Over the weekend I finally biked the LA River Bike Path, more specifically, the Elysian Valley Bicycle & Pedestrian Path through the area known as the Glendale Narrows. It was one of those days that made me proud to call Los Angeles home.
Although lined with concrete and plant communities dominated by invasive species, the highly modified river is home to many. Hundreds of species of migrating birds use the LA River for food and shelter, and many of the birds you see in Los Angeles County can be seen along the channelized river. Great blue herons, egrets, red-winged black birds, and red-tailed hawks are just a few. In the soft-bottom areas of the river one can find many species of fish (even a fisherman or two), although few are native. In some portions of the river the federally threatened Santa Ana sucker and arroyo chub can still be found. Butterflies and moths flock to both native and non-native plants found along the riverbanks. Less glamourous urban mammals such as domesticated cats, skunks, rats, and raccoons find repose along the banks of the river.
Historically the river had a natural riparian edge much wider than what you see today. During floods the water would spread across the coastal plain and plant communities developed that were adapted to flooding. Meadows with a diversity of plants and a forest cover of cottonwood, alder trees, and willows provided habitat and river bank stabilization. As Los Angeles urbanized, becoming less permeable, flooding became a real problem. In 1934 the La Crescenta flood disaster caused LA to seek assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This resulted in a highly altered and channelized river condition – more than 30 miles of concrete – to develop between the years of 1938 and 1970. The 8-mile section of the Glendale Narrows was left with a natural bottom and researchers have found a diverse fish population, both native and nonnative, with surprisingly low levels of toxicity. This is thought to be in part because of the area’s natural bottom, but also because of the quality of the water coming from reclamation plants upstream.
Today up to 80% of the water found in the river during dry seasons is reclaimed waste water from the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, the City of Burbank Water Reclamation Plant, and the Glendale Water Reclamation Plant. These water reclamation plants have actually reduced the levels of bacteria and other pollutants in the River. There is a dominance of organisms that are more tolerant of pollution in the biological communities downstream, further from the water reclamation plants upstream. In a way the abundance of life one sees in the LA River is a product of both human and non-human technologies, inevitably intertwined, for better or worse.
How can we adapt to, embrace, and enhance the present conditions of the highly altered LA River? We need to learn from the abundant life currently lining its banks. We need to look back while continuing to move forward. We need to develop hybrid technologies inspired by human and nonhuman cultures. It’s already happening. Beyond a fascination with how plants and wildlife can survive in highly disturbed areas we can embrace these species and their technologies to further improve the ecological function and beauty of our urban watershed.