Friends of the LA River: Interview with Shelly Backlar

Shelly Backlar is the executive director of the not-for-profit Friends of the LA River (FoLAR), an advocacy group that promotes the restoration and revitalization of the river. She recently spoke with LA Stormwater about FoLAR and some of the issues they are currently tackling.

When and why was the Friends of the LA River (FoLAR) founded?

Friends of the Los Angeles River was founded back in 1986 as a 40-year Art Work to bring the Los Angeles River back to life. FoLAR’s founder, Lewis MacAdams and two friends, Patt Patterson and Roger Wong, cut the chain-link fence in downtown Los Angeles near First Street and walked upstream to the Arroyo Seco / Los Angeles River Confluence – the birthplace of Los Angeles. They decided that someone had to speak on behalf of the River and it would be them. Lewis envisioned the gospel tune, “Let’s All Gather at the River” as his inspiration for the organization. When he started he thought his job would be to convince people that the River had the potential to unite and inspire communities but he soon realized that he had to convince people that there IS a River in Los Angeles. Next year FoLAR will celebrate its 25th anniversary as the original voice of the River. Look how far we’ve come!

What do you currently see as FoLAR’s biggest challenge?

FoLAR’s biggest challenge right now is making sure that we continue to increase our organizational capacity to accomplish everything we want to accomplish with a very small staff. A lot of our success can be attributed to collaborating with other like-minded organizations as we did with the campaigns to transform both the Cornfield and Taylor Yard into state parks – Los Angeles State Historic and Rio de Los Angeles State Parks. We also work very closely with the Los Angeles Conservation Corps’ L.A. River Keepers to implement our outdoor education program, River School, as well as our Great Los Angeles River CleanUp, La Gran Limpieza. We are getting better and better at fundraising, securing grants for programmatic expenses, but can always use general operating funds to keep us moving forward in more and more creative ways.

How about its biggest success?

FoLAR’s biggest success is reflected in the number of stakeholders that are working to make the River and its watershed a better place for us all. The fact that Los Angeles County adopted its Los Angeles River Master Plan back in the ‘90s paved the way for improvements along the River from pocket parks to the Dominguez Gap Wetlands project. The City of Los Angeles adopted a vision plan for the River, the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan focuses on a vision for transforming the 32 miles of River within Los Angeles’ jurisdiction and groups like Save L.A. River Open Space are developing plans for restoring wetland habitat in communities like Studio City. Most recently when Lisa Jackson, the EPA’s Administrative Deputy, announced that the Los Angeles River is “a traditionally navigable waterway” she also said “A clean, vibrant L.A. River system can help revitalize struggling communities, promoting growth and jobs for residents of Los Angeles. We want the L.A. River to demonstrate how urban waterways across the country can serve as assets in building stronger neighborhoods, attracting new businesses and creating new jobs.” This is what FoLAR and others have echoed for years so to hear the head of the EPA say these words with such enthusiasm, it made me realize that anything is possible.

If you could tell people in LA two things about how they can best help protect and improve the LA River, what would those be?

When it comes to protecting and improving the Los Angeles River I would ask people to think about the things they do on a daily basis and how their actions can affect the River. For example, if you walk your dog make sure that you pick up after him or her. Animal waste is a source of bacteria and if it washes into the storm drains, through the River and out into the ocean it can cause disease. You can cut down on the number of plastic bags that end up in our neighborhoods and waterways by bringing reusable bags to the market with you and, if you use a plastic water bottle make sure that you recycle it. Little things like that go a long way to keeping the River and ocean ecosystems cleaner and healthier.

What kind of wildlife will you find in and along the LA River?

The Los Angeles River is teeming with bird life and I always feel like a little girl when I spot a great blue heron or an egret or even an osprey. While one would expect to see more birds in the natural-bottom portions of the River, shorebirds can be found along the concrete sections where algae provides a food source. In addition to several different bird species the River also has several fish species such as tilapia, catfish and carp that can be seen spawning at the end of March and early April. You can also see turtles, crawfish, coyotes, raccoons, bullfrogs and even an occasional mountain lion near Griffith Park.

What do you like best about your job?

I love being out on the River listening to the water, seeing the birds and knowing that all of this exists in our urban environment. Being able to share the River with people of all ages is such a thrill. I also really enjoy speaking to groups of all ages about the River’s past, present and future. It is so exciting to think about being able to fish and kayak and even swim in the River. That’s what FoLAR is working for, a swimmable, fishable, boatable Los Angeles River.

Shelly Backlar joined Friends of the Los Angeles River as the Executive Director in 2003. As a member of the Los Angeles River Plastics Industry Task Force, initiated by Ad-Hoc Los Angeles River Committee Chair Ed Reyes, she collaborated with executives and city staff to ensure that plastic bags and fast-food waste do not wind up in the River. Shelly is one of 32 people asked by Councilmember Reyes to join an Advisory Committee to provide review, critique and advice to the City’s Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. Shelly is a member of the Citizen’s Advisory Committee for the Sixth Street Viaduct Seismic Retrofit project, and an Advisory Committee Member for the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. She was just invited to join the Recycled Water Advisory Group, convened by the Department of Water and Power and the Bureau of Sanitation. Shelly speaks frequently at conferences, with the media and with myriad others about FoLAR’s vision and the issues affecting the future of the Los Angeles River.

*Photo courtesy of the LA Times.

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