herald Examiner Boaters in 1938

Herald Express Reporters Boating the Los Angeles River in 1938

In March 1938, Los Angeles was hit with the worst floods on record. These were likely not the highest volume floods, but serious floods paired with increased development of the flood plains, resulted in widespread destruction. According to Blake Gumprecht, the 1938 floods caused eighty-seven deaths, and more than $78 million in damage, including washing out many buildings and bridges. As the floodwaters were beginning to recede, the Los Angeles Herald Express’ “Foghorn” Eldridge and “Wharf Rat” Watson (actually reporter Fred Eldridge and photographer Coy Watson, Jr) attempted a boating expedition from just below the Glendale Hyperion Viaduct (in Atwater Village) to the river’s mouth in Long Beach. Similar to the 1925 Times article above, their accounts mockingly echo adventure writing of their day. They didn’t quite get to Long Beach, but made it only about a half-dozen miles to take out in downtown Los Angeles. Photo above courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Herald Examiner Collection. Additional expedition photos are available there and in Arcadia Publishing Images of America series book Los Angeles River by Ted Elrick and the Friends of the Los Angeles River.

LA Times blah blah blah

March 2nd 1958 Los Angeles Times Los Angeles River Boating Expedition Coverage

A later descent is chronicled in a March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times article Timesmen Explore Los Angeles River by Charles Hillinger. This tells the story of the reporter and cameraman who, in a 5-man inflatable boat, paddle bravely exploring the Army Corps of Engineers’ newly-completed concrete structures.

The Timesmen have difficulty putting in at the start of the river proper, behind Canoga Park High School. “Too shallow.”

They make their way downstream before putting in at a vague location: “Finally, in the heart of the city, we launched our boat.” From a later description that they took out around Firestone Boulevard after traveling “10 miles in five hours,” their put-in spot was likely near the Arroyo Seco confluence.

Boating down the concrete river, they describe “Deep water – a foot and a half – and we floated down the stream at a fair clip.” They run into issues in Vernon where “[m]ud and rocks dammed the main middle stream.” They walk and boat further until giving up around the Rio Hondo confluence where they give up “bogged down on sandbars, hiking through knee-deep mud.”

The pair rounds out their exploration by driving along the river. They describe visits to Sepulveda Dam, the east San Fernando Valley, and the Headworks Spreading Grounds.

In 1999 the LA Weekly ran a cover story Taming the Wild Trickle: A Gray-Water Adventure on the Mighty L.A. by Steve Chapple. Chapple, who kayaks the Yellowstone and the Zambesi, teamed up with Friends of the Los Angeles River’s longtime boater Denis Schure to make 3-day descent of the Los Angeles River from Reseda to Long Beach. Here are a couple of excerpts:

“This wasn’t white water, anyway. It was more like gray water. But runnable. Let me emphasize that. There was enough flow in the Los Angeles River from recent rains to make an experimental first descent possible, yet not so much that we would have to worry about Ralphs shopping carts tumbling end over end in the rainy-season roil and whacking us upside the head. This was a historic moment.”

“We rounded a bend and there stood the Glendale Freeway, crossing the Santa Ana. It was a stunning architectural tableau, Frank Lloyd Wright meets the slime. Arching steel. Pounding concrete. Below, the river concentrated itself in a new center slot that looked fast and deep. We positioned the canoe. Soon we were rodding along at maybe 10 mph before paddling (the paddles had paddles now), but the groove was unexpectedly shallow, all of 18 inches. Though I was distressed, yet again, to have been talked out of my beautiful touring kayak, I contained my cheap-thrill-seeker’s anger: For this was the place where Los Angeles began, a place of reverence. We paddled into the confluence with the Arroyo Seco, site of the original L.A. pueblo, now an unmarked graffiti hole.”

Earlier this year, the US Army Corps. of Engineers only designated two stretches as “traditionally navigable waterways.” These two stretches were: 1) the estuary below Willow Street in Long Beach and 2) the Sepulveda Basin. While none of the articles above describes every inch of the river as navigable, they do record journalists boating in stretches that the Army Corps hasn’t designated as navigable.

Next: Part 3 – The Boater, the Biologist, and the Blogs

Of nexus and navigability

August 4, 2008 § 5 Comments

Is the Los Angeles River navigable? The recent kayaking adventure, documented here at LA Creekfreak and elsewhere, demonstrated that it is. The Army Corps’ definition of navigability, however, may relate more narrowly to navigation for interstate commerce. Perhaps if people fly in from out of state, spend some money on kayak rentals, sunscreen and snacks, we’ll fit the definition.

Until then, however, we’re stuck with technicalese to protect the River. As the Army Corps has noted, the officially non-navigable reaches of the River remain protected due to their “significant nexus(link leads to ACOE ppt download on the topic) with the Navigable Water body reaches. Several Supreme Court justices ago, all that was needed to extend Clean Water Act protections to our southwestern rivers was evidence that a waterway was a tributary to a Navigable Water. Now it’s not so clear. I have heard conflicting things about tributaries and their status. A past, present, or potential future “significant nexus” needs to be demonstrated – basically someone has to prove that the degradation of a waterway would impact the water quality of the Navigable Water, and now each tributary to the LA River will need this level of investigation before it attains federal regulatory oversight (which does not guarantee physical protection, a topic for another day).

