UPDATE: Below, we had originally quoted Jenny Price as saying Los Angeles spends $200 billion a year for 1 billion gallons of water. In fact, the figure is reversed: Los Angeles spends $1 billion a year for 200 billion gallons of water.
Jenny Price, environmental writer and LA river tour guide, is on a mission to let Angelenos know one thing: "Los Angeles is not a desert!" It's easy to make that assumption because of the hot, arid weather and city-wide mandates to conserve water. But in fact, Los Angeles was built on a basin of rivers and streams that stretch 51 miles from the Valley to Long Beach, and it's undergoing a 20-year revitalization effort to get green, clean, and pretty for all Angelenos to enjoy. Earlier this month, the LA River was declared "navigable" by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and thus subject to the Clean Water Act Protections for the first time. This can only help the revitalization effort, and to get the word out about it, Jenny Price has teamed up with Hidden LA to give river tours that provide historical and political context on the struggle to reclaim the space.
When Hidden LA's Lynn Garrett started organizing the tours through her site, she came across a fair amount of cynicism from hardened Angelenos. "It was a tough sell at first... Lots of 'Why would anyone want to tour a dry ditch filled with dead bodies and shell casings?' type of comments. People have NO CLUE about it," Lynn wrote. But Facebook comments like "LOL LA river that's a joke!" and "River? It's a drainage ditch. Let's call it what it is" were quickly transformed in tone after Lynn posted an album of the event over the weekend: "Great pictures! When's the next tour???" and "Beautiful pictures! Never realized there was foliage and birds!" You can sign up now for the next guided tours on August 22 and 29.
Below is a short interview with tour guide Jenny Price.
1: Why do you think Angelenos don't know about the revitalization efforts?
I think that part of it is that the LA River has been a joke for so many decades that it goes a little bit in one ear and out the other when they read about it in the papers. A lot of people still don't really know that the river is here, and I think the closer you live to the river, the more likely you are to know that something is going on. My experience is that folks on the Westside are probably the least-educated about it - I live in Venice, by the way. When I talk to people from Venice, Santa Monica, Culver City, the Palisades, and Malibu, they usually are almost entirely clueless. Whereas if you live in Silver Lake or Echo Park, you'd know.
2: How would Angelenos' daily lives be changed if the revitalization efforts (clean, green, and get rid of some concrete) actually happened?
A lot of ways. If we're relying more on local water supplies, our water is going to be a lot cheaper. We wouldn't drink water directly out of the river, but we'd be able to rely more on our own stuff. Right now, we're moving most of our storm water to the ocean. If we capture that storm water and it goes down to the aquifer, then we have the option of pulling it back up and cleaning it. This is a lot cheaper than bringing it 450 miles from the Delta. Just the city of LA pays $1 billion a year to import 200 billion gallons of water, and that's 20% of the energy use for the city.
The river could also be the backbone for a county-wide network of green space. So if you think about LA right now, it's a very concrete city in a lot of ways. Literally you can walk for one, two, or three miles and not see any green space or public park. So what we're envisioning now is using the river as backbone to green up the city and give neighborhoods public space. LA has always been very dysfunctional. There's a lot of private green space, but only in certain neighborhoods. Everybody has a right to green space and clean air, and this is going to help with that a lot.
Another thing is that if you can clean up the rivers, you can clean up the beaches and the ocean. One of the biggest reasons for beach closures is that you have storm water. Everybody says, "don't go into an ocean after a rain." That's because we're using our river channels to run all of our pollution into the ocean.
3: Who are the leaders and groups that Angelenos can support in the revitalization movement?
Right now [the movement] is a big, huge coalition of public and private interests. Pretty much every public agency that you could name is involved. The City of Los Angeles, the City of Burbank, the City of Maywood, the California State Parks, Santa Monica Conservancy, and the feds are involved. Non-profits - in terms of doing something, you can go on to the Friends of the Los Angeles River website and join a clean up or come on a tour. There's the Watershed Council, there's the Trust for Public Land, there's Northeast Trees... there's a lot of environmental justice groups like the City Project and Tree People, so there's a ton of stuff going on.
Price finished our talk by summing up the goals of the revitalization movement: "We're not trying to return the river to its past; we're not trying to make it look like it did in 1730. We're trying to create a healthy, urban sustainable river" for Los Angeles.