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LA River Tour: History, Context and Conclusions

By Worldchanging LA blogger, Foster Kerrison

Editor's note: This is part of a series of posts about the LA River, all viewable at Worldchanging LA

Article Photo

[Part 8 of the LA River series. For previous posts, read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, and part 7.]

So, why does the LA River look like it does today? Why was the Terminator able to drive a big rig down the riverbed? Here is the history lesson, in a nutshell.

The first party of Spanish explorers arrived in the Los Angeles area in 1769, and founded the settlement from which the city grew. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, Los Angeles County continued to grow and became the most productive agricultural area in the nation.

However, during this time, the river was constantly shifting its channel during seasonal flood events. At one time, the river completely changed direction, flowing along the present day route of interstate 10, and entering the ocean near the present day Marina del Rey.

This unpredictability was a bit of a problem if you were planning to build any structures in the Los Angeles basin, given the real threat that they would be washed away. Things reached a crisis point in the 1930s, when a massive flood on New Year’s Day, 1934, signaled the beginning of the end for the Los Angeles as a natural river. The floods caused over 80 deaths, washing away bridges and houses, and flooding downtown LA. The city decided that something had to be done, and commissioned the famous urban designers Olmsted and Bartholomew to come up with a plan for the river.

Olmsted and Bartholomew had already completed Boston’s “emerald necklace? of parks around the Charles River, and came up with a similar suggestion for Los Angeles: ring the river with parkland that could flood naturally in wet seasons, while protecting the surrounding areas from inundation. Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit right after this plan was released, and the idea was dropped due to the economic hardships of the time.

Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers were allocated money from the Works Progress Administration to channelize the river in concrete (providing much needed depression era jobs). The project achieved its goal of protecting LA from a wandering, untamed, flood-prone river, but has left the city with a huge storm drain running through the middle of it, instead of the natural resource that could have been.

I think it's important to note here that LA is not the only city to have drastically altered the natural condition of its river. Dublin, Kyoto, Paris and London have all impounded their rivers into a channel to ensure flood protection. I give Los Angeles credit for being one of the few cities that is actually critical of its decision, and trying to improve the situation.

However, the river advocates that I met on the LA River tour are realistic enough to know that we cannot go back to the river that greeted the first Spanish settlers. They openly acknowledged that “it would be impossible to have a city along an uncontrolled river.? What they do hope for is a river that is “more like a garden, with lots of nature, and lots of design.?

They envision a river that has the flood protection benefits of being channelized and streamlined, but is predominantly “soft bottomed? (i.e. rocks and pebbles rather than concrete), allowing natural vegetation to grow and provide habitat for aquatic species.

In addition, urban parks would be established, surrounding the river. These would provide much needed open space for the mostly poor neighborhoods along the river, as well as function as “natural filters? for urban runoff (currently the biggest water pollution problem in the area).

Progress is being made. Already, eight new parks have either been established or acquired along the river, with plans for more. On the river tour hosted by Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR), we made stops to visit the Sepulveda Basin, Studio City Greenways, Glendale Narrows, Cornfield, and Maywood parks. Indeed, they are wonderful resources.

FOLAR has been partnering with other non-profits such as North East Trees to obtain these areas, rehabilitate them, and engage the community to ensure their acceptance. Advocacy groups are entering into productive partnerships with city, county, state and federal agencies to make their vision a reality.

For more on how you can become involved in these efforts, here are some web-based resources. Don’t forget to take FOLAR’s river tour on February 17th!

* Friends of the Los Angeles River
* North East Trees

* The River Project

* LA River Master Plan

* Heal the Bay

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I attended a lecture on the LA River a couple weeks ago and was imbarased that I didn't know what the river was. I think it's great publicity for orgs like Friends of LA River at al to show the world what can be done.

Posted by: LiveGreen on 28 Jan 07



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