Even if you’ve never lived in Los Angeles, you still probably know the city’s eponymous river from the movies. Over the decades, Hollywood has given plenty of starring roles to this mostly nondescript channel of beige, barren, and (often) bone-dry concrete that just happens to snake past several of the film industry’s biggest studios. John Travolta won a drag race there in Grease. A motorcycle-riding Arnold Schwarzenegger battled his truck-driving nemesis there in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Ryan Gosling flirted there with Carey Mulligan in Drive. In each of these productions, the Los Angeles River perfectly fit the bill for any scene that called for getting characters and their motor vehicles from point A to point B quickly, efficiently, and out of public view.
But here’s the funny thing: It’s possible to have lived in Los Angeles your entire life and still know the river mainly from the movies. For the vast majority of Angelenos, the L.A. River is simply out of sight, out of mind—certainly no Hudson or Charles or Allegheny, rivers that play such prominent roles in the daily lives of citizens elsewhere. Perhaps the only time Angelenos do give thought to their river is after a period of heavy rainfall, when flooding tends to make local headlines (some of them absolutely heartbreaking).
Whether nature-made or Hollywood-manufactured, drama is certainly what the 51-mile-long L.A. River was built for. Ever since the Army Corps of Engineers channelized the waterway back in the 1940s—in the wake of a 1938 flood that killed more than 100 people and caused $70 million in property damage—it has served, primarily and officially, as a piece of infrastructure meant for flood control.
During the city’s annual rainy season, when all-day torrents aren’t uncommon, the river swells with runoff, sluicing nearly 150,000 cubic feet of water into the ocean every second. But before all that water heads out to sea, it must first slide down the uncountable hard surfaces of one of the world’s most famously paved-over and heavily populated cities. It should come as no surprise, then, that all of this ocean-bound water is thoroughly suffused with toxins and pollutants by the time it flows into the Pacific in the city of Long Beach, southwest of Los Angeles.
Not coincidentally, for millions of people who live near its concrete shores, the river—depending on the season and the circumstances—has long been thought of as either an eyesore or something to be feared. But Los Angeles, famously, is the City of Dreams. And over the past decade, a cross-section of la-la-land residents has launched a protean effort to clean up, revivify, and beautify the Los Angeles River. Initiated by the grass roots, promulgated by environmentalists and academics, and activated by governments at the local, state, and federal levels, the new vision for freeing the L.A. River will be carried forward by the same body responsible for locking it down nearly 80 years ago: the Army Corps of Engineers.
Alternative 20, as the experiment is known, promises to restore riparian health to this long-neglected waterway, which teemed with Chinook salmon and rainbow trout for millennia before the first European settlers arrived. Afterward, it nourished local citrus groves and—until about a century ago—served as the city’s primary source of drinking water. In the bargain, Alternative 20’s sponsors hope that the project will boost civic and economic vitality for scores of communities along the river’s path.
Key to the plan approved by the city council last July will be the literal reshaping of 11 miles of the L.A. River, from downtown Los Angeles to Griffith Park, in order to reconnect it to the habitat, tributaries, and floodplains that the river fed into decades ago. In addition, Alternative 20 will introduce new elements of green infrastructure, such as manmade wetlands, to naturally treat stormwater runoff and help the troubled river “heal” itself. As an outcome, the city will be able to save and reuse millions of gallons of water per day that is currently disappearing into the Pacific.
Everyone—from environmentalists worried about pollution to civic leaders worried about displacement and gentrification to taxpayer watchdog groups on high boondoggle alert—will be watching this billion-dollar experiment closely. If it succeeds, it will present one of the strongest arguments yet for investing time, money, and energy into river restoration projects. But if it doesn’t, then it’s hard to see how the Los Angeles River will ever shake off its typecast image as a massive, filthy drainpipe that occasionally moonlights as a movie set.
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Through the Time Tunnel
One sunny morning in early February, I drive to the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles, just east of downtown. In the parking lot of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Mail Order Building, a dilapidated Art Deco landmark overlooking the river, I meet Evan Skrederstu and Steve Martinez. These two friends, both of them artists in their late thirties, spent a year traversing the channel from one end to the other for the charmingly eccentric book they coedited and published back in 2008, The Ulysses Guide to the Los Angeles River, Vol. 1.
6th Street Bridge from the bottom of the L.A. River
From the trunk of his car, Skrederstu pulls out a pair of rubber boots and strongly recommends that I put them on, which I do. It’s a short but memorable walk from the parking lot to the riverbank: first down an alley that’s shaded by an overpass and covered with graffiti, then through a conveniently human-shaped hole that someone has sliced through a chain-link security fence, and finally over a set of railroad tracks. Our presence goes barely noticed by the small group of homeless men who have set up camp at our point of entry.
