Recommended Reading Strikes Back

October 2, 2008 § 1 Comment

Creek Freak rides the bus and the train, so he reads a lot (both while waiting and while in motion.) Here’re a few more water and river books that I just finished and highly recommend to you.

Managing Water by Dorothy Green

Managing Water by Dorothy Green

Managing Water: Avoiding Crisis in California by Dorothy Green (2007, University of California Press, $14.95 paperback)

Dorothy Green is the founder of some of the most important progressive water activist organizations – including Heal the Bay, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, the California Water Impact Network, and probably more that I am not aware of. I really enjoyed Managing Water not only because I learned a lot about water, but also, perhaps chauvinistically, because it’s finally a statewide water book with plenty of focus on Southern California. There are other books that cover the whole state, but don’t give as much attention its bottom half. One example of this is California Rivers and Streams: The Conflict Between Fluvial Process and Land Use by Jeffrey F. Mount . Please don’t get me wrong – that’s an excellent book, and I do recommend it (I learned a lot from it about sediment and the way streams are shaped,) but it’s not so much about Los Angeles. Northern California readers will probably have the same criticism of Green’s book… but then again, perhaps this bias may be justifiable in that Southern California has the most population, imports the most water, and therefore needs to play the biggest role in avoiding crisis.

Managing Water focuses on water supply, which is, unfortunately, somewhat divorced from stream health in Los Angeles (p.72 shows that local water provides only 15% of the city of LA’s supply.) Green makes this connection by taking us through the basics of the Los Angeles River story and how we went farther and farther afield to import water. From there she details the various sources of water supply, and the massive tangle of local water agencies. If you’ve ever wondered things like “just what does the Water Replenishment District do?” or Green has the answers for you – see page 84. The charts and diagrams are excellent. I especially like the story that the per capita water use charts (p.168, 169) tell: due to the successes of conservation work (some of which Dorothy Green spearheaded), Southern California’s water usage has remained flat while our population has grown.

I highly recommend this book. It has plenty of great information for folks who are new to water issues, and plenty of details that creek freaks like me can pour over. There is a looming crisis in California’s water supply with sources of Southern California’s imported water in decline, but Green remains hopeful that we can manage our water wisely for people and the environment.

Excerpt: There is enough water for our growing population, for agriculture, and to restore much of our ecosystems decimated by water transfers. We are that inefficient. We can have it all. We just need the political will to make it happen.

Rivertown edited by Paul Stanton Kibel

Rivertown edited by Paul Stanton Kibel

Rivertown: Rethinking Urban Rivers edited by Paul Stanton Kibel (2007, MIT Press, $22 paperback)

The book is a collections of essays about urban rivers. These include chapters on the Los Angeles River (by Robert Gottlieb and Andrea Misako Azuma), the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. (by Uwe Steven Brandes), the Chicago River (by Christopher Theriot and Kelly Tzoumis), City Creek in Salt Lake City (by Ron Love), the Guadalupe River in San Jose (by Richard Roos-Collins), the Army Corps of Engineers (by Melissa Samet), grassroots river networks (by Mike Houck), and the Mississippi River in New Orleans (by the editor Paul Stanto Kibel.)

Gottlieb and Azuma’s piece on the Los Angeles River focuses on the story of the 1999-2000 “Re-Envisioning the L.A. River” the year-long series of events that was a collaboration between Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute (UEPI) and the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) – with an eye toward how this influenced the successful campaign for a river park at the Cornfields site – now Los Angeles State Historic Park.

All the essays are good, but my favorite is actually Roos-Collins’ piece on the Guadalupe River. It’s interesting to have a window into understanding some the complicated negotiation processes between agencies and advocates to move their project forward. It’s actually an inspiring tale that, instead of ending in rancorous legal clashes (as are all to common in Southern California’s water and restoration struggles), the parties were able to negotiate agreements that have resulted in a beautiful downtown river parkway and enhanced habitat for anadromous fish.

