At this point, you are surely aware of the recent resistance of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, more popularly recognized as NoDAPL. What is it that stimulated so many thousands of people to travel from their respective communities all over the globe to show up for a river they’ve never heard of, alongside strangers in a setting that challenges those foreign to it? In our own communities, there are bodies of water that need attention, neighbors who need our help, and relationships that need nurturing. We all have a Missouri River, we each have a Standing Rock.
Running 51 miles through Southern California from Canoga Park in the west San Fernando Valley to Long Beach is the LA River. Despite it’s controversial environmental significance and our sole river in Los Angeles County, many residents have neither visited nor heard of it. Some who’ve seen it may think it’s only a storm drain. The once free-flowing LA River was a thriving riparian ecosystem upon which the Tongva tribe lived and countless species of plants and animals relied on. In the early 20th century following a devastating flood, the river was channelized by the Army Corps of Engineers. Not only did this significantly alter it from it’s natural state, but it also changed the communities along it’s path. Originally, it was an alluvial flood plain whose course shifted with the water flow, providing a diversity of habitats much different from what we see now. I strain to imagine what it may have looked like for the indigenous people who called it home, before the pollution and concrete, before it became what it is now. Despite that the upper portion of the watershed is predominantly forest or open space, the LA River no longer supports a healthy or diverse population of plants and wildlife. The channelization of the river degraded the remaining habitat values and disconnected significant ecological zones. The 870-acre watershed drains through the 2nd largest urban region in the US (looking at you LA) and into two of the world’s busiest ports. The waste from this highly developed area is transported via the water out to the Pacific Ocean, functioning not unlike a storm drain lined with concrete. I can’t help but wonder if we can still call it a river, so far a deviation from what it once was.
Yesterday a friend that I met at Standing Rock came to visit me at home in Los Angeles. I took him down to the LA River, a scar through our city that, due to an unusually wet winter, has become a flood zone for trash and runoff. Trees are unintentionally decorated with old balloons, t-shirts and disposable cups from further upstream, it’s become something beautiful in and of itself, like some kind of art installation that reflects on the human condition. A trash paradise. But The LA River isn’t supposed to be a throughway for this itinerant waste, and it is not a living sculpture by a contemporary artist. It’s a river that has been mishandled, under-advocated for, and policed by a human desire for power through infrastructure. What affect is missing in our relationships to local struggle, that we feel more when we learn of crisis throughout the world?
If we’re operating on the plane of affect, perhaps there’s something to be learned from the movement of water itself. Water, on a molecular level, is both adhesive and cohesive. The molecules attract each other and then with their collective ability are able to literally climb en masse. Water is also highly reactive, and as our bodies are made up mostly of water, we too are reactive, especially as a collective body. Rather than individual molecules moving on the basis of their own energy, large volumes move together in bulk. How can we popularize local struggles in order to experience collective unity like we see with water?
An important narrative found in resistance is on the basis of unity, but also of despair. At Standing Rock, we bore witness to the coming together of an immeasurable variety of efforts as we watched the last beads of hope trickle out of grasp. At the confluence of the presidential election and the public assaults on peaceful water protectors, it was the struggle to accept such sadness, a visceral reaction to despair, that ignited a movement of unity. We can see this in the story of water all over. The many instances of industrial contamination, severe drought, economic disempowerment, and a whole trove of other water-related issues are not reconciled solely by our desire for equal access or a “one love” activist mindset.
In LA, many local non-governmental organizations have worked tirelessly to revitalize the river in order to again support a healthy ecosystem. The path toward this restoration is long-term and riddled with obstacles. Once considered a biodiversity hotspot, the LA River Basin is now more of an unfortunate display of the city’s historically poor relationship to our natural resources. Many grassroots efforts are actively working to change this. The LA River is protected by the Clean Water Act and the Public Trust, in addition to non-governmental organizations that are focused on restoration of the river’s ecosystem. The recommended plan known as Alternative 20, estimates 719 acres will be restored at a total cost of $1.31 billion. Could we one day see it used for drinking water? Not likely. But we can hope to see native species return and see a future that draws communities to it in unity with each other and the land.
Perhaps dreams to fully restore the river to what is once was are both stagnating and impossible. We can, however, look to examples around the world to aid in imagining what the LA River could one day become if we don’t reel back industrial impact both now and after the restoration. Take for example, the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia. Before colonial settlement, The Yarra was a healthy, perennial waterway that supported indigenous communities who used it’s resources sustainably. Over time, the river was widened and reshaped to accommodate infrastructure. The industrialization of the river and nearby areas contributed major pollutants to the river such that it is no longer safe even for recreation. Even worse, these pollutants not only impact the river’s ecosystem and neighboring communities, but also make their way to the sea.
So what river restoration projects have been successful that might inform our perspective on the future of the LA River? In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers straightened the Kissimmee River in Central Florida much like they did to the LA River in 1938. It too, created an ecological disaster, though on a bigger scale. However, after the start of a billion-dollar restoration, the river is again finding a heartbeat through its natural meanders. In addition to that, working with the natural flows of the river is shedding light on healthier water-management practices. Restoration of the river is helping sort out issues concerning access to drinking water, as well as the sources of recreation and tourism upon with Florida’s economy heavily relies. A different success story can be found in Utrecht, the capital of the Netherlands, where an unnecessary motorway was recently removed to bring back an old city canal. The return of the canal not only returns the city to an earlier condition, but also created a platform for city-planners to reconsider how they think of traffic and movement.
The future of the LA River is not undetermined. The multi-billion dollar plans land us in a vision somewhere between the canals of Utrecht and the Kissimmee River, or so we can hope. My fear is not in the outcome, but in the relationship to the river as it stands now. Does take witnessing the river in it’s current state of despair to prevent a failure like this from happening again? It is not enough to show up in a moment of rupture or to hop from one struggle to the next as it waxes in relevancy on our social media feeds. We must work to empower others at the frontline of our own communities. So yesterday just after sunset, my friend and I said a prayer for our river, the LA River. He closed the prayer with a Lakota song. Mni wiconi, water is life. Not just the water of the Missouri, but the water in our taps, our tributaries, the water in the womb and that which connects all things across the globe.
If you haven’t made it out to the LA River before, or it’s been a while, tomorrow, Earth Day, is a great day to make that acquaintance. Join others in a local effort in this series of cleanups that bring us closer to our goal, get a reminder of what we’re all working toward. See how you can get involved here.
Words and Images by Molly Steel
Archival images by Curbed Los Angeles