“We’ve been through here a million times,” Skrederstu says, as the three of us carefully tiptoe down a steep slope of concrete toward the shallow ribbon of water. “But every time there’s something new—something that shouldn’t be here but is.” One time, Martinez says, someone tossed a giant trash bag filled with brightly colored stuffed animals over the side of a bridge, “and the bag exploded. There were stuffed animals everywhere. It was actually beautiful.” Another discovery, on a different day, was far less whimsical: a cluster of policemen standing around a dead body.
On this particular morning, a bit of green catches my eye. Above our heads, tucked into the cornice of the overpass, a creeping vine has found a way to take root despite the apparent absence of any soil whatsoever. In and around the drainage holes that regularly punctuate the concrete slope, cattail-like plants have popped up to coyly suggest what the riverbank might have looked like back when the first Europeans settled here circa 1770, and for many millennia before that. The sound of our voices disturbs a small flotilla of ducks, who paddle away upon our intrusion.
After about 15 minutes of walking, we arrive at a large culvert. My two guides motion for me to follow them back up the steep bank. I quickly realize that I’ve stepped into a time capsule: Practically every square inch of the tunnel we’re in has been painted and carved over in graffiti, much of it dating from an era when graffiti artists had plenty of strong opinions regarding Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lana Turner.
As Martinez snaps photographs, Skrederstu explains that rail-riding hobos from the 1930s and ’40s liked to jump off slow-moving trains at this spot and camp for a while in the relative shelter of the culvert. Here they could be just a short walk from civilization, yet at the same time utterly and romantically separated from it. Whatever their life circumstances or their socioeconomic class, Skrederstu says, “people want to live by the water; they want to look out onto it. It’s just part of human nature.”
He’s aware that Alternative 20 could, among other things, turn the river into just another gentrified civic asset. That would make it much harder for amateur anthropologists like himself and Martinez to spend their days busting through chain-link fences and wading around in it, lovingly documenting its intrinsic weirdness.
But Skrederstu surprises me with his pragmatism and his understanding of the river’s importance as a critical piece of infrastructure for flood control. “If we can add some form to the function, and make it more beautiful, and make better use of the space, then I think that’s great,” he says. “But we can’t ever forget what the function is.”
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The Choppy Path to Alternative 20
Angelenos got a reminder of how important their namesake river is to this larger goal back in January, when some of the heaviest storms in recent history ravaged the city and pushed the river to its infrastructural limits.
“Streets are tributaries, and at least 300 streets interface with the L.A. River in just the city of L.A. alone,” observes Carol Armstrong. Armstrong is the former director of LA RiverWorks, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s official river revitalization task force; currently she serves as executive officer to the deputy mayor of city services. She is one of a handful of local figures whose names and efforts are sure to be mentioned in any serious discussion of the waterway’s present and future.
Armstrong explains that Alternative 20—whose name hints at the many competing “future visions” for the river that had been under the Army Corps’s consideration—grew out of the Los Angeles River Master Plan that she and others had labored on for many years. “At the time we were crafting the plan, a lot of people weren’t even aware that we had a river, or that the river was valuable,” she says. The way to sell them on the idea that it was worth restoring, Armstrong and other officials realized, was the promise of public green space. “Get people to the river first, and give them public access to it: physical access, visual access, spiritual access, artistic and cultural access, socioeconomic access. But mainly, just get them down to the river, so that they could reconnect with each other and the city.”
But political and jurisdictional tensions stood in the way of a workable plan for a long time, says Sean Hecht, a UCLA Law School professor who has studied closely what might be thought of as the river’s administrative history. “Most of the riverbed is physically inside the city of L.A.,” he tells me one afternoon over iced tea at a UCLA campus food court. “But historically, the city has never had any regulatory authority over the riverbed, the water in the river, or the banks.” Instead, Hecht points out, management of the river has been shared by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. The former, for many decades, had a federal mandate to consider only navigation and flood control when making modifications to the river; the latter has had the unenviable task of juggling the often competing interests of the various municipalities in Los Angeles County through which the river runs.
In 1996, however, Congress expanded the Army Corps’s mandate. For the first time, ecosystem restoration could be considered in any proposed modifications. That widened scope bolstered the hopes of city officials who had been seeking to restore and reconnect the river but who knew they would need the support (and funding) of federal engineers in order for their plan to succeed. With that support and funding, Los Angeles could basically design its own project―so long as city officials stuck to the 32 miles of the river that flow within the actual city limits. Thus was born the master plan, which was finally formalized as Alternative 20—amid much fanfare—in late 2014.