Excerpt: In September 2000, the final event in the Re-Envisioning series, a mayoral candidates’ debate about the L.A. River and the urban environment, was an animated discussion about the Majestic Realty project [industrial development proposed at the Cornfields], alternative scenarios about the site, and general river renewal issues. Each of the candidates present either declared opposition to the Majestic project or sought to slow down the fast-track approach… The mayoral candidates’ debate in turn suggested that the political climate around the project had significantly changed. “It is hard to adjust to the fact that the L.A. River has become a kind of mom and apple pie issues,” [FoLAR founder Lewis] MacAdams commented to Gottlieb immediately after the debate.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy (1974, Vintage, $13.95 paperback)

Well… it’s a stretch to claim that this entirely within the theme of this blog… but I just read and enjoyed this dark and strange book and was really taken with a passage that perhaps invokes the primal power of a rain-swollen creek. Cormac McCarthy can really write! Where would our authors, our stories, our metaphors, our language be without our streams?

Excerpt: He crossed a fence into a half flooded field and made his way toward the creek. At the ford it was more than twice its right width. Ballard studied the water and moved on downstream. After a while he was back. The creek was totally opaque, a thick and brickcolored medium that hissed in the reeds. As he watched a drowned sow shot into the ford and spun slowly with pink and bloated dugs and went on. Ballard stashed the blanket in a stand of sedge and returned to the cave.

When he got back to the creek it seemed to have run yet higher. He carried a crate of odd miscellany, men’s and ladies’ clothes, the three enormous stuffed toys streaked with mud. Adding to this load the rifle and the blanketful of things he’d carried down he stepped into the water.

The creek climbed his legs in wild batwings. Ballard tottered and rebalanced and took a second grip on his load and went on. Before he even reached the creekbed he was wading kneedeep. When it reached his waist he began to curse aloud. A vitriolic invocation for the receding of the waters. Anyone watching him could have seen he would not turn back if the creek swallowed him under. It did. He was fast in the water to his chest, struggling along on tiptoe gingerly and leaning upstream when a log came streaming into the flat. He saw it coming and begin to curse. It spun broadside to him and it came on with something of animate ill will. Git, he screamed at it, a hoarse croak in the roar of the water. It came on bobbing and bearing in its perimeter a meniscus of pale brown froth in which floated walnuts, twigs, a slender bottle neck erect and tilting like a metronome.

Git, goddamn it. Ballard shoved a the log with the barrel of the rifle. It swung down upon him in a rush and he hooked his rifle arm over it. The crate capsized and floated off. Ballard and the log bore on into the rapids below the ford and Ballard was lost in a pandemonium of noises, the rifle aloft in one arm now like some demented hero or bedraggled parody of a patriotic poster come aswamp and his mouth wide for the howling of oaths until the log swept into a deeper pool and rolled and the waters closed over him.

He came up flailing and sputtering and began to thrash his way toward the line of willows that marked the submerged creek bank. He could not swim, but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up. Some halt in the way of things seems to work here. See him. You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it. But they want this man’s life. He has heard them in the night seeking him with lanterns and cries of execration. How then is he borne up? Or rather, why will not these waters take him?

When he reached the willows he pulled himself up and found that he stood in scarcely a foot of water. There he turned and shook the rifle alternately at the flooded creek and the gray sky out of which the rain still fell grayly without relent and the curses that hailed up above the thunder of the water carried to the mountain and back like echoes from the clefts of bedlam.

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How Long is the Los Angeles River?

September 29, 2008 § 2 Comments

How Long is the Los Angeles River? : A Rashomon-like Tale of Engineers, Librarians, Geographers and Poets

Creek freak, in record-setting verbosity, takes on the burning question of our day: just how long is the Los Angeles River? And while we’re at it: why is that important? and why isn’t that important? Quick, select “Mark as Read” and move on.

The Los Angeles River becomes the Los Angeles River proper in Canoga Park, at the confluence of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek. From there it travels east through the San Fernando Valley, makes a right turn around Griffith Park, passes downtown Los Angeles, then heads south emptying into the San Pedro Bay in Long Beach. It’s not that long a trip. I’ve done it by bike in a day.

Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), where I used to work, pretty much always states that the Los Angeles River is 52 miles long, for example here: “[Taylor Yard] represents the single greatest opportunity for riverfront restoration along the entire 52 miles of the Los Angeles River.” The 52 mile figure gets repeated throughout the non-profit community, including on the websites for The River Project and The City Project (where I currently do contract work.) It also makes its way into the L.A. Times (1997) and the Daily News (2008.)

On the other hand, the county of Los Angeles pretty much always states that the Los Angeles River is 51 miles long, for example here: “Today, the Los Angeles River is lined on 77 km (47.9 miles) of its 82 km (51 miles) length”. This 51 mile figure gets repeated by most governmental agencies, including the city of Los Angeles, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and the regional Water Board. It also makes its way into the L.A. Times (2008) and the Daily News (2000 – not available free on-line.)

