Of River Bondage

By Rob Breeding for the Flathead Beacon

There are many variations of the old saying, “You can judge the true character of a society by the way it treats its …”

Gandhi filled in the blank with “animals.” Others offer some variation of the poor or downtrodden.

I have my own rendition: You can judge the character of a society by the way it treats its rivers.

I returned to my place of origin in Southern California last week to attend my niece’s wedding. We had extra time for fun so we spent a day in Los Angeles. We eventually made it to the end of the continent — and in a way, the end of the world, at least in terms of the way humanity spread across the globe — when we walked out onto the Santa Monica Pier that evening.

Nearby Santa Monica Boulevard is the end of what may be the most important migration corridor in the United Sates: Route 66.

But our first stop was downtown and the food court of the Grand Central Market. Just a block or two east as we approached the market, I saw that we were coming up on a bridge over the Los Angeles River. So I alerted my passengers, all Montana kids other than my brother, that we were about to cross one of the great waterways of the LA Basin. The sight of it gave them a good laugh.

You’ve almost certainly seen the Los Angeles River, if not in person than in the movies. The huge concrete channel is a favorite setting for Hollywood types, especially if they’re filming some sort of dystopian thriller set in the not-too-distant future — think Terminator 2. And if you’re a John Travolta fan you may recall the drag race scene in the movie Grease. John wins of course, despite his competitor going all Ben Hur on him with a hot rod armed with spiked rear axles.

933px-Los_Angeles_River_Glendale

“Los Angeles River Glendale” by User2004 – Own work by the original uploader. Licensed under Public Domain via WikimediaCommons.

There are efforts to renature portions of the river, but since the city has grown right up to the edge of that concrete ditch, there’s only so much that can be done.

There’s a reasonable explanation for early Angelenos disregard for the city’s most important waterway. In it’s natural state the Los Angeles River wasn’t much more than a trickle and I suspect it wouldn’t have passed the old “log-floating” test used to determine a waterway’s navigability, not that there were many logs in that desert that needed floating anyway. It was only during the occasional El Niño years that the winter rains would swell the river over its banks and flood the town.

So the river was treated as a nuisance, though the restoration work suggests modern Angelenos recognize that mistake. Rivers, even small desert rivers that barely flow much of the year, are treasures to be preserved, protected and celebrated.

The_Blackfoot_River_at_Rainbow_Bend_by_Steve_and_Mindy_Palmer

The Blackfoot River at Rainbow Bend. By ©Steve and Mindy Palmer.www.mindypalmer.com

We’ve done a better job in the Rocky Mountains, though only partially due to stewardship. There are more people living within a couple of miles of the Grand Central Market than all of Montana. But even in a relatively unsettled place such as the Flathead Valley, we have a hard time resisting the urge to crowd the banks. Who doesn’t want a deck that overlooks a river?

Still our rivers flow mostly free. We do, however, have our own version of the concrete channels that constrain the Los Angeles River. In Montana we armor the banks of our rivers with riprap — or in some cases abandoned cars — when the water threatens adjoining farmland or development.

Riprap doesn’t transform a river into an unnatural state the way concrete does, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. When we armor the banks were really playing a game called “screw your downstream neighbor.” All that water, and the energy behind it, has to go somewhere.

There is a limit to how much we can constrain a river before we’ve changed it into something else, like a movie set.

 

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thumbRob Breeding writes an outdoors column for the Flathead Beacon newspaper in Kalispell.  He teaches journalism at Northwest College in Powell,Wyoming.