I love the Los Angeles River. I honestly have to say that I wasn’t exactly sure what is was the first few times I saw it, but I found it to be a fascinating place to explore and photograph. On July 8, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told me what it is, something many people had already known, that the LA River is a “traditional navigable water,” in other words, it’s a river.
Jackson made the announcement at Compton Creek, one of the LA Rivers tributaries, to a crowd of applauding supporters. This was a great day for many of the people I know who have worked so hard to bring this day to fruition, among them: Lewis MacAdams, Shelly Backlar, Ramona Marks and Alicia Katano, the folks at, and formerly at FoLAR (Friends of the Los Angeles River); Joe Linton of LA Creek Freak; and George Wolfe, LA’s own Vasco de Gama, who led a three day kayak expedition in 2008 down the length of the 51 mile long river, to prove that it was indeed navigable. He succeeded, not only in completing the trip, but by proving to the Army Corp of Engineers that the river was deserving of the term and the protection it afforded under the Clean Water Protection Act. Now the EPA has made it official. This will mean cleaner water in the river and higher restrictions for development along and near the river’s banks.
The day I started to understand how beautiful and complicated the LA River was, was during a tour of it sponsored by FoLAR and led by naturalist Jenny Price. We started off at the Sepulveda Basin, one of two stretches of the river that is still soft bottomed, just North of the Sepulveda Dam. I stood on the river’s edge and looked up river and saw nothing but lush green growth lining its banks, and ducks, egrets, stilts and other waterfowl seemed to be everywhere. This was not the cement lined flood channel that I had seen in movies or from above when flying in and out of LAX. This looked like a river.
I also saw for the first time, the ubiquitous plastic bags that I would get to know so well. They were hanging from trees, leftover from past rains and rising waters, some fluttering in the wind like tattered flags, others knotted up in thick plastic balls that looked permanently adhered to whatever tree limb they had formed around. A sad juxtaposition to natural beauty I had just discovered.
That same morning would be the first time I saw a boat go down the river as well. Emerging from the up river greenery came a small yellow ocean kayak that then beached itself on the river bank. George Wolfe, the aforementioned leader of the LA River expedition, popped out and joined our merry tour to give us a brief talk about boating on the river. George would later ask me to help photograph the 2008 expedition, something I was able to do for about a day and a half before succumbing to a dastardly flu that sidelined me quite definitively for the weekend. I have always regretted not following the whole trip, but I was able to witness a bit of history being made and the beginning of some new found respect and recognition for the LA River.
I grew up in lower Manhattan, and spent much of my youth playing along the banks and piers of the Hudson River. The Hudson back then was viewed as a disgusting, toxic brew that you wouldn’t consider getting close to, let alone swimming in. Years later, through the efforts of many, the river was cleaned up quite remarkably. I had the chance to noodle around in a kayak off the Canal Street Pier one day, and as I bounced along with the small waves around me, I realized that I had never actually been that close to the River. I was even getting wet, something that would have required a major decontamination years earlier. I loved it, and that experience enabled me to see the Hudson as a real river. I hope that the new classification of the LA River allows others to have that same awakening, and that we can all start to not only appreciate the beauty of the river, but to get in it and enjoy it as well.