Working to Rescue a Neglected River

What Kids Can Do
January 20, 2003

Against a backdrop of power lines and speeding cars, a group of teens with notebooks in hand inspects the vegetation flanking what looks like a large drainage ditch. "Upstream," two girls stand on either side of a small band of water, a rope stretched between them, taking measurements. "Downstream," three boys shake a long, glass tube and examine its contents.

"My friends don't believe I went to the L.A. River! They're like, 'There's nothing there, that's a sewer!'" says Brenda, 13, as she pores over snapshots of her day spent at the river's side. "I used to think it was a sewer, too, but when I went there, it was beautiful," she adds.

Brenda's friends aren't unusual in their disbelief. If asked what artery connects the 3.6 million citizens in L.A.'s sprawling 474 square-mile basin, most would answer "freeways." Indeed, an aerial view of the city's basin shows a criss-cross of linear, concrete paths. But these are not freeways. They are the rivers, arroyos and washes of L.A.'s massive flood control system—once the pristine Los Angeles River but now a 52-mile paved sluice that on most days carries a ribbon of undrinkable water to the Pacific, but after heavy rains becomes a torrent of storm drain run-off and trash.

It is this intersection of water, flood control and urban planning that beckons students like Brenda. Along with 350 other Los Angeles classmates, she participates in the River School, an outdoor "classroom" started in 1998 that engages middle and high school students in day-long investigations along the L.A. River. The program's driving vision is as bold as the river's past: a vast greenway that includes parks, bike trails, wildlife habitats, groundwater re-charge, storm water clean-up and adequate flood protection.

Working in small research teams of 10 to 12, students collect data on water quality, stream hydrology and habitat assessment, then share their findings with local scientists and an international databank called GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations for a Better Environment). They also work on restoration and clean-up projects, cataloguing the trash they pull from the river, sometimes even turning it into sculptures.

"The contributions these kids make to reclaiming this once-pristine urban estuary are real," explains the River School's director, Sarah Starr. "And it's the most democratic of classrooms. Whether we are working with AP environmental science students or underserved youth, the river asks the same of both: to venture in and to care."

"It Really Feels Like Nature"

One of the first things River School students learn—in addition to conducting turbidity tests and recognizing macro-invertebrates—is the story of their river. From L.A.'s founding in 1781 until the completion of the L.A. Aqueduct in 1913, the river was the city's sole source of water. When winter storms in the mountains northeast of the city pushed the river over its banks, however, the results were occasionally catastrophic: A flood in 1938 covered 15 percent of the L.A. basin, killed 87 and caused almost a billion dollars of damage (in current dollars). And with each flood, the river etched a new course to the Pacific.

In l939 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on the capricious river and over a span of three decades encased it in concrete and connected to it every one of the city's 2,400 miles of storm drains. The resulting flood control channel is one of the world's largest, though some 200 species of birds still use the river as a flyway, crayfish stubbornly cling to its algae, and willows and cattails line some of its edges.

On this bright October day, 12 young teens from "Heart of Los Angeles"—a youth organization that engages off-track students from L.A.'s year-round schools—assemble with their teacher Loren Rubin and River School staff to give back to the river they hadn't known existed.

Armed with long rulers, Brenda and her partners plunge in to measure the water depth and calculate its speed. "You can see the water moving from far away, and it looks slow," Brenda later explains, "but when you get to the river, it's fast. And when you get in the water, you can feel it pushing you like waves. You feel the vibrations, the water moving through your boots."

"These are big leaps for some students," adds Sarah Starr. "What seems like a simple problem, like measuring the velocity and quantity of the water flow at point x, is huge for those kids who may never have measured anything real or solved a problem using math tools like calculators, meter sticks and stop watches. They are often amazed to come up with a number answer that really means something, that matches their observations and predictions."

As part of the habitat study, students inventory the river's bird species. Peering through binoculars, they jot down descriptions of beaks, eyes, and other distinguishing features, then use a field guide to identify what they have seen. "The best bird I saw was the blue heron, a beautiful bird—I loved the blue," says Brenda excitedly. "It was flying, then it landed in the water. Its wings were about four feet wide."

Over lunch, students share their data from their morning tests and observations—and compare it to the findings of other River School students in recent weeks and over the course of the past year.

Rubbish removal follows in the afternoon. The day's haul includes a shopping cart that students dragged from the river. "It probably weighed between 50 and 100 pounds," Brenda explains. "It was full of trash—bottles, plastic bags, soda cans—and a lot of dirt, and some kind of algae. It was hard work, and when one of us got stuck, the others helped out."

In the written reflections required of all River School participants, one student writes that despite the trash, "being close to the river really feels like nature." Brenda agrees, noting, "Most people don't know the real heart of the L.A. River—the birds, the algae, the ducks, the plants that are actually living there."

Creating a Network of River Monitors

The River School's outdoor classroom nests within a partnership of the Los Angeles Coalition of Essential Schools and the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), a nonprofit organization helping to restore the river while dogging those—from developers to public agencies—who stall its rebirth.

Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District asked the River School to recruit as river monitors a network of students at a dozen high schools—as diverse as L.A. itself—along the river's 52-mile run. They will gather critical data on water quality and contaminants from the river's start in Canoga Park to its finish in Long Beach.

"Each school will have a designated site where students can collect and analyze data on a consistent basis," explains Starr. Assisted by college students and environmental activists, students will share their data on water and habitat in a local web site and through GLOBE. Annual, student-led watershed conferences where Los Angeles' teenaged river keepers review their work round out the plan.

Regardless of what these middle and high school-aged students bring to the river—street smarts, English as a second language, promising SAT scores—they leave with a new set of connections. "I started to think, 'Oh my God, I could be cleaning up my own trash!'" exclaims Brenda. "Gum or a piece of paper or something you threw out. It gave me a whole different look on the world."

And sounding very much like the environmental steward the River School hopes its participants will become, Brenda adds: "As we walked away from the river, I felt bad, knowing how much more we could do. When I'm a ninth grader, I'm going to come back to the River School as a leader."

Summing up well, her classmate Daniel marvels at the persistence of the river: "You can see plants coming through the cement—and that explains a lot. Nature is trying so very hard to be alive."


  • For further information take a look at the Taking Action topic page.

This is reproduced with permission from What Kids Can Do.