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Glimpsing the Future
So what might an 11-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River between downtown L.A. and Griffith Park look like once Alternative 20 is realized?
According to Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), the grassroots advocacy organization that many credit with galvanizing the public and civic consciousness that turned the master plan into actual policy, Alternative 20 represents “the Holy Grail of river restoration.” As the lovingly worded text on FOLAR’s website describes it, the new vision of the L.A. River features “step-like, terraced banks” of lush vegetation in place of concrete, a series of smaller channels and tributaries to divert the water’s flow, and open spaces and habitat reclaiming former industrial parcels of land, “creating wetlands in the heart of urban Los Angeles.” The organization also notes that the new and improved river will be morphologically adaptable, capable of expanding naturally “to create additional flood control capacity, better protecting the surrounding neighborhoods.”
It will also save incredible amounts of water, according to Joel Reynolds, NRDC’s Los Angeles–based western director. For well over a decade, Reynolds has been intimately involved with plans to restore the river’s health and improve its water quality. Reynolds says he is most excited about Alternative 20’s potential for water conservation in a region where the water supply can never be taken for granted. With the aid of dams, spreading grounds, and engineered wetlands, some experts believe the revitalization effort could yield an additional 384,000 acre-feet of clean groundwater every year. That’s enough to serve the daily needs of 1.5 million people.
“We built a city on a desert, we import our water, we use it one time, and then we just dump it right off the coast,” Reynolds says. “The fact that every single day we’re dumping hundreds of millions of gallons of fresh water off our coast—which we could be cleaning up and recycling—makes no sense.”
On my last full day in Los Angeles, I drive to the tip-top of neighboring Pasadena to meet the one man that Reynolds, Sean Hecht, Carol Armstrong, and Evan Skrederstu all reverently acknowledge as the avatar of Alternative 20: FOLAR cofounder Lewis MacAdams. A poet and cultural critic who came up in the heyday of the 1950s and ’60s counterculture, MacAdams is the rare environmental activist who’s as likely to cite the Conceptual artist Robert Smithson or the absurdist rock-and-roll bandleader Ed Sanders as an inspiration for his work as he is to credit ecology movement icons like Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey.
Forty years ago, as a relatively recent transplant to Los Angeles, MacAdams began holding events along the waterway near his home in the city’s Silver Lake neighborhood. Paraphrasing the old hymn, he tells me that “when I started FOLAR, I saw it as basically a ‘gathering down by the river.’ There’s always been that kind of spiritual element to what we’ve done.” In the decades that followed, MacAdams, through FOLAR, would become the Los Angeles River’s most vocal and visible champion. What began as a handful of volunteer friends meeting to pick up river trash has blossomed into the Great L.A. River Cleanup, an annual event that’s now the largest of its kind in the United States. Last year, more than 9,000 people took part and removed more than 70 tons of refuse. FOLAR also sponsors field trips for schoolchildren and kayak and walking tours of the river (in its more bucolic and navigable stretches).
But at the same time that he was finding new ways to bring his fellow Angelenos down to the river, MacAdams was also working feverishly to shape the public policy that would eventually give rise to Alternative 20. Now, at age 72, he may no longer have the energy to lead as many cleanup marathons or kayaking trips as he once did, but he still takes immense satisfaction from knowing that his efforts to honor and protect the river have borne beautiful fruit: His private passion has become a public cause.
“People want to believe in things,” MacAdams tells me. “I really had to do surprisingly little to encourage it; all I did was talk about the river in the same way that you would talk about a member of your family. You want your family to prosper and survive. You want the river that runs through the heart of your city to prosper and survive, too.” (One convert to the cause is world-renowned architect and Los Angeles resident Frank Gehry, who recently accepted a commission by Mayor Garcetti to draft a brand-new master plan for the river in its entirety—an invitation that might not have been tendered but for the new wave of optimism that Alternative 20’s approval has engendered.)
Guided by MacAdams’s example, Angelenos are about to get a river—or, for now, 11 miles of one—that is healthy, beautiful, and above all sustainable. And when other cities see what L.A. has done with its river that was once so famous for being dry, desolate, and denatured, can it really be long before they try to follow suit?
“People just had to believe that it was possible, that’s all,” says MacAdams. “Give people a sense of possibility, and they’ll take it the rest of the way.”
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.