So… what’s the big deal? It’s only a mile, right? Well, often the struggle to revitalize the Los Angeles River is a struggle to give it respect, even if only semanitcally for now. There were legendary shouting matches between FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams calling it a “river” and County Public Works calling it a “flood control channel.” If we call it a river, then we can perceive it as one, and will treat it as one. I seem to recall, a long time ago, someone at FoLAR (maybe Lewis, maybe not – I don’t remember) told me the following: Historically the river was 52 miles long. When it was concreted from the 1930’s through the late 1950’s, it was straightened. In straightening, it ended up a mile shorter. As a political and tactical decision, FoLAR continued to call it a 52 mile river because the greater length gave it a greater stature, greater importance. I repeated this anecdote often. On tours I would tell folks that it’s really a 52 mile river, it’s just that it’s trapped in a 51 mile concrete straightjacket.

The blog was going to end somewhere around there, but, in doing his due diligence, the Creek Freak decided to try to verify quickly that 52 mile number by poking around some historical sources. Creek Freak’s own and the blogosphere’s generally impeccable credibility would be at state if I post something on the net that some sharp researcher could prove wrong too easily. I figured it would be a quick bike ride to my wonderful library and a search or two in the historical L.A. Times database (which I’ve used before) and I’d be done in less than 20 minutes, and I’d have incontrovertible proof of how right we river advocates are.

Turns out that it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Even the computer search had its uncertainties. Do I search on 52 or fifty-two? Mile or miles? Los Angeles River or L.A. River or LA River? How about the hypen/s in 52-miles or 52-miles-long? Would the search program smart enough to find those variations or do I have to match them verbatim? Well, I think I tried all the permutations, and I could not find any pre-concrete-era pre-FoLAR-era references to a 52 mile Los Angeles River. I checked with a couple librarians, some books, and nothing turned up. It’s not there (if any of you find it, please let me know, though!) I did find a lot of much more interesting stuff though. Here are some of them chronologically:

November 1939: Scientific American, in a 2-page article River Rebuilt to Curb Floods, states “Most important of the streams, insofar as their rampages may affect concentrated population, is the Los Angeles River. This stream, 70 miles in length, may be bone dry in summer, then carry water at a rate of 90,000 cubic feet per second… during a winter flood.” Wow! 70 miles in a peer-reviewed scientific journal! Who knew? This number might correspond to the length of the river before channelization, but I’m guessing that this number perhaps came from including one of the tributaries, maybe Arroyo Calabasas? That’s the oldest reference I found that stated a length for the river – and the longest mileage-wise.

July 12 1956: The Los Angeles Times, in an article L.A. River Project Due for Completion in 1957, states “Flood-control work on the entire length of the Los Angeles River, a distance of 49.1 miles, will be completed by December, 1957, Col. Arthur H. Frye Jr., district engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said yesterday.” Ouch, doesn’t 49.1 miles sound rather dinky? It’s more-or-less like the number mentioned on the county’s website above, with a shorter paved distance than total length. I’m guessing that means that they’re not counting one of the soft-bottom areas (either the ~3-mile estuary or the ~2-mile Sepulveda Basin). Perhaps the overall length got mixed up with the completely-paved length somewhere between Col. Frye and the author.

March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times

March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times

March 2 1958: The Los Angeles Times, in an article Timesmen Explore Los Angeles River, states “Last week, after 23 years and $101,100,000, the Army Corps of Engineers completed its project of concreting the bottom and sides of 50.9-mile-long Los Angeles River” The article goes on to describe the Timesmen’s trip, in a 5-person rubber boat, down the length of the river. Other than leaving out the word “the” (shouldn’t it be “…of the 50.9-mile-long?) and that not all the bottom was paved, that extra decimal place makes this entry sounds really precise, really exact. It’s probably right, and the 51 crowd is just rounding it to the nearest mile.

April 1 1958: The Los Angeles Times, in an article Army Engineers’ Field Has Constant Growth, states “The paving of the 50-mile-long Los Angeles River – longest channel of this type ever constructed – was an Army Engineer project.” The fifty mile figure gets quoted in about a dozen articles in the times. I take it as a rounded to the closest multiple of ten estimate.

