News / USA

Thousands of People Volunteer for Annual Los Angeles River Cleanup

The Los Angeles River at high water stage, in March, 2011
The Los Angeles River at high water stage, in March, 2011

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Mike O'Sullivan

The Los Angeles River is an 80 kilometer-long urban waterway, much of it now covered in concrete, that is dry for most of the year. The drainage channels fill up in winter rainstorms and provide flood protection. But parts of the river have been restored to their natural state, and each year, thousands of volunteers gather to clear out the trash that accumulates over the winter in the annual L.A. River Cleanup.

Five-thousand volunteers came to clear garbage that had been tangled high in the trees in the annual flooding. School children searched for debris, standing on rocks above the fast-moving currents, where runoff from neighborhood storm drains sends tons of debris through the waterway every year.

For many Los Angeles residents, the river is a concrete maze, but Shelly Backlar of the non-profit group Friends of the Los Angeles River says that in places, it has begun to look more like a natural waterway.

"We do have some very lush and verdant ecosystems, believe it or not," said Backlar.

There is plenty of trash to collect, says volunteer Melvin Gomez, who is here with other volunteers from his church.

"Especially plastic bags. But we've got clothes, we've got tires, we've got all kinds of things, you name it. It's really, really bad," said Gomez.

Max Aaronson agrees that rubbish is everywhere in the river basin.

"We have two shopping carts buried over there that they're digging out, and a dumpster," said Aaronson. "We've picked up a whole lot of trash so far."

How some debris got here is a mystery, and these college students are sorting it in a nearby park to see if they can tell where the garbage came from. This student volunteer wants to see more of the river returned to its natural state.

"I think it's really important to have that natural setting in the middle of the city. I mean, it's great that they have parks like this, but it would be even better if we had a river that wasn't covered in cement most of the way," said the volunteer.

For many volunteers, the cleanup is a chance to experience nature.

This volunteer, named Lisa, came for the cleanup with her children and says it has been an eye-opening experience for the whole family.

"I wish that everybody could do this one time so that they would never want to take another plastic bag when they go shopping, and realize what’s happening to the earth, and how to better use less resources and dispose of them properly," said Lisa.

Whatever flows through the LA River eventually reaches the Pacific Ocean, where it sometimes causes beach closings and affects wildlife. This annual cleanup is not just about trash, says Friend of the River's Shelly Backlar.

"It's about bringing people to those natural [river] bottom areas where that trash does get tangled before it goes down, so it's about being able to be out there and seeing a great blue heron circle around, and [say] oh, it's watching us today," she said.

These friends of the LA River believe the waterway is an important part of the city’s ecology.

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