Friends of the LA River (FOLAR) are strong supporters of the plans to turn sections of LA’s flood control systems into recreation areas. It’s their goal to make the river channels “publicly accessible and ecologically vibrant.”
Kayaking and canoeing are currently allowed at the Sepulveda Basin Recreation area in the Valley, and at the Elysian Valley River Recreation area in Los Angeles.
Each year during the month of April, designated as “Earth Month,” the nonprofit organization with the help of scores of volunteers holds their annual “Great LA River CleanUP,” collecting tons of trash at various sites along the length of “river.”
At the Sepulveda basin, volunteers pulled up shopping carts, large exercise equipment, plastic bags, trash and debris of every kind.
But on the heels of the cleanup, a neighborhood watch meeting was held in the City of San Fernando last week where serious concerns were voiced that went far beyond a cleanup.
They did not embrace the Phase 1 Master Plan for the LA River, or support the impending bike path along the “river.”
Local residents living in San Fernando and surrounding areas gathered to discuss the safety of the Pacoima Wash, which feeds into the LA River, and the tragic death of 14-year-old Elias “Eli” Rodriguez.
At the end of February, during days of a powerful storm and strong winds, the community put up flyers and walked door-to-door when the teen went missing. But the rain was so strong, it was days later when the skies cleared that a community search to assist police could be held.
Painfully, it was his family members who found Eli. While one family member rode a bike along the the river, relatives traveled nearby, driving adjacent to the river.
They found Eli’s body lying face down on a small island in the river near the Interstate 5 Freeway in Los Feliz, miles from his school — Cesar Chavez Learning Academy of Science Exploration in San Fernando — where he was last seen.
The Pacoima Wash, located next to the school, has been used by students walking home as a shortcut. It was speculated that Eli, perhaps attempting to get out of the pouring rain to his grandmother's house located on the other side of the wash, may have tried to cross the wash not realizing that even a small amount of rapidly moving water would sweep even the best swimmer off his feet and made helpless.
His body was found badly injured and most of his clothes were ripped from his body from the tremendous force of the water.
Wash Rescues are Difficult
Eli’s mother and his aunt both attended the community meeting and although it was difficult for them, they opted not to speak but instead listen with the other residents as Capt. Tom Henzgen from the LAPD’s Swift Water Rescue Team spoke frankly about how difficult it is to rescue a person who has fallen into the wash.
There were gasps in the room and some wiped away tears as Henzgen moderated some of the video images of attempted rescues and described the rain-swollen channels as a churning “washing machine” that never lets up, and can trap and drag a victim down to drown.
He explained the walls of the wash as rough and rugged and the bottom of the wash as smooth concrete that is slick and makes it impossible for anyone to stay on their feet. It’s constructed to move water fast, and at its peak can move 146,000 cubic feet of water every second.
The fast moving water and hundreds of pounds of pressure can quickly sweep one away and, he confirmed, will quickly tear the clothes off your body.
The video titled “No Way Out” summed up the poor odds of being rescued in poor weather conditions and fast moving water, where even a few inches of rain can turn a normally quiet flood control channel into a raging river.
For those at the meeting, it was hard to hear the video interview of the mother of 15-year-old Adam Bischoff as she described her pain in realizing her son would never come home, or see the taped images of rescuers who tried in vain to catch Adam, who fell in the river in Woodland Hills during a heavy rainstorm.
He was carried 11 miles downriver to his death.
"Adam was a strong kid, he surfed and played water polo and was a strong swimmer, " Henzgen said. Most people he said, wouldn't be able to survive that distance.
“Victims who fall in can be injured, hit hard by shopping carts and other trash and can be weak from hypothermia.”
Adam Bischoff’s story hit too close to home; in many ways it was too similar to the painful loss of “Eli,” so much so that members of the police department went over to Eli's mother during the meeting to ask if she was alright.
Should the L.A. River Be A Recreation Area?
Organizations have pushed to have the LA River used as a recreation area during the months when the water is calm.
Henzgen doesn’t agree with those who have lobbied to make the river more accessible to the public and questions the judgement that the river is a place for recreation.
“These aren't rivers, these are concrete channels that have been built to move water through it quickly. Water looks friendly, but becomes your enemy when it starts to rain,” Henzgen said. There could also be accidents when water is released into the river.
Henzgen is concerned that people, as they are given greater access to the waterways, will view them as harmless without considering that the reason why the channels were constructed was because of past devastating floods.
Already numerous homeless encampments have increased the amount of trash and fecal matter dumped into the river, and increased the number of rescues during storm seasons.
A report from the environmental group Heal the Bay, released last year, indicated the LA River suffered from poor water quality and could pose a health risk to people who swim or kayak in the recreational areas.
The study tested water samples weekly for bacteria at three sites within two recreation zones in the Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley areas of the river over a three-month period last summer. Bacteria levels varied among the river sites but were high overall, the study said. Samples for Enterococcus, a type of fecal indicator bacteria, exceeded federal standards.
Henzgen points out that giving the public the message that it’s okay to enter the flood control areas during some months of the year would would make it more difficult to keep them out during the months of the year when it’s treacherous.
“One foot of water can move a thousand-pound vehicle, and can turn a vehicle into a boat,” Henzgen said.
Adam Bischoff died in 1992, which caused some residents at the meeting to ask why something more hasn't been done sooner. One resident asked why a giant net couldn’t be used to catch people.
Jessenia Vega, Eli’s aunt asked why cameras couldn’t be installed or why flotation rescue equipment couldn’t be stored along the wash area.
Henzgen said a net in a strong current would cause victims to drown and it’s likely any stored equipment would be stolen.
“Education is the best solution to prevent youngsters and adults from going into the Pacoima Wash and to stay out of all flood control channels,” he said.
Following the meeting, Mayor Sylvia Ballin met with representatives from Congressman Tony Cardenas’ office. Ballin said she will also be meeting with County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and other legislators to discuss going forward with plans to create a bike path, and other recreation zones along the “river.”
"Maybe the priorities can be reconsidered,” said Vega, “and the tragedy of losing my nephew can be used as an example."
Ballin said after attending the presentation she has a different perspective about going forward with the plan to create recreation and a bike trail at the Pacoima Wash.
“We have to take a hard look at this,” she said.