Posts tagged San Gabriel River

Jessica, Jenni, Chuan, and Wendy searching for sea turtles along the San Gabriel River. Photos by Jenni Zell.

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of exploring the Lower San Gabriel River and Los Cerritos Wetlands with colleagues, students, and Professor Barry Lehrman of Cal Poly Pomona. We abandoned our computers for the day to  set out to explore the waterways by kayak, bicycle, and on foot with the express purpose of direct and unmediated experience of this landscape, and also to collect primary perceptions to inform meaningful design.

I was there for adventure and to provide support AHBE’s collaborative studio with fourth-year landscape architecture students at Cal Poly Pomona. The students are spending their winter term exploring the speculative transformation of the AES Alamitos and the DWP Haynes power generating facilities from fossil fuel burning behemoths into something still yet unimagined (my colleague Brett Miller wrote about the collaboration).

Jessica and Chuan in the San Gabriel River channel. Photos by Jenni Zell.

The AHBE staff is playing a mentorship role again, collaborating with the senior Cal Poly Pomona studio to work together on a Long Beach remediation project exploring …

As we rode our bicycles along the levee of the soft-bottomed channel of the San Gabriel River we witnessed dozens of large silvery fish jumping out of the river with the seeming symmetry and choreography of a Busby Berkeley dance. Biologist Eric Zahn later informed me the fish were striped mullet, a species of fish commonly found in coastal estuaries and in the lower reaches of coastal streams.

Wendy and Chuan stopping to check out where the river channel transitions from a concrete lined waterway to a soft-bottomed flow.

But, why were these fish jumping? Striped mullet are known to feed on organic detritus like diatoms, bacteria, and micro-invertebrates. The fish were not trying to catch insects for food; and unlike topsmelt, which jump to avoid being eaten, the stripped mullet are about 18” and 3 pounds in size and had little need to jump to escape predators. According to Eric, we don’t really know why the fish jump.

During our bicycle ride we also observed several Pacific green sea turtles, a docile species occasionally found swimming in the San Gabriel River.

It is essential for landscape architects to know the occurrence and distribution of plant and animal communities in order to protect and restore critical ecosystem functions and to better understand how plants and animals respond to various conditions. The relationship between ecological science and design must be strengthened in our profession. AHBE’s collaboration with Cal Poly Pomona students is one effort to focus on the complex infrastructure of human modification and natural systems.

at coyotes creek
Not too long ago, my partner and I took a 12 mile roundtrip bike ride to visit one of AHBE’s project sites, the El Dorado Nature Center. Found along the San Gabriel River Bike Trail, the 105 acres of natural habitat offers an urban sanctuary for plants and animals.

entrance to sg river trail

We got onto the trail by the Long Beach – Seal Beach border along the Pacific Coast Highway, where a ramp connects the highway to the trail.

Along the way we pedaled past the LADWP Haynes Generating Station, a large gas steam power plant, hardly scenic if nature is on the agenda. But across this industrial site was a different landscape altogether, where the river has maintained some of the recognizable features of a natural waterway: a soft bottom river with birds occupying the surface, its banks stabilized with rocks and occasional plant material instead of concrete.


A few miles up the trail, Coyote Creek flows into the San Gabriel River. It is at this confluence where the concrete flood control channel starts and continues up until Downey, where the river returns to a soft bottom waterway, continuing up into the San Gabriel Mountains. The bike trail itself ends at the Santa Fe Dam, close to where the 605 freeway ends in Duarte.
The San Gabriel River is usually overshadowed by its neighboring Southland conduit, the Los Angeles River. But in fact, this other major river shares a similar history of manmade infrastructure forever changing the river’s flow (and in turn, the river helping change the city of Los Angeles as a major source of gravel, source, and rock to supply concrete manufacturing). And also like the Los Angeles River, I believe the San Gabriel River offers the potential to become so much more in the future than what we see today. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works teamed up with various stakeholders from cities, public agencies, and community groups to prepare a Master Plan to illustrate a vision for a river corridor designed with flood protection, native habitats, recreational opportunities, and economic value for the community.

The Master Plan includes trail enhancements, educational centers, bridges, gateways and connections, parks and open space, redevelopment and reclamation, habitat enhancement, and water quality and supply projects. Projects vary along the river, depending upon the various environmental, geographical, recreational, and social contexts surrounding the river.

rio hondo aerial 1

An aerial view of the Rio Hondo Coastal Spreading Ground, an important site for groundwater recharge.

AHBE Landscape Architects has already been involved in several Master Plan related projects, including the Rio Hondo Coastal Spreading Grounds and the El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach (mentioned above). The Rio Hondo Coastal Spreading Grounds include enhancements to the bike trail, trail heads, and other landscape areas surrounded by recharging basins that re-supply the local aquifer.

El Dorado
The El Dorado Nature Center will start construction this year after the nesting season. I look forward to riding along these new San Gabriel River corridor features as they’re completed in the coming years.