Magdalena: a name for a matriarch, a nurturing mother, Colombia’s largest river. It births in the mountain ranges of the Andes, and then flows north for nearly 1,000 miles before it empties into the Caribbean Sea. The river supports an entire nation, the way a mother of many generations does. Economically, it’s used as transport, sustains fisheries, and houses many human populations and countless species of wildlife. The Grey-legged Night Monkey (what a name), the rare and highly endangered Yellow-eared parrot, Ognorhynchus icterotis (thought once to be extinct and now recently re-discovered) and a newly-discovered species of fish called Farlowella all live in its banks or waters.
Twice in three days I found myself navigating the Magdalena, first on a speed boat from the town of Magangué, a 90-minute trip, and next on a small riverboat with a local tour guide. The sheer girth of the thing is overwhelming. So much water. I live in Los Angeles. We do not have a river like this, though we often speak of ours as if it were once as grand, and ever as important. Flowing for a mere 51 miles, the primary significance of the Los Angeles River is its mismanagement, which now has it largely paved with concrete. Though I doubt such a calamity will ever befall the Magdalena, the threats it faces could be perceived as similarly damaging.
I waited for the riverboat on a dock in the colonial island town of Mompox where a group of teenage boys swung from the rafters and jumped off the roof into the water. Other boys ran down from the river walk to join them, first climbing over the wall onto the bank, which was so covered in trash - soda bottles, plastic cups, potato chip wrappers, straws, plastic bags - the dirt was barely visible. Trash floated visibly downstream, too - what appeared to be a gasoline canister, cigarette containers, all manner of plastic detritus. On the boat, we journeyed about a mile upstream before turning around and charting the other way. Passing the dock on the opposite side of the river, we noticed a dead pig, floating face down just a stone’s throw from where the boys were swimming.
Rico Barrera, a local hotel and restaurant owner, as well as our river tour guide, remembered the days when the water was clearer. He didn’t speak of pollution, but instead of the water’s color: a deep mud brown. “This part of the river gets all the sediment,” he said, the result of a levee built in the town of El Blanco, about 45 miles south of Mompox, which bifurcated the river, diverting the stronger, navigable branch to the south (called Brazo de Loba, Branch of the She-Wolf), and weakening the branch that travels through Mompox. Brazo de Mompox is too shallow for navigation. When asked if it had ever been navigable, Barrera nodded his head rapidly and waved his arm across the water, saying, “Si, si, si si.” The port of Mompox was once as busy as that of Magangué, he said. I struggled to imagine the peaceful Mompox riverside abuzz with the same frenetic activity I’d witnessed in Magangué. It was easier to imagine what I knew of its history: a once-prosperous port that served as a lifeline to the Andes, establishing
Mompox as a city of wealth and power. That is, until the river began to silt up in the 19th century and large boats were forced to seek other routes and levees were built in the mid 20th century, which moved the river’s strengths and Mompox became covered in dust, a forgotten city.
Now, the Colombian Government wants more from the Magdalena. She is not wide enough, she cannot carry the amount of goods they think she should be able to transport. They plan to widen her course. They want to generate electricity from her waters and use it as a big waterway to transport goods for export. The plan will privatize the industries involved, giving them to a few corporations. The Navelena Group, a contractor made up of the Brazilian company Odebrecht and the Colombian company Valorcon, will dredge and channel the river, making it wide and deep enough to allow 800-ton convoys to move between Puerto Salgar and Puerto Berrío, 6,000 ton between Puerto Berrío and Barrancabermeja, and 7,200 ton between Barrancabermeja and Barranquilla. The aim is to move annually up to six million tons of goods for export. Currently, traffic is limited to small barges navigating a 155-mile stretch between Puerto Salgar and Barrancabermeja.
Environmental groups oppose the government’s plan for the river, stating it threatens all its ecosystems aquatic and onshore, that the cascade of 15 additional dams threatens severe flooding and displacement of communities, and that the privatization threatens jobs and livelihoods. The controversy is familiar to me. The Los Angeles River has, like the city itself, lived many lives, birthed at the whims of various government officials. Today, the river begins at the confluence of two channelized tributaries – Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek – in the San Fernando Valley, and flows east toward the San Gabriel valley, receiving run-off from four more channels, before changing course to flow south through central Los Angeles and into Long Beach before it empties into the Pacific Ocean. The California Government has always wanted the Los Angeles River to serve different purposes, to run different courses, to sustain an incredulously growing population. The river was the primary water source for the Los Angeles Basin until 1913 and the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, vision of William Mulholland, Superintendent of the Department of Water and Power. The aqueduct diverted water from outside sources, but the river, with a flow determined solely by rain and snow melt, continued to provide power for the city and serve as a transportation corridor. The city of Los Angeles continued to grow, and the river provided economic value for an otherwise uninhabitable region. But as development encroached upon the river’s floodplain, a series of floods destroyed homes and property. Some of the city’s most significant original settlements were washed away. The US Army Corps of Engineers poured the southern portion with concrete in the 1930s to create a fixed course - sort of a highway for water - and prevent flooding. Bending, or unbending, the river to suite various needs is a primary component of Los Angeles history and folklore.
Now, the California government, after years of effective pleading by environmentalists, plans to undo the damage. In 2014, the Corps agreed to remove concrete along the most central portion of the river, a length of about 11 miles. In its place: sloping green terraces and wetlands, cafés, and bike paths. Jackhammered cement will be replaced with wetlands, green terraces, cafes and bike paths. In 2010, the EPA declared the L.A. River “navigable,” a designation that allowed the agency to enforce Clean Water Act protections throughout the river's 834-squaremile watershed. In 2011, soft-bottomed portions of the river were opened to kayakers. News of people in yellow helmets and blue life jackets paddling below the raging 5 Freeway sent ripples of disbelief through LA’s blogosphere.
I’ve driven a car on the Los Angeles River. I now look forward to navigating my city’s historic waterway by kayak. Now that I’ve journeyed the great Magdalena by boat, I feel I’m ready. What I may yet learn about governmental damage control after decades of economic demands may be surmised by that transition alone: river to highway to river yet again. Hand me a lifejacket.