August 1990: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, in an article Mark Twain!, states “I decided to explore the waterway – all 55 miles of it – while it was still neither park nor freeway, to find out what L.A.’s only river was all about.” I’m not sure where 55 came from – maybe the proposed freeway at the time was 55 miles long? Maybe the author rounded up to the nearest nickel?

20 April 1994 Los Angeles Times

April 20 1994 Los Angeles Times

April 20 1994, the Los Angeles Times, in an article River Rescue, states “Its 58 miles are paved with 3 million barrels of concrete.” I can’t really explain this one either, but it’s got a great youthful photo (in color in the original) of FoLAR’s first executive director Martin Schlageter.

I decided to check books. In 1975, Anthony F. Turhollow, in A History of the Los Angeles District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1898-1965 (with positively creek-freak-like verbosity and enthusiasm) states (p.146): “One river, the Los Angeles, about 50 miles long, with a source 1,000 feet above sea level is not only at the same elevation as the mighty Mississippi River but also has the same amount of drop in its relatively short length as the Mississippi in its entire course.” In 1999, Gumprecht states (p.1): “Chain link fence and barbed wire line the river’s fifty-one-mile course.” He does mention (p. 228,232) a UCLA researcher who found that as a result of the channelization project the length of the river between between Tujunga Wash and Glendale Boulevard was 28% shorter, going from historically 11.3 miles down to a concreted 8.1 miles . In 2001, Patt Morrison, in Rio L.A., (in her great poetic way) states (p. 21) “For most of its fifty-one miles, it is as unmarked, and as unremarked upon, as a pauper’s grave.” The back cover of that Linton guy‘s 2005 book says 51 miles.

As I spent time searching for that elusive confirmation of the 52 mile source, I began to become more and more comfortable with a good fuzzy approximation like “about 50 miles.” It’s very defensible, impossible to prove wrong. I began to geek out on various ideas. Perhaps I could come up with some kind of graph that would show how the river’s cited length changes over time. Maybe I could map it out precisely using old aerials or USGS maps. I could use Gmap Pedometer or (gasp) go out to the field and try to use a bike odometer to measure the current channel’s length. Through all this research and speculation, I began to think in a deeper way about the length of the river.

The start of the river at the Bell/Calabasas confluence in Canoga Park is fairly arbitrary. Why not call it the Los Angeles River proper at the confluence of Bell Creek and Chatsworth Creek, located about a mile upstream, and quite equally concrete and anonymous? Why was the current upper river channel designated and not the Tujunga Wash? I’ve heard that many years the Tujunga Wash would contribute more water to the lower river than the upper river did. Gumprecht states (p.136): “The Los Angeles River had seldom been visible west of Encino before flood control, even during heavy runoff.” A lot of the river’s water is underground in the Valley and elsewhere, so it’s arbitrary to just base a river’s starting point on where there’s surface flow.

The river system is a fractal: branches folding into branches, a gradient of gradually increasing orders of magnitude as we move downstream. It’s mostly arbitrary where we say that it starts. It’s mostly arbitrary what we call it at a given point: river versus creek, stream, wash, arroyo, gully. The naming is likely an artifact that has to do with what time of the year the Spanish came through and named things. After all, the Spaniards called Arroyo Seco (dry creek) what the Tongva called Hahamongna (flowing waters fruitful valley.)

The mouth of the river is similarly arbitrary. Gumprecht states (p.19) “Such attempts to locate the mouth of the river precisely are exercises in foolishness.” This is a river that some years emptied into the San Pedro Bay and some years swung right out to the Santa Monica Bay and some years swung left out Alamitos Bay. SCCWRP’s Historical ecology and landscape change of the San Gabriel River and floodplain report describes the mouth of the San Gabriel River (historically indistinguishable from the mouth of the L.A. River) as “a complex matrix of wetlands, riparian habitat, and uplands that varied on an interannual basis depending on climatic patterns.” Further it describes their tidal fringe as a “series of sand dunes, sand spits and barrier beaches… alternately impounded and open to the ocean… Following storms, these areas could be impounded for several kilometers upstream.”

The Los Angeles River frequently moved around across its broad alluvial plains. It meandered its way among many low points in a broad braided channel. It was, as most natural systems are, very dynamic. So it’s really hubris that we humans, whether advocates or flood control engineers, pick a single number and expect it to apply as a constant for a river that changes over time.

