River Advocate Springs from Novelist
Becoming a river advocate was never my intention, although I was attracted to the Los Angeles River when I crossed it many times during the 1980s and 1990s. I was a journalist and business consultant. Before the Internet and email existed, I had to meet people at their offices.
To say I was attracted to the Los Angeles River would sound strange to many people. There it sat, unheralded and unloved, 51 miles, that most people knew as a concrete drainage ditch, not a river.
But I had lived in the Los Angeles area long enough to know the river’s history—how it was ignominiously encased in concrete after disastrous floods in the early 20th century. In 1938, the City of Los Angeles called in the Army Corps of Engineers. Massive amounts of concrete sealed the river’s fate.
As I crossed the river again and again, I thought of hiking along rivers all over the world. I felt a sense of outrage. This isn’t right, I told myself, even knowing that encasing the river likely presented a necessary option at the time. After all, lives were being lost…how could I argue with that decision?
A decade passed. I still crossed the river or drove alongside it. I began to speculate: Before the concrete, what trees lined its banks? Was it shallow or deep? What had been its course?
All those meanderings finally coalesced into a novel, set in the 1840s when Alta California was a territory of Mexico. The Los Angeles River, known then by its Spanish name, Río Porciúncula was bordered by willow and cottonwood trees. It flowed where it liked, sometimes changing course drastically, often flooding the Los Angeles watershed and basin during the rainy season. The river’s gift? Huge amounts of groundwater nourished farmland. Drinking water poured from artesian springs. Wetlands abounded year round.
As I wrote the novel, a title came that described what I imagined: When Water Was Everywhere. The Los Angeles River became a character in the novel. It didn’t have a voice, but it had a large presence. I wrote many scenes that played out against it.
I learned about groups promoting the revitalization of the river, like Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). FoLAR’s founder, Lewis MacAdams awakened millions of people to the river’s promise. That promise is being fulfilled by cities that have created parks along the river’s concrete channel. The Los Angeles City Council recently voted to allocate funds to purchase a parcel of land that will become a park along the river north of Los Angeles.
I’m doing a lot of speaking as part of my novel’s publication–all focused on the Los Angeles River and watershed, and what they once meant to the Los Angeles Basin. I believe that if people knew what was here less than 200 years ago, they may be open to a vision of what the river could mean to us again.