Boom times on the L.A. River
March 31, 2011
When the heavens open, as they did epically last month, the Los Angeles River becomes a roaring, churning testament to urban junk and waste.
With a collection area of nearly 900 square miles, it carries in its rain-swollen waters anything that can be chucked into flood-control channels or pushed down curbside catch basins—sofas, stereos, soccer balls, spray paint cans from taggers, whatever.
Then there’s the trash, layers of plastic bags and Styrofoam mixed with tangled vegetation mowed down by fast moving waters on the river’s channel bottom, where it’s been allowed to grow wild again.
At the end of this mucky 51-mile journey to the sea is Jared Deck of Los Angeles County’s Public Works Department. He oversees a multi-million dollar operation in Long Beach to corral all that junk in a boom unfurled across the river, just north of the Queen Mary and the harbor. Think of it as a goal line stand.
At first, it’s hard not to be caught off guard by Deck’s youthfulness in a bureaucracy in which some guys have been on the job longer than he’s been alive. But then you learn that the 26-year-old is a Hermosa Beach surfer with a unique feel for the value of his job—and those of his colleagues in the Flood Maintenance Division—every time he paddles into the water.
“It’s fulfilling,” Deck says. “My playground is the outdoors so I enjoy doing anything I can to make it better.”
In March, the stakes were historically high for him and the boom, which was first placed across the river 11 years ago as a pilot project. More dammed up debris—460 tons of it—was hauled out of the water than at any time before, tangible evidence of the severity of the March storms. The tonnage included full, uprooted trees. (See video below of the boom in action.)
To be sure, the county, along with its private and government partners, has worked hard to significantly reduce the amount of debris and pollutants flowing into the Los Angeles River from a watershed area of nine million people.
Among other things, county officials have installed 11,000 catch basin screens and other devices in unincorporated areas and have encouraged cities across the region to do the same. They’ve also launched ad campaigns to discourage dumping and educate the public about the relationship between the ocean and what they wash down their driveways.
Still, during the storm season between October and April, all bets are off. Those catch basin inserts, for example, are designed to unlock so greater loads can be accommodated and street flooding can be reduced. And, with as much as 330 million gallons a day flowing through the river, there’s little to do but wait for the debris to hit the boom.
Formerly called the Los Angeles River Trash and Debris Collection System, the boom is operated by a private contractor, Frey Environmental of Newport Beach. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors renewed Frey’s contract for an annual sum of $795,000, with a 66-month maximum of about $4.4 million.
Since Frey first got the business in 2003, Dave Duncan has been there for the company as one its site operation managers. During the past eight years, he says he’s seen it all, including the sad discovery of a 35-year-old woman’s body. “I thought it was a mannequin,” he says.
Duncan says he understands why there’s so much old junk that ends up at the boom, where it’s lifted into dumpsters by cranes with “grab buckets.”
“If you’re on the low end of things, making $8 an hour and you don’t have money to go to the dump, what do you do? You throw it in the channel and hope for the best,” he says.
The experience and continuity that Duncan has brought to the operation gave a sense of confidence to Deck, who, in 2008, was assigned by the county to work directly with the contractor. “Whenever I’m on the site, Dave is always there,” says Deck, who was promoted last fall and now supervises the person who got his old job.
Deck grew up in central Maine—“in the middle of the woods”—and attended an engineering school in Worcester, Mass. Deck says he was quickly recruited by Los Angeles County before hiring freezes ended such efforts.
The recruiter, a Boston native, took him straight to the beach. “I was sold from there,” says Deck, who had learned to surf while studying abroad in Puerto Rico. An avid skier, too, he now lives in a Hermosa Beach apartment.
In his short number of years here, Deck says he’s had a great vantage point for seeing the success of efforts to keep the ocean cleaner by diverting runoff and trapping debris. “When I go surfing,” he says, “the water quality is significantly better…It’s great to see the system functioning and working.”
The boom in action
And here’s something you can do: Join the Friends of the Los Angeles River’s 22nd annual cleanup on Saturday, April 30th, from 9 a.m. to noon. The details are here.