From Rank to Recreational: L.A. River No Longer an Eyesore

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For years, much of the Los Angeles River has been an eyesore — a sludgy wasteland of abandoned shopping carts, homeless encampments and putrid waste water.

But things are changing.

Run, bike or kayak — yes, kayak — along parts of the L.A. River today and you may just forget that you’re in the middle of a urban center with 10 million people.

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“The L.A. River is our future,” said Omar Brownson, executive director of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp, a nonprofit created by the city of Los Angeles. “It’s where we can bring the outdoors, economic development and recreation all together in a way that makes cities so wonderful.”

Lush willow trees, shimmering water and a diverse range of birds and habitat have come to define parts of the river today, and the push is on to make the river an epicenter for greater change in the L.A. area. Last year, in the first year kayaking was allowed on the river, 3,000 people took part. This year, river advocates are hoping to double the number of visitors.

The river has its source in Canoga Park, deep in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, and spills out into the ocean by the Queen Mary in Long Beach.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the river's revitalization efforts a boost last month when they recommended approval of an ambitious $1 billion proposal to restore the habitat, widen and provide access points and bike trails, along an 11-mile stretch of the river. The decision paves the way for Congress to give its approval — and for more work to begin in earnest to revamp portions of the 51-mile river.

Perceptions aren’t easy to change, however, and for some, the idea of enjoying the once-filthy river seems difficult to imagine.

“Many people see a storm drain when they look at the L.A. River,” said Brownson. “But the water is clean and ready for use for landscaping and recreation.”

A recent study from the Council for Watershed Health found the water in the Los Angeles River is actually cleaner than many popular mountain streams in the Angeles National Forest. Samples taken from the river between the 2 and 110 Freeways near Dodger Stadium also found the water free of E. coli and metals.

"You can get wet and have fun in the L.A. River," Brownson said. "If you're kayaking ... and you're exercising, you're enjoying the outdoors ... you realize — this is a great place to be."