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Rehabilitating the Los Angeles River

This article was written by Worldchanging Los Angeles local blogger Foster Kerrison in January 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
Rehabilitating the Los Angeles River

Last Saturday I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the Los Angeles River by those who know it best: the non-profit advocacy group Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR). FOLAR are the premier advocate for rehabilitating the river, and I jumped at the chance to join them for what I knew would be a fantastic day.

Our tour leaders were FOLAR outreach director Joe Linton, and environmental writer Jenny Price. They did not disappoint, providing us with a comprehensive look at the many faces of the river. Over the course of the day we stopped at five different locations, covering everything from the verdant, almost-natural Glendale Narrows area, to the incredibly industrial jungle of Vernon/Maywood.

Prior to taking the tour, my main impression of the river was the view I got as I crossed it on the Metro Gold Line, between the Lincoln Heights and Chinatown stops. Occasionally I had seen what I thought were birds wading and swimming in the river, and I was curious to know what they were. I brought my binoculars along for the tour, and was completely shocked by the diversity of bird species that use the river as habitat. According to my notes, we observed 17 different species, including three species of duck that I had never seen before! Who would have guessed that the LA River could be host to such biodiversity? I had certainly never heard of it as a common destination for birdwatchers.

Of course, the reason the river isn’t a popular destination is due to its highly unnatural condition as a concrete-lined channel wandering through some of the city’s most industrial areas. This is why FOLAR’s river tours are such a great idea. You get to visit multiple stops in a comfortable bus, feeling confident as you travel with a large group of people, and benefiting from the knowledge of experienced guides who know the river like the back of their hands. As you stop in more and more places, you become more and more comfortable with the river and its environs, become ever more fearless in your explorations. I certainly plan to come back to the river to walk, bike, and of course, see some more birds.

Article Photo

[PART II: Sepulveda Basin]

We began our tour at the offices of the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), in the River Center building near the intersection of the 5 and 110 freeways. The historic old building originally housed the Lawry’s Spice Company headquarters, and now is the home of many non-profit groups that advocate for open space and river revitalization. Our chariot for the day was a warm and comfortable tour bus, which provided great views of the river as we drove from stop to stop.

1st Stop: Sepulveda Flood Control Basin
The Sepulveda Basin is a 225 acre area that combines both “active�? recreation (soccer and baseball fields) with “passive�? recreation (natural areas, ponds, marshes). The area is free of permanent buildings because it is designed to attenuate (hold back) water in an area that floods during seasonal rain events, protecting downstream areas. As such, the Army Corps of Engineers has recently been doing some work in the area, stripping vegetation from the river banks to ensure that water will be able to collect behind the dam unobstructed.

Tour leader Joe Linton noted that most of the water we saw flowing in the river was actually imported from Northern California, used by local residents, cleaned to a tertiary treatment level, and then released into the river. 60 million gallons of this treated wastewater is released each day from the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant. This means that, for much of the year, the Los Angeles River has more water flowing through it than ever before, although this flow is completely unnatural.

At this stop, tour co-leader Jenny Price gave the group a primer on the issue of urban runoff. Due to the impervious surfaces (surfaces water cannot pass through) such as pavement, roofs, and concrete that cover the LA Basin, 85% of the precipitation that falls in the area washes directly into the river, carrying with it trash, heavy metals, petroleum, pet waste, and other nasty pollutants. This is the reason LA’s beaches have so many issues with pollution after wet periods. Jenny noted that prior to the urbanization of the area, only 8% of precipitation would runoff the land into the river. The other 92% was absorbed by the soil, recharging the groundwater.

If more land could be developed using new materials that allow water to filter through to the soil, it would have the triple benefits of cleaning the water via filtration, recharging the groundwater, and allowing LA to reduce water imports by relying more on local groundwater sources. To achieve these goals, FOLAR promotes the creation of parks along the river to help filter runoff through natural areas before it enters the river, a method proven to reduce the pollutants in urban runoff.

We saw plenty of wildlife in this area, including a rarely seen type of hawk: the white-tailed kite. There were lots of areas to get close to water, and tons of open space.

I highly recommend that everyone who is interested in learning about the great, much maligned resource that is the Los Angeles River takes this wonderful tour. The tour is next offered on Saturday, February 17th from 10 am -4:30 pm, led by Jenny Price. To be placed on the list of attendees, visit FOLAR’s Riverwalk webpage to reserve your spot with PayPal.

For a preview, check out two other accounts of the tour here and here.

LA River Tours is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Thanks so much for this story. I grew up in the SF Valley and owned my first home near the Sepulveda Dam Basin. As a little kid I was always fascinated by the concrete L.A. River, which was frequently bone-dry until the rains hit. Then the channel would surge. My dad always thought the river could be utilized for transportation somehow, as it snakes through the metropolis down to the Pacific. While we imported our water from northern California, we'd watch as fresh rainfall hit the impervious asphalt and cement and wash away. It seemed insane.

Posted by: Suzanne on 13 Sep 08

I was on that same January 2007 bus tour. Awesome! Great write-up. I also have a photo essay at


Posted by: Rick Berry on 18 Sep 08



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