Who Knew that Paddling Could be an Act of Civil Disobedience?

I love underdogs, especially ones with gumption. This is why the story of reclaiming the Los Angeles River immediately drew me in, even before I knew that it had been made into a feature film.

It was the spring of 2009 when Ramona Marks, then a staff member for Friends of the Los Angeles River and now a freelance writer, was a panelist for an urban rivers workshop that Helen Sarakinos (River Alliance of Wisconsin) and I were hosting in the Baltimore River Rally. Ramona told us the incredulous tale, engagingly recounted in the film “Rock the Boat”, of how in 2008 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared that the Los Angeles River, in its highly re-engineered state, was not longer navigable. At least not until some citizens (including one Heather Wylie who happened to work for the Army Corps) proved otherwise.

“But why would we care?” you may ask. Read on.

The Clean Water Act, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, is an absolutely landmark Act that turned our rivers from being discharge pipes for sewage treatment plants and factories back into being relatively fishable and swimmable. You don’t necessarily notice it, but that’s because it’s become invisible to most of us, working behind the scenes on a daily basis to keep our waters clean and accessible. But a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision written by Antonin Scalia stated that in order for the Act to apply to a river, the water body has to be “navigable in fact” and needs to be connected to other navigable water bodies of the United States. In the extreme this would mean that the Mississippi River is navigable, but a puddle in your driveway is not. But between those two end points, there lies a lot of room for dispute.

In general, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has the responsibility for overseeing the Clean Water Act. But it’s big and complicated, so they have given the responsibility for determining whether or not a river is “navigable” to the Army Corps which oversees the maintenance of navigational channels for our country. Makes sense, right? The problem is that in 2008 the Army Corps took it upon themselves to decide that the Los Angeles River was no longer navigable.

Bear with me while I try to connect the dots: if a body of water needs to be navigable in order to receive Clean Water Act protections, and if the Army Corps decides that the body of water is no longer navigable, then …… you guessed it, the Clean Water Act no longer applies. If it could happen to the Los Angeles River, then it could happen to hundreds of rivers throughout the United States, especially those in urban areas or those which flow through the Southwestern U.S.

Except that George Wolfe and a band of compatriots including Heather Wylie decided to take matters into their own hands. George had an itch to paddle the entire river, from its headwaters to its mouth, and planned an expedition to prove that it was, in fact, navigable. And he happened to have the good sense to be married to Thea Marcouffer, a talented filmmaker who made sure that the story could be told.

George and Thea recently traveled to Wingspread where they shared their captivating story, as told through “Rock the Boat” with an audience of about 100. I loved the movie, but I especially loved listening to the conversation and questions afterward. Everyone had a connection, a story, and now they were newly empowered to think about how they could make a difference.

I encourage you to bring it to your own community. If George could figure out how to plan the entire expedition and protect his river, surely you can figure out how to at least how to see or show the movie. Exercise a little citizen engagement. You’ll be glad you did.

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