Bringing Public Access to the LA River
To most Angelenos, the Los Angeles River is a concrete eyesore, but as I kayaked down it a few weeks ago, it was a river like any other you’d float across the West. No longer is the river only accessible to film crews seeking to film 50s greaser car races or an LA of the apocalyptic future starring our former Governator. Yes, you can kayak the LA River and chances are you’ll want to do it again.
Since paving sections of the river in the 1950s to control flooding, the LA River has become a classic indicator you’re in a city that prizes laying concrete over preserving nature. But all of that has been changing thanks to local advocacy efforts of residents seeking to revitalize the region’s most iconic waterway.
Permits from the Army Corps of Engineers currently allow guided tours by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps and LA River Expeditions of small groups entering the river near Encino. Our tour in late August went through what’s known as the Sepulveda Basin in the San Fernando Valley. Tickets for the kayak tour sold out almost immediately this summer, as they did last summer, the first time these trips were offered to the public.
About half our group of 10 had never kayaked before and we only had one minor incident of someone falling into the river during our tour. But, this being the LA River during August, he just had to stand up and found himself in water up to about his waist. The water was only a few feet deep throughout the entire trip, but provided a lush ecosystem along the banks housing multiple types of heron—we saw great blue, green, and a night heron (which looked like an emperor penguin while standing)—along with snowy egrets, red-tailed hawks and various fish and aquatic species (including a globe spider), indicating a robust ecology dependent on a healthy river.
We traveled along a soft bottom section of the river, whereas other sections near homes and businesses are generally paved. There are a number of soft bottom, or natural, sections of the river and through the revitalization process, there’s hope to rip out more of the concrete sections to allow nature back in.
The section we traveled was unique in that it looked very much like other rivers I've kayaked. There was abundant vegetation lining the banks, along with natural water ledges and small tributaries channeling to the river. However, the plastic bags, dozens of abandoned and rusting shopping carts, and various trash in trees (sleeping bags, blankets, clothing) were a constant reminder we were in a major city and flood channel that picks up trash and funnels it to the sea where it is dumped, mostly untreated, affecting the health of our coastal ecosystems and beachgoers.
Tours of the river are offered only a few months of the year, but due to their overwhelming popularity every year more tours are offered and they are now available seven days a week, in an effort to get as many people experiencing the river first-hand as possible. Everyone in my tour group was amazed the river was actually a navigable river and couldn’t wait to take another trip. Here’s hoping the tours continue, more of the river becomes accessible to the public and the river receives the attention it deserves as Angelenos take ownership of our region’s most overlooked natural resource.