Any static quantification we do (think average rain year, hundred-year-flood, bank-full width, total maximum daily load) is an approximation – or, perhaps more accurately, a water mark indicating just a point in time. Nature scoffs at these, proving us wrong year after year. It’s important that we do these measurements, that we try to understand the river… but none of us should perceive her in any state as constant, as unchanging. We should learn what we can, but we should expect changes and hopefully surprises, too. This gives me optimism for the future of our river.

So… precisely how long is the Los Angeles River? At this point, I’d go with about 50 miles.

(Creak freak thanks three librarians: Glen Creason, Michael Oppenheim and my mother Marge Linton. Thank you, too, dear reader for getting this far – I promise my next blog will be shorter and won’t be about the length of the San Gabriel River.)

Where to Get Married on the L.A. River

September 10, 2008 § 4 Comments

So you’re wondering where you and your betrothed can get hitched on the LA River… Well, fret not, for the creek freak has done some advance scouting so you won’t have to. Here are three excellent L.A. River wedding locations, listed from upstream to downstream:

View of the San Fernando Valley's Japanese Garden

The San Fernando Valley's Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden is located on the grounds of the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, which is the source for most of the reclaimed water that flows in the Los Angeles River. The “garden of water and fragrance” and sewage treatment plant are safe behind the Seplulveda Dam in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. The address is 6100 Woodley Avenue, Van Nuys, California, 91406 – a short walk or bike ride from the Woodley Avenue Metro Orange Line Station.  Though they’re connected hydrologically, the very pleasant and immaculately manicured garden is a lot unlike the unkempt Los Angeles River. The river and garden do attract a similar mix of birds, including plenty of ducks and herons. Urban Ranger and river nature writer Jenny Price sums up the quirky wonder of the place by quoting the gardens’ promotional materials stating: “Enjoy the beauty of another culture while learning more about wastewater treatment and reuse.” The garden features docent-led tours, a quaint gift shop and a very helpful website, with its own section specifically for weddings.

Courtyard at the Los Angeles River Center

Courtyard at the Los Angeles River Center

The Los Angeles River Center and Gardens is located in Cypress Park right around the corner from the historic confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Arroyo Seco – just north of downtown Los Angeles.  The address is 570 West Avenue 26, Los Angeles CA 90065 – easy access from the Metro Gold Line Lincoln/Cypress station.  It’s a great setting for events and is booked nearly every Saturday all year for weddings.  It’s the former corporate campus for Lawry’s spice company which had a popular restaurant there – called Lawry’s California Center.  Now it’s owned by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority – a state agency that develops and manages parks along the L.A. River, in the Santa Monica Mountains and elsewhere.  The River Center’s buildings house the offices of various governmental agencies and non-profits that are working on the restoration and revitalization of the Los Angeles River.  They have a river visitor center, lots of bike and car parking, and a helpful wedding planning page.

The Queen Mary in Long Beach (photo by Christophe Finot)

The Queen Mary in Long Beach (photo by Christophe Finot - Creative Commons)

The Queen Mary is probably the only site where you can really say that you were married in the Los Angeles River.  She has been called the toothpick in the mouth of the L.A. River (romantic, no?)  It’s a beautiful setting for weddings with lots of ornate, well-preserved woodwork and ornamentation.  See their wedding information web page.  Their address is 1126 Queen’s Highway, Long Beach, CA 90802 – a long walk, manageable bike ride, or a short shuttle ride from the Metro Blue Line Long Beach Transit Mall station.  I attended the wedding of Jim and Nina Danza there a while back, where Friends of the Los Angeles River founder Lewis MacAdams read his poem ‘Wedding Song on Board the Queen Mary.’ It’s printed in his excellent L.A. River poetry collection The River: Books One, Two & Three (Blue Press 2005).  Jim and Nina Danza, were two great river advocates who, back in the early 1990’s, were instrumental in getting me involved in river advocacy.  Here’s the start of that poem:

The wood’s split and stacked against the night.

We’re having a cool snap. There’s a ring around the

night-before-the-bean-harvest moon. You’ll soon be

roaring over the Atlantic on your honeymoon.

I can see you dozing underneath a thin blanket

in your narrow seats, while a report on the hydrology

on the Los Angeles River slips to the floor unread.

(Note: Lest the rumors start to fly, please don’t get any ideas that this creek freak has plans to get married any time soon. I still have to meet the woman of my dreams first – and she has to get along with me. These wedding locations were something that occurred to me when I was writing my book Down By The Los Angeles River… but I wasn’t able to weave them in there, so I present them for your enjoyment here.)

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