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We all live downstream.

Drop by Drop, Stream by Stream, changing attitudes and growing activism are helping to restore the network of flowing waters that link us all.

Back in 1979, Chicago Magazine ran an article titled "Our Friendless River." Describing the degradation of the Chicago River, the author deplored the fact that no one was taking care of the great river at the heart of the city. A deluge of phone calls from individuals saying, "I care - what can I do?" resulted in the formation of Friends of the Chicago River, a grassroots nonprofit undaunted by the task of restoring one of America's most abused rivers.

Water moves across the country, ignoring boundaries between rural, suburban, and urban areas. Though environmentalists and government agencies are recognizing that what happens both upstream and down can affect entire watersheds, it is the actions of citizens that are changing the way America views and cares for its water resources. No longer are waterways just a flood-control problem or a means of sewage disposal. We're beginning to understand that streams are an integral part of our ecosystems with implications for wildlife, soil, vegetation, climate, and humanity's sense of well-being. Like the Chicago River, streams and rivers across the country are finding friends who live, work, and play nearby, friends who have a stake in the health of the waterways that connect us.

In Berkeley, California, the joyful song of a free-running creek attracts a wide variety of citizens to the grassy knolls and sunny benches of Strawberry Creek Park. Little more than 10 years ago, this former railroad yard was paved and strewn with trash and broken glass. Landscape architect Douglas Wolfe presented city staff with an innovative design that would not only create a park, but would "daylight" a long-buried stream. The city staff saw only problems - litter, rats, and children drowned or poisoned by polluted water.

Neighborhood activists saw it differently. Carol Schemmerling, chair of the Berkeley Parks & Recreation Commission, began to organize community and environmental groups. Strawberry Creek now tumbles out of a culvert and runs free for 200 feet - testimony to the groups' tenacity.

According to Schemmerling, the secret of the park's 10-year success has been having citizen's involved from the very beginning. "I can't tell you how exciting it is to open up a stream. Now they (the citizens) feel protective of the stream - it's their baby. Working on these creek projects is instant gratification - it always looks better when you're done. It's a great sense of participation and accomplishment."

Clean-up and work days are the inspirational part of stream restoration. "The hard part," says Schemmerling, "is the ability to attend and endure endless meetings. Getting involved in the system is time-consuming, frustrating work, and you don't always win." The activists who helped "daylight" Strawberry Creek eventually formed an advocacy group to provide support and information to others involved in similar efforts. The California Urban Creeks Council has not only created a vital link between local stream-protection groups but also educated professionals, agencies, and communities about restoration techniques that use natural systems rather than concrete to reduce flooding and erosion. The group provides bioengineering and nonstructural solutions that can restore ecological viability and enhance aesthetic, recreational, and wildlife values.

This multi-objective approach to flood control is currently being proposed by Friends of the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles, California. "No one looked at the river as other than a sewer or a storm drain until we said 'It's a river.'" says Lewis MacAdams, poet, journalist, and a founding member of the Friends group. He characterizes the Los Angeles River as a symbol of all the neglected rivers in the nation.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to begin work in early spring to raise the concrete levees of the river channel by four to eight feet - hardly a "nonstructural" solution. Friends of the Los Angeles River is sponsoring numerous public meetings to build consensus on an alternative proposal that would not only address the need for increased holding capacity for peak flows but also replace two miles of concrete with a natural bottom.

According to Jim Danza, chair of the Friends' Technical Advisory Board, "The soft bottom will help conserve water by increasing water-table recharge, and improve groundwater quality by filtering out pollutants along the way. Riparian vegetation will help with flow reductions, as well as provide habitat for wildlife and improved aesthetics." But as a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times said, ". . .time is growing short." The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote sometime in March.

Friends of the Chicago River is currently working with four restoration projects on different parts of the river. Executive Director Laurene von Klan says, "We're talking about one of the most trashed rivers in the United States. It's been channelized and dredged, fenced-off and made inaccessible for much of its length. Part of it flows backward. Downtown they dye it green on St. Patrick's Day. We won't get back to what the river was, but we can improve what the river is and its connection to adjacent habitat."

Von Klan emphasizes that river restoration has a different meaning in an urban context. "The river is already an artificial ecosystem. What does it mean to restore an artificial ecosystem?"

Sometimes the most the group can accomplish is to convince developers and city agencies to include river-friendly plans in new construction by facing buildings toward the river and adding walk-ways, overlooks, and trees. These changes are hardly classic stream restoration, but they do represent a psychological restoration; they help create a connection between people and the river - a sense that "this is my river."

"One thing to remember," says von Klan, "is we're not alone here. We're not working in a vacuum. There are dozens of agencies involved in any given project, and within those agencies there are people with common goals. The key is to find them and give credit to the champions who can further our causes."

What do the 1,000 or more members get out of the endless hours at meetings and the back-breaking, dirty labor required to heal the river? "I think they're inspired by the human capacity to change and overcome adversity," says von Klan. "Once, landing on the moon was a dream. If we can do that, we can make the Chicago River into something better."

A stream begins with a drop of water. Joined by other drops, it forms a trickle, then a creek, then a river. Stream restoration work is much the same; each project builds for the next and is a step toward restoring the network of water that connects us all.

Lynn MacDonald writes on environmental issues from her home in Berkeley, California.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Forests
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:restoring the nation's waterways
Author:MacDonald, Lynn
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1995
Previous Article:Inside ecosystems.
Next Article:Jurassic forest.

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