“It looks like Shrek!” That’s what one of the Compton high schoolers said as he looked down into a rare soft bottom section of Compton Creek. [and it wasn’t just because the teacher for the day was called Eddie Murphy, although he was]
The thin ribbon of green, dotted with trees, is pretty rare around here. As the students studied the map to assess the neighborhood of the creek they noted that parks were pretty uncommon. In this city of almost 100,000 due south of Los Angeles they could recount just three. What’s rarer still is a creek channel that still teems with life.
True the creek has its challenges, sandwiched as it is between high concrete banks, a massive culvert, and a mess of highway and train bridges. But if you spend a few minutes under the shade of the trees you’ll hear birds and bugs all around.
For the better part of a decade, Heal the Bay has been working with the local high school to help them use their local creek as a valuable resource for science and environmental education. Today the students were assessing the condition of the creek — is the water clear? Is there grass underfoot? Trees overhead? And just how much trash has been caught up? They’re able to link this back to what happens in their neighborhood and how they can help protect the creek and the ocean that lies a few miles downstream.
But for me, what it gets back to is that singular moment when a kid is transported from the concrete jungle and connects with the creek for what it is. A river flowing through their city. Even if that means relating it to a fictional forest on the Hollywood stage. Perhaps next time they see Shrek they’ll remark it’s just like the creek in their backyard!
At first glance it looked like a backdrop to an apocalyptic movie. To many engineers it’s a flood control channel. To some it’s a place to pitch a tent and call home. Or a place to dump garbage too big for your trash can. But as I looked more more closely I began to see it actually was a river with life still flowing in and through it.
Turkey vultures and hawks soared overhead while egrets, waders and herons picked their way up the channel feeding on tiny fish. Where the sediment built up, reeds and plants started to take hold and an ecosystem was starting to assemble — enriching the the simple concrete channel and introducing an element of nature’s chaos.
I was standing at the confluence of the LA River and Compton Creek. Compton Creek is the last major tributary to the Los Angeles River and is where the two join before flowing into the Bay a few miles downstream. It was my first trip out to the river since I joined Heal the Bay three and a half weeks ago. I am used to watershed tours — having led tours to some of the most beautiful primeval coast redwood and giant sequoia forests in the world. But this was all new to me and I was soaking it all up as staff from Heal the Bay’s Healthy Neighborhood gave me a tour of the watershed and communities they’d been working in for the past decade.
The goal of the program is pretty simple. It’s to let people know that there’s a river in their neighborhood that drains to the bay. For a decade we’ve been working alongside teachers, community groups and local non-profits on projects that connect them to the river that for too long society has turned its back on.
A century ago this was one of the braided channels of the Los Angeles River. For the worst part of a century, it has been engineered and re-engineered to carry flood water as quickly as possible from the streets to the ocean — picking up trash and pollutants from city streets along the way. Finally in 2010, after years of advocacy by many groups, the EPA designated the LA River as a “navigable waterway” of the United States. In a sense that marked a turning point when the flood channel became a river once more. It would now be subject to protections of the Federal Clean Water Act. Of course, the ducks and birds and animals that use the river are oblivious to the change
There’s a lot of work underway across the watershed to clean it up and bring people down to its banks. And what’s good for the river is ultimately good for the health of the bay. I’ll be learning more about all of that in the coming weeks and months. Yesterday was a chance for me to begin the process and to start to understand what watersheds are like in the context of a highly urbanized city. If you’d like to get involved in Heal the Bay’s work to understand and protect the bay and its watersheds, you can learn more and sign up for volunteer activities at Heal the Bay’s web-site. Thank you!