As we finish up another year of our annual Great LA River Clean Up, we wanted to highlight the importance of safety along the River. FoLAR continues to advocate for public access and restoration efforts for our River while never undermining the safety of the communities which border her. We must always remember that our River and her tributaries are indeed forces of nature and caution is especially advised during heavy rainfall. We cannot forget the tragic loss of 14-year-old Elias “Eli” Rodriguez whose life was taken too soon by the torrential rainstorms. Although this heartbreaking and unfortunate incident could cause anyone to question the value of the river as a natural park and open space, FoLAR views it as a call for action to continue to educate communities about the River and ensure tragedies like this do not happen again.
Capt. Tom Henzgen from the LAPD’s Swift Water Rescue Team spoke at a recent community meeting and explained that the River is constructed to move water fast, and at its peak can move 146,000 cubic feet of water every second. Construction to channelize the LA River began in the late 1930’s as a solution to control flooding and allow water to flow at a rapid rate. The concrete can create a dangerous environment during heavy rain which is one of the reasons why FoLAR has been advocating to remove the concrete and begin restoration for a softbottom, naturally flowing River.
Flooding has always been a real risk, but confining our rivers in concrete makes us forget that it also carries the life-giving waters we desperately need in Los Angeles. We cannot keep repeating the mistakes of the past and continue to build concrete walls and chain-linked fences around our problems. We agree with Capt. Tom Henzgen that one of the best solutions to keep tragedies from happening again is education. Educating the community on how to practice River safety as well as gaining a general understanding of this natural body of water can help bridge the gap between the River and her community. FoLAR believes that public signage, community outreach, and in-school education is crucial to spread River awareness to the public. A River Ranger project has also been proposed, which would help ensure security around the River as well as provide a resource for visitors to ask any questions they may have. Innovative projects like the River Ranger program need to be replicated to encourage opening access to the River such that it becomes a more frequented path. The more our youth and communities understand the natural behavior of the land we live on and the rivers we live next to, the better they can stay safe when weather turns bad.
FoLAR understands that there is much work that is needed to make the River an approachable, safe, and publicly accessible community space. Now is not the time to turn our backs on the River, but rather spread awareness and learn how to appropriately interact with this living body of water. According to the Park Access Report by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, almost 30% of Angelinos live further than a half mile from a park. If we cut access to the River we will not only be limiting access to open space from our communities but we will also be preventing benefits that boost physical health, mental health, and the economy of our neighborhoods. Just like the mountains and oceans, we must learn how to co-exist with these natural environments in a safe and thoughtful manner. For community members to learn more about the River and safe recreational opportunities, visit folar.org.
Executive Director of Friends of the Los Angeles River