Two Faces of the LA River - from LA River Pix

If you have spent any time exploring even a bit of the LA River, you have no doubt seen its many different landscapes and incarnations, I have found and stumbled upon many of these in my journeys to photograph it. Last week I was shooting for a client who needed some printed photos of the Sepulveda Basin to display in a nearby housing development. Most of the river throughout the Basin is pretty calm and flat-watered as it runs a fairly straight course to the Dam at the southeastern end of the Recreation area.

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Nurdles

I woke up this morning to the news the California State Senate failed to pass a ban on plastic bags, really sad news and a disgusting example of our government for sale. The havoc these bags cause to our oceans and waterways is devastating to fish, wildlife and ultimately us. Toxins such as Phthalates, that leach from the plastic, as well as pollutants that adhere themselves to the macro plastic particles, get into the food chain as more and more of the fish we eat mistake these macro particles for their food.

A lot of people are aware of the problems with plastic bags, but many may not know that another culprit is a benignly named little bugger called the nurdle. Nurdles are pre-production plastic pellets and resin materials typically under 5mm in diameter, that are used in the production and manufacturing of thousands of the products we use. Over 250 billion pounds of nurdles are shipped each year, and many, many of them fall off of railroad cars and ships, and then find their way to our oceans and beaches.

It is estimated that about 10% of the litter found on beaches worldwide are nurdles. I roamed a beach in Seal Beach, just south of Long Beach, to find hundreds of them lying around the beach, I can tell you the story is the same on most any other beach you might find yourself beach-combing on. Nurdles are just part of the family of plastic trash that is caught in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre that wash up on our beaches and get ingested by birds and fish. Atolls in the Hawaiian archipelago like Kure and Midway are littered with plastic debris and the carcasses of albatrosses that migrate there and eat the plastic particles, and either suffocate or starve to death. The graphic example of what was found inside the belly of an albatross is courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, an organization that is doing extraordinary work in the areas of research and education concerning plastic in our oceans.

There is no easy way to wrap this up I’m afraid, passage of the plastic bag ban would have been a good start. This leaves it up to local cities and towns to institute bans, which has already started to happen in towns like San Francisco and Palo Alto, with other cities like Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach soon to follow. As long as the chemistry and petroleum industry has millions of dollars to spend swaying the votes of our legislators, it will be a long hard fought battle each time.

The LA River is a river

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.

Water: The New Oil

We're going heavy on the pictures and light on the text this week. I had a post about gardening ready to go, but the ongoing nightmare in the Gulf made me think about our water, waterways and oceans and how we have taken it all for granted for so long. I went through my library and pulled out an assortment of images I have shot over the years that relate to water and show the human impact on it. There have been a number of articles of late that call water the new oil, a term referring to the growing scarcity of potable water in many parts of the world due to drought, and the territorial conflicts that will continue to arise out of the shortage. The term now has a horrible irony in light of current events.

Not only is water becoming scarcer, but it is becoming more toxic and polluted, and not just from major catastrophes like oil spills, but by the daily dumping of garbage, plastic, industrial waste and sewage. The fact is we all have choices we can make on a daily basis, and it is up to each of us to take responsibility for the things within our power to change. I'm feeling preachy today, but there really are so many things we can all do to help - water conservation, using natural non toxic products, and our use of plastic. Consider the fact that every piece of plastic ever created still exists somewhere, and will do so for years and years to come. Do you really need to buy disposable plastic water bottles, or could you use a re-usable bottle and filter your tap water? Think about how much money you would save, as well as the damage you would be preventing. If you do use plastic, recycle it as well as all the other items that your city or town will let you. I once heard a woman say that she doesn't feel like recycling, I didn't realize it was about feelings.

I get angry when I see things get to the point where it is too late, like it may be for the Gulf. That tipping point is being fast approached on many fronts and there is no one other than ourselves who can do anything about it. Are we willing to make at least small changes to our lifestyle, to make small sacrifices, to change our buying habits? There is a lot to blame big oil for, good reason to point the finger at government regulators, but we are the consumers, and as long we support and buy their products, they will continue to produce those products that pollute and endanger our planet and environment. End of sermon!

The Winter Rains

Last Winter's rains here in Los Angeles provided an opportunity for me to photograph something I have been interested in for a while, the difference between the normal river flow and the urban runoff created by major rainstorms. The contrast can be quite dramatic.

Ballona Creek during Rain Storm and Normal Water Flow

First a little background. The Los Angeles River is probably most famous for being in movies like Terminator, Them and a host of other films that made use of its paved banks for dramatic car chases and such. Some people don’t even realize that it is a real river, but the first settlers to Los Angeles made their encampments along the banks of the river, that is until the first rainy season, when the river flooded their camp and the rising waters of the river did what they have always done, drain the Los Angeles Basin after a rainstorm and charge down the river to empty into the sea at what is now Long Beach and Playa Del Rey.  In the thirties, the floods got so bad they destroyed many homes and buildings near the river, which eventually led the Army Corps of Engineers to pave the river in order to help the waters rush out to the sea faster with less risk of flooding. A good idea for the thirties perhaps, but in a time when we spend untold amounts of money and energy to pump water over hills and valleys all the way from the Sacramento Delta for drinking and irrigation, it makes little to no sense. So much of our rainwater could be captured and used for irrigation and other greywater uses.

Los Angeles River after Rain Storm and Normal Water Flow

Although the before and after shots of the Ballona Creek were taken on different days, I watched over a 45 minute rainy span, the waters go from a gentle flow to the raging waters that you see in the picture.

I have seen images of the LA River during rains on television, usually involving a dog being rescued or such, but I was unprepared to see it up close. Paths along the banks that I had strolled along were completely covered by the torrent, and although the color of the LA River is not what I would normally call crystal clear, after the rains it is brown, mucky, sludgy brown.

