These citizen scientists are hoping what they find in the LA River can help them save it
Todd Barneck crouches near a trickle of storm water deep within the bones of the concrete Los Angeles River and gently lays in a thermometer.
“That’s 16 degrees C, or about 60 degrees Fahrenheit,” he announces to the group.
Wearing a knit cap and cargo pants, he moves from task to task, scooping water samples and snapping photos of trash, including a gold, high-heeled shoe found floating amidst a week’s worth of run-off surprises.
Not a scientist, Barneck, 53, of Whittier wants to learn about the 51-mile river’s history, something that is part of his family ancestry.
On Saturday, he was one of eight all-volunteer citizen scientists organized by the Los Angeles Waterkeeper and Friends of the Los Angeles River, taking the ecological pulse of a channelized section of what passes for a river a stone’s throw from the rumbling, diesel-spewing trucks of the 710 Freeway in Maywood. Their hope is to bring restoration like that proposed for the river’s northeast Los Angeles section to their neck of the river.
FIGHTING FOR SOUTH L.A. RIVER RESTORATION
Between the pork processing plants of Vernon and the warehouses and strip malls of such low-income southeast county cities as Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, Lynwood and Compton, a river runs through it. But unlike the headline-grabbing Glendale Narrows section of the river upstream, with its hip coffee houses, kayak rides and $1.3-billion restoration promise from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, Vernon and Maywood’s riverfront opens to a bleaker future.
Beyond the river’s wrought-iron gate off Maywood River Front Park are homeless encampments and piles of trash. But amazingly, down in the river itself, flocks of shorebirds pick at the mud with a staccato-rhythm, flanked by an endless row of resting gulls, a solitary great blue heron, pairs of bobbing ducks and a smattering of black-necked stilts.
In this low-rent river district, Melissa von Mayrhauser, watershed programs manager for Los Angeles Waterkeeper, a nonprofit helping to restore urban streams, rivers and beaches, leads the volunteer citizens army whose samples will be analyzed for disease-causing E coli bacteria and whose observations are logged, becoming part of a report to be shared with L.A. opinion leaders.
It’s odd to hear people fighting for a stretch of a river-turned-industrial-discharge channel, where most companies obey water quality rules but some violate them, releasing pollutants without a permit, von Mayrhauser said. What has become a dumping ground or, at best, flood protection that rushes 90 percent of the rain into the ocean in Long Beach, needs some drastic attention. Though the bottom is concrete, as are the steep slopes, von Mayrhauser wants this segment of the river revitalized, applying a vision similar to the 11-mile stretch between Griffith Park and downtown Los Angeles that’s part of a restoration plan, which includes the Glendale Narrows, with its green trees, gurgling flows and soft, dirt bottom.
“The river is represented as dangerous,” von Mayrhauser said. “Sure, when it’s raining we do need to be careful, but it is also part of our community. We want to make it accessible, make it into a healthy resource.”
Scanning the miles of concrete slopes, chain-link fences and graffiti, von Mayrhauser’s dream may prove difficult.
“It is worth being ambitious,” she countered, picking up her pace as she walked the western bank just south of Vernon. “We are so deeply concerned about the future of the L.A. River watershed. It is a critical part of our lives.”
That may be easy for von Mayrhauser to say as part of a group dedicated to restoring once-natural spots of Los Angeles County lost to 10 million people. That’s why a big part of her strategy is getting people who live here to say it, believe it, appreciate it.
Many of the high schoolers who have come along since L.A. Waterkeeper’s River Assessment Fieldwork Team or RAFT program started in late summer had never been to the L.A. River. Some didn’t know it existed, she said.
“Yes, we have a role to play. But this is not our resource. This is your resource. Know that it is here and it is not just a puddle next to the 710,” she said.
SIGNS OF LIFE AMID THE CEMENT
Barneck talked about the last salmon found here. It was 1943, during World War II. Since then, the concrete, even portions covered in mud, don’t suit the picky fish’s spawning needs. For the most part, the steelhead trout have gone, too.
On a RAFT outing in Glendale Narrows, Barneck saw two men throw in a line and catch a fairly large carp. “I went down to take a picture of it but then flop, flop, flop — it had gone back in the water,” he said, laughing.
As the team collected storm water, he watched the water flow in the center of the river, thinking perhaps here, like in Glendale Narrows, there could be kayaking.
“My mom grew up playing in the L.A. River in Atwater in the 1930s,” Barneck said. “They would have to swim across to get to Griffith Park.”
His grandmother would admonish them whenever they made the crossing, he said, because the water was deep enough to be concerned.
“When you say swim in the L.A. River now, everyone just gags. But back then (in the 1930s) it was cleaner and less concrete,” he said.
During a break, the team watched the black-necked stilts fly over the river, their reddish legs dangling behind. In past outings, volunteers saw turkey vultures, turtles and mallard ducks, an impressive display of birds inside a river that’s lost its way.
TWO EFFORTS, ONE RIVER
Stephen Mejia-Carranza, policy and advocacy manager for Friends of the Los Angeles River, was blunt. Finding the same political support among the smaller cities along the 710 has been hard, nearly impossible.
But he and von Mayrhauser have been bringing residents to the river twice a month for almost a year to see, touch and experience its attributes. They’re hoping the people will catch the restoration bug.
“We have spent 30 years creating a success up in the L.A. section. There is a desire to move down here,” Mejia-Carranza said.
In a few weeks, both citizen scientist groups from RAFT, one from the north and one from the south, will meet to share what they learned. Then, L.A. Waterkeeper will launch the next phase of the project, based on what people saw and what they say needs improving.
Cameron Yong, a recent environmental studies graduate from UC Riverside who lives in Boyle Heights, has volunteered in both sections of the river. He hopes to use this experience to launch a career in water policy.
But first, he may be a bridge between the two efforts along one river.
“With my volunteering experience, I’ve grown a love for the L.A. River and an appreciation for it,” Yong said.