From Confrontation to Cooperation
Lewis Macadams, Senior Lecturer, Graduate Writing
In the late 1930s, in response to a pair of deadly floods, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors called in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control the unruly L.A. River. The mission was to get the water to the ocean as fast as possible. The idea that it might make sense, in a city that gets less than 15 inches of rain a year on average, to conserve some of those hundreds of millions of gallons of freshwater seems to have never occurred to the Army Corps.
It took many years, thousands of workers, and some 3 million barrels of concrete to bring the river to heel. By some measures, the project was a triumph: floodwaters have not topped the river levees since. But it was also an ecological holocaust.
Within a very few years, important native species were largely gone. Yellow-billed cuckoos and least bell's vireo no longer sang in the watershed. Red-legged frogs, which hibernated by burrowing into the river bottom’s mud, couldn‘t penetrate the concrete.
For half a century after the work was finished, the river was little more than a concrete scar, separated from the city by chain-link fences topped with razor wire and signs warning visitors to keep out or face fines and/or jail.
In 1986, Roger Wong, Pat Patterson and I borrowed some wire cutters, snipped the fence that separated the river from the city, and declared the river open. We asked the river if we could speak for it in the human realm. We didn't hear it say no, and Friends of the L.A. River was born. FoLAR began life as a performance piece in a basement theater on Skid Row as a "40-year artwork to bring the river back to life." I donned a white suit and painted myself green as if i were the ghost of William Mulholland.
In the mid-1980s, a lawsuit by Heal the Bay forced L.A. to build a water reclamation plant that would ultimately send millions of gallons a year of reclaimed water through the Glendale Narrows. For the first time since the last Ice Age, the river was year-round. Willows and sycamore trees began to reappear.
In preparation for a predicted El Niño, the County and the Army Corps decided to bulldoze everything growing in the river's natural bottom. Standing in front of the machines, I nearly got myself killed. But the action got FoLAR its first meeting with the head of the L.A. County Department of Public Works. Every time he said the words "flood control channel," I interrupted him and said "river." I had planted the linguistic seeds. Today nearly everybody calls it a river.
In recent years, more and more Angelenos have discovered the river. FoLAR's annual Gran Limpieza, the Great Los Angeles River Cleanup, has grown from 10 people to several thousand. Two former railroad yards are now state parks, half a dozen riverfront pocket parks were created, and a bike path continues to grow.
Every one of these victories was the result of patience, willpower, and perseverance. Yet none of them opened up the channel itself. In 2010 it was still a crime to stick your toe in the river. Then, this fall, after seven years of work and almost $10 million, the Army Corps released a study with a range of alternatives for the river's future.
It was a stunning development. FoLAR could now work hand in hand with the Army Corps to restore miles of habitat, eliminate miles of concrete, restore wetlands, and reconnect the main stem of the river to the mountains.
As I look back on a lifetime of poetry and politics, on 27 years of working on the river, I see a journey from confrontation to cooperation. It has created a wider and deeper community not just of humans but of flying, swimming, and four-legged creatures as well.
A longer version of this Op Ed piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2013.