The River, like so many southwestern rivers and streams, had a great deal of variability to it. Some reaches may have been more like washes, where flows infiltrated into the groundwater; other reaches had perennial water flow. And if you go back a few hundred years, the lowest reach of the river was more like a broad wetland and forest floodplain that soaked up runoff like a sponge, with surface waters rarely reaching the ocean. These waterways were incredibly dynamic, shifting course when log jams or sediment would build up, forcing a new direction for the water to spread. Our mistake is in defining the river exclusively as the channel where we see water. Rivers function to transport water and sediment, dissipate energy, facilitate biological and chemical processes, and support habitat. In all rivers these functions depend upon not only the river’s channel but also its floodplain, and to some degree, its relationship to groundwater. A river is also the sum of its tributaries. The role of tributaries, the floodplain and groundwater may be even more pronounced in our southwestern rivers and streams, and our evaluation of the LA River should be inclusive of these relationships, not as the significant nexus, but as part and parcel of the River itself. This would be consistent with the Clean Water Act preamble, which states a purpose to restore and maintain “the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”.

For many, we would feel a greater level of security knowing the River, in either its current or historic configuration, simply met the criteria of Navigability. Historical data I’ve reviewed provides interesting, if hardly voluminous, evidence of boating (& swimming, not really a regulatory criteria but fun info). Despite the widespread characterization of the LA River as “a river by courtesy at times” that, like its tributaries, “sink(s) into the sand in places…and seep(s) along beneath the surface for miles, to appear again,” (Charles Holder, 1906) the river and its mountain tributaries were popular destinations for fishermen of steelhead trout. Ludwig Louis Salvator*, in his enthusiastic travelogue, Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies, even references the use of boats to capture these fish:

“…fine brook-trout and salmon-trout are also caught. The latter are usually taken with what are called gill-nets…The net does not touch bottom since the fish swim fairly near the surface, but is stretched diagonally across the stream or a section of it and floats with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile while the fishermen follow behind in a boat.”

Unfortunately, Salvator does not identify specifically where this boating occurred, speaking only of mountain streams. It seems reasonable to speculate that boats following nets “with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile” would need to be on a relatively flat reach of a stream, i.e. the Los Angeles River in one of its perennial reaches, such as at elPotrero de los Felizes Los Pescaditos,“a favorite fishing place on the east side of the river opposite Griffith Park”. Speculation, however, isn’t the basis for regulation.

But boating was also known to occur within the lower Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers’ floodplains. More quotes from James P. Reagan’s 1914 oral histories:

Mr. J. H. Orr, Compton, R. F. D. 1, 101 Home at Compton.

Mr. Orr has lived in this neighborhood for twenty-six years. In 1889 he says the whole country was flooded and to give an idea of how much water there was, he with some others rowed in a boat from Downey almost to Compton, that is to the S. P. R. R. track, tied their boat and walked across to Compton, bought their provisions and returned in the same way. The water was all over the country for six weeks and nothing could be done…

Mr. Lafayette Saunders, 2303 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach

…I have seen this valley solid across here between these mesas (Los Cerritos and Dominguez Hill) and nearly four feet deep. I rode in a row boat with two other from Long Beach to Wilmington and returned for provisions, and the water was from a foot of(sic) so to three and one-half feet deep.”

Here the boating is seasonal in character and really a response to the natural flood regime, in that lower LA River basin that had one time been like a sponge. Obviously this was not pleasure boating! Reagan also indicated that the Los Angeles River in the Glendale Narrows reach was good swimming:

Mr. Randall H. Hewitt, 529 Merchants Trust Bldg.

The year 1876 was a dry year and no water flowed below what was called the “Toma” in those days, above the Downey St. Bridge, which is now North Broadway, where the boys used to go swimming….

(the Toma was a dam that diverted water into the zanja irrigation system)

Joe Bernal, Room 53, Temple Block:

Mr. Bernal was seen at his office today at noon. He was born and raised in Los Angeles… In his boyhood days he used to go swimming in the Los Angeles river when it flowed down Alameda Street. (Reagan)

While hardly likely to convince the Corps that the LA River meets their definition of navigability, these historical anecdotes hint at humanity’s relationship to the river’s more complex structure.

Not just the river, all the streams and wetlands of the LA area, really, have already suffered death by a thousand cuts through the draining, channelization and culverting of over 90% of them. The “significant nexus” test here just adds several additional tons of paperwork and bureaucracy under which to bury our remaining waterways.


*Special thanks to Brian Braa, landscape architect, friend, and Seeking Streams cohort, whose research genius found this author & document.



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