The Los Angeles River spans 80 kilometers through Los Angeles and its suburbs, and for much of its route it’s encased in concrete. Like many urban waterways, the river is being restored to its natural state, and volunteers are helping for three weekends in April in an annual cleanup. The sprucing up coincides with Earth Day, April 22.
Much of the river was lined with concrete after devastating floods in 1938, and today the channel is filled with rainwater in winter but is often dry in summer. When barren, the riverbed has been featured in Hollywood movies such as the 1978 musical Grease, where it was the scene of a teenage auto drag race.
Increasingly, however, stretches of greenery have re-emerged amid the concrete, drawing birds, other wildlife and human visitors.
“Being exposed to this natural section where there’s wildlife, and quite a bit of trash as well … it’s really eye-opening and shocking for a lot of people,” said Stephen Mejia of the nonprofit group Friends of the Los Angeles River. He was sorting through trash collected by volunteers on a recent weekend.
This season’s winter flooding brought tons of trash, and volunteers from clubs, businesses and industry groups are helping remove it.
Lauren Scott of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group whose members produce some of the plastic debris that finds its way into the river, is helping sort the trash to determine its composition and origin, and ultimately, she told VOA, “to help prevent the litter.”
Local restrictions on plastic bags and recycling programs are helping, but the annual cleanup is still needed, said Scott, after this year’s heavy rains and “because everyone wants a clean river that we can swim and boat and hike in.”
Nine-time Paralympic athlete Candace Cable, a member of the committee to bring the Olympic Games to Los Angeles, is helping with the cleanup by collecting trash from her wheelchair. She says the volunteer-run program to bring the Summer Games to the city in 2024 hopes to “get future volunteers for the Games” as its promoters help to beautify the city.
Los Angeles is competing for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games against the sole remaining rival, Paris.
A volunteer named Tom pulls a blanket from the thick underbrush and says he is helping Los Angeles recover its natural beauty.
“We’ve got beautiful places,” he said, “but as you can see, with the trash they become not so beautiful, so I’m just glad to do what I can to help change that.”
Urban waterways play a vital role in a region’s ecology, said Christine Lee, a science applications engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Lee studies water quality, using data from earth-observing satellites and airborne monitors, focusing in part on another waterway, the San Francisco Bay Delta. It is home to endangered species and is a crucial source of water for California farmers. Debates over its role have put agricultural and environmental groups at odds.
Watch: Volunteers Work to Revitalize Los Angeles River
In Los Angeles, officials must weigh the need for flood control with the requirements of the natural ecosystem, where wetlands fed by the Los Angeles River purify and recharge the groundwater.
The annual cleanup and other efforts to revitalize the river are showing results, as residents take advantage of bike paths and jogging trails along the river’s meandering route.
Taking a break from collecting trash, teacher Lois Keller told VOA, “It’s been really exciting to start to see the river come back.”