Cranes picking up garbage debris from the LA River after first rain of the season in Long Beach

Did I mention the garbage? If you stand on a bridge above the river, you can see a steady stream of plastic bags, styrofoam cups and an assortment of nasty looking debris that only minutes before had been lying peacefully on some Los Angles street minding its own business. They don’t call it urban runoff for nothing! If you ever wondered why the Pacific Ocean is filled with so much garbage, plastic and other junk, it all starts on some street in LA, Tokyo or other populated Pacific rim location, where the litter that humanity lazily disposes of, waits patiently for the rains to come and send it along its merry way down the storm drains and pipes, and eventually to the river or some other channel that leads to the ocean.

I went down to the mouth of the LA River in Long Beach after the first rain of the season last October where there is a garbage boom that attempts to collect as much floating debris as it can before it heads out to sea. After the first major storm of the season, the boom may collect over 50,000 pounds of trash. But if that is what it catches, one can only imagine how much it doesn’t catch.

Garbage boom on the Los Angeles River in Long Beach

As a photographer I am attracted to power and beauty, the LA River and Ballona Creek have an abundance of both despite some of the ugliness. But that ugliness is not theirs, the rivers are simply the repositories of our neglect and short-term thinking. There are many efforts to clean up the LA River and some long range plans to revitalize it. In future posts I will show some of the places where the LA River is still in its unpaved natural state. If we can someday bring the rest of the river back to this state, never again will anyone wonder if the LA River is in a fact a real river, it will be evident to all.

Welcome to the first post of Citizen of the Planet.

I once heard David Burnett, the famous photojournalist, say that photographers get to parachute in and out of other people’s lives. I always thought that was a great way of describing what we do. My camera has always allowed me to enter places and worlds I would never have found otherwise, allowing me to learn a little bit about a lot of things, and sometimes a lot about a few things. Along the way I am usually privileged to meet some very interesting people. That is why I love what I do. What I have discovered shooting a lot of the environmental and Green stories these last few years, is that quite often those interesting places and people are in my own backyard.

Dolphins and Oil Derrick in Catalina Channel

I had been shooting mostly travel subjects for as long as I can remember and even started my own photo agency, Ambient Images, that specialized in travel photos from New York and California. But a few years ago I wanted to move in another direction, to possibly get back to the photojournalistic roots that first took hold of me and my camera some twenty five years ago. It was obvious to me that the big story of our time was what was happening to our planet. On one hand the planet was under assault from the encroaching and gluttonous needs of mankind. Species were dying, the earth was warming and the precious air and water that our lives depended on, were becoming fouler and fouler with each day.

Helicopter dropping water on Sylmar wildfire

On the other hand, there are all the people who have been awakened to the earth’s plight and who have not sat idly or blindly by as these irreversible travesties continued to blight our planet. Technology was changing at seemingly lightning speed to help us meet our energy needs from alternative sources, and battles were being waged to preserve our waters, our air and our health from further erosion. There were many who were making great and sometimes even just small sacrifices to bring attention to these things, so that the rest of us might take off our blinders long enough to see that action was going to be required on all our parts if we wanted our children to inherit something even resembling the planet and glorious natural world that we are still privileged to live in. These heroes are often just our neighbors who spend a day cleaning a beach or river, or it might be a couple of guys who sail across an ocean on a raft, or the family that spends a year living without the normal amenities of life because of their negative impact on the environment.

Heal the bay Clean up at Venice Beach

The first event I photographed was a beach clean up in Venice for Heal the Bay, a well known and longstanding organization that is dedicated to the clean up and education of all matters relating to Santa Monica Bay. I have gone on to work with FoLAR – Friends of the LA River, LA Conservation Corps, the Million Trees LA Initiative out of the Los Angles Mayors office, CBE – Communities for a Better Environment, LA Eco-Village and others.

The "Junk" raft sails from Long Beach to Hawaii

The most interesting story I have done so far was that of the “Junk” raft. Over several months I followed the preparations of Marcus Eriksen and Joel Pascal as they built and made ready to sail their Kon Tiki like raft, made from 15,000 plastic bottles and an airplane fuselage, 2100 miles from Long Beach to Hawaii to bring awareness to the North Pacific Gyre and the floating plastic soup that is permeating the Ocean and infiltrating our food supply. I was lucky enough to be on the ORV Alguita, Captain Charlie Moore's 50 foot Catamaran that towed them out to sea for four days to help them on their way for the ten week journey. We hit a gale on our third day out, an interesting experience for this born and bred New York City boy. I am proud to say that I did not get sea sick, a feat I attribute to riding the New York subways for most of my life.

Plastic Water Bottle Floating in Pacific Ocean

After that trip I would never see a plastic water bottle or  bag the same way. The theme of plastic in our rivers and oceans continues to attract my camera as well as the story of water in Los Angeles in general. Anyone who knows a bit of Los Angeles history or has seen the movie Chinatown, knows how important and critical a role water plays in the dynamic ecosystem of Southern California.

I have come to understand that our own backyards are simply microcosms of what is occurring elsewhere, and that the hard work and spirit that is happening in one neighborhood, is repeated hundreds and thousands of times over in communities in this country and around the planet.

Los Angeles River Expedition in 2008, Glendale Narrows

I hope to show show in this blog, through the use of pictures and words, what is happening in my backyard of Los Angeles and Southern California. I will do my best to make it entertaining as well as educational. I will of course be traveling and showing you the result of those exploits, and I also intend to invite guest photographers to show their work here from time to time, something I am very excited about. Please offer your comments, your critiques and your corrections. I am new at this blogging thing and your input will help me guide me and teach me. Breathe deeply and be well.