By Jill Riddell

During the years I worked for environmental organizations we used to joke, “Is it a beautiful Saturday in May? Is the sun out? Are birds singing? Great. Let’s get 14 environmentalists in a room with no windows and talk about money.” For a while it seemed as though I spent every Saturday doing just that–working out the administrative details of underfunded organizations, sitting on a metal folding chair in a dreary room somewhere in the Loop. It was strange how effectively we who were motivated to make the outdoor environment better eliminated most of our chances to experience it.

But next week there’ll be a three-day national environmental conference with a different spirit. Its official name is the Coalition to Restore Urban Waters, though everyone involved calls it the Friends of Trashed Rivers conference. The Rouge River in Detroit, the Los Angeles River, the waterways feeding into Lake Ponchartrain outside New Orleans all easily qualify as trashed rivers, and people trying their best to protect and restore these waters and many other urban streams will be participating. The conference will be held adjacent to the Chicago River at North Park College, and while indoor workshops will occur, a lot of effort has gone into making certain that good things go on out-of-doors.

The most ambitious outdoor workshop will be a restoration lab cleanup on the banks of the river behind Von Steuben high school. Last week I met the conference organizers at the restoration site to get a preview. Laurene von Klan, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, has one of the most highly evolved senses of fun of anyone I know. Naomi Cohn, who works for von Klan, has done most of the organizing for this year’s conference and isn’t far behind her boss in the fun department. They explained that people in this neighborhood have been complaining about how much garbage is in the river. Cohn informs me that a few days ago she and von Klan spotted a yellow teddy bear floating down the river. Von Klan contorts her face and clutches her hands close to her shoulders, imitating the bear’s desperate expression. “It was awful,” she whispers dramatically.

Grocery carts are one of the most frequently found garbage items in the river. “All urban rivers seem to get them,” von Klan says. “We consider the shopping cart an indicator species for a trashed river.”

We walk behind the high school to get to the river, but a high chain-link fence stands between us and it. We pass a locked gate that appears impossible to penetrate, but a little farther along we come to where a gate is missing, leaving a four-foot-wide gap that opens onto the muddy bank. “It’s typical,” von Klan says. “People fence the river, but holes always spring up. We usually find most holes are large enough for a small child but too small for a large policeman.”

So if anything were to happen to a child sneaking through, it might be hard for someone to quickly get in to save him or her. I ask von Klan if she’d like to see the fences come down entirely.

“I’d like to see the river be a safer place,” she says. “If it’s well used by all kinds of people it becomes less necessary to have fences keeping people away.”

“Who owns the fence?”

“Urban rivers–not just this one, but almost all of them–are shrouded in mystery,” she says. “No one knows who owns what, and it’s hard to find anything out. Fences are the epitome of mystery. Most of the time we don’t know who put them up or who’s responsible for them.”

We cross through the gap and stand next to a bed of yellow violets about to bloom. Clumps of sedges glow green against the river mud, and a winter wren hops along the edge of the water.

“These walls are another example,” says von Klan, drawing my attention to the half-buried concrete ledges running along the bank. “Who put these up? Why? No one can tell us.”

As long as the river’s neglected it doesn’t matter. But once some agency, like Friends of the Chicago River, wants to make changes, it becomes important to know who has jurisdiction over the shores and water. When attorneys researched the question for the Friends they found that the Public Building Commission and the Chicago Park District seemed to share ownership of this particular section of river, though representatives of the Park District still aren’t sure they’re part owners. Even when the confusion is resolved to the point where restoration can start, the mystery’s not always solved. “It’s like we’re establishing the synapses for restoration,” von Klan says. “All of this is new. Little by little we’re figuring it out.”

The concrete walls were probably put up to stop erosion of the banks, but the experts at the Friends of Trashed Rivers conference prefer solutions that use plant roots. They will be laying fascines, which have been used for many centuries, though they fell out of favor after World War II, when higher tech solutions captured the imagination of decision makers. A fascine starts with a bundle of brush laid parallel to the river. Thin holes are drilled into the soil underneath the brush, and willow and dogwood cuttings are placed in the holes. The shrubs and trees serve as simple stakes at first, but as they take root they stabilize the soil. The fascine is also essentially self-repairing; during a flood or windstorm, willows tend to bend rather than break, but if they do snap they can resprout.

By contrast, heavy structural solutions of metal and concrete freeze, crack, and crumble. Seawalls buckle and corrode. “The life of a steel-sheet piling is only around 60 years,” von Klan says. “That seems like a long time, but to replace it is expensive. Concrete and steel also have zero habitat value. They’re lifeless. And our rivers don’t need to be lifeless.”

Especially not when there are cheaper alternatives. Still, the friends of trashed rivers don’t always oppose hard structures for riverbank stabilization. They just think they should be one of numerous options rather than the first and only solution. “We’re not going to save the world with a pussy willow,” says von Klan.

But if you want to find out more about just what can be saved by a pussy willow, go to the conference. Riley, the godmother of the trashed-rivers movement will be there (her full name is Ann Riley, but she’s as famous as Madonna in these circles and plenty strong enough for a one-word name). Working most recently with the Waterways Restoration Institute in Berkeley, she has invigorated the use of clever natural alternatives in river management. One of the livelier moments of past conferences has been the “Open Mike and Gong Show,” where participants have two minutes to get up and share a story or say just about anything. (Whoever traipses past two minutes is gonged and cut off.) Altogether about 300 participants will be coming from Canada, Mexico, Italy, and 27 American states. The conference runs from Thursday, May 16, through Saturday, May 18, at North Park College, 3225 W. Foster. The registration fee for the run-of-the-mill citizen is $45, $25 for Saturday only. The fee for those for whom the conference is more work than fun (such as consultants and government-agency staff) is $65, $40 for Saturday only. Cohn desperately needs volunteers to help, and if you volunteer you can attend sessions for free. For more information call Friends of the Chicago River at 939-2789.