The Los Angeles River Is Pointing To A New Future

Los Angeles Times

Published December 3rd, 2000 by Wade Graham

The Los Angeles River is Pointing To a New Future For The Region. The Soulless Waterway That Made This a Bigger Place Now Could Make It a Better One.

By the time the last steelhead trout was pulled from the Glendale Narrows in 1940, the Los Angeles River was nearing perfection–transformed from an unpredictable, flood-prone wash into a streamlined, super-efficient machine for moving rainwater to the sea as quickly as possible. Visionary and rational. The first modern American river.

The proud fisherman who hooked that last steelhead might have worked for one of the aircraft plants in the area, plants whose chromium wastes were first noticed in the river one year later, in 1941. Soon swimming would be banned. But the re-engineering of the river, begun in 1936 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, marched on. Between the Los Angeles and its twin, the San Gabriel River, joined together at the hip by the Rio Hondo channel in South Gate, the balky, sandy guts of a 1,700-square-mile watershed were replaced with concrete: 100 miles of main stem channel, 370 miles of tributary channel, five major dams, 15 small dams, 129 debris basins and tens of thousands of storm drains, each unit playing its part in an elaborate opera of engineering. At peak capacity, the L.A. River moves 183,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Pacific–the equivalent of 80 million garden hoses, 14 times the flow of New York’s Hudson River.

This plumbing helps keep 10 million people high and dry in what is otherwise a dangerous floodplain encompassing more than half of Los Angeles County, minus the mountains. Getting water out has been as crucial to the creation of the Southern California metropolis as bringing water in. And the synergy has been just as perfect: flood control enabled growth by protecting property values; growth in turn financed flood control with property-tax rolls and bonds approved by fearful homeowners. “Without the presence of the flood-control system,” one former county chief flood-control engineer has said, “80% of the intense development within the county could not have taken place.” If growth has been God in Los Angeles County, the flood-control engineers have been his priestly brotherhood.

That’s why it would seem unlikely casting today for this perfect excuse for a stream to become the vehicle of our communal redemption.


BY MOST DEFINITIONS OF A RIVER, THE LOS ANGELES HAS NEVER MEASURED up. It is occasionally too full, but is almost always too empty, no more than a bleak concrete channel of garbage, graffiti and toxic runoff, its only year-round flow provided by a rivulet of treated sewage. Its barren box channels seem the image of the alienation and racial, ethnic and class divisions that fracture the metropolis, scars across its brittle skin where its navel ought to be.

Actually, engineers have conjured the City of Angels from the unlikely chalice of the L.A. River not once, but twice. When the Spanish came through in 1769, they found “a most beautiful garden” of lush willow thickets rife with roses, grapevines and bears; its cool, shaded pools nurtured big steelhead–now nearly extinct in Southern California. L.A. River water, diverted in gravity-fed irrigation channels, watered first the old pueblo, then California’s first nationally acclaimed wine industry in the area now east and south of downtown.

Though it seems surreal today, L.A. first became known to the rest of America as the “City of Vines,” supplier of bulk wine and brandy. Later, in 1877, the first boxcar of oranges sent east was grown on the river’s banks with diverted river water. Such fecundity guaranteed a flood–of people seeking their mortgaged piece of the new garden paradise. The city doubled its population every four years–too quickly to remember that the river flooded every eight or so years.

During storms the lowly Los Angeles morphs into one of the most dangerous rivers in America, with the potential to put no less than 336 square miles under water. Where the Mississippi falls 605 feet in 2,000 miles, the L.A. drops 795 feet in 51 miles. It and its tributaries have killed more people in the county than have earthquakes. After three days of rain, the New Year’s flood of 1934 killed at least 49 people and destroyed 600 houses. Woody Guthrie made “the wild Los Angeles River” famous nationwide. The ’38 flood killed 87 and flooded 108,000 acres. These floods led to New Deal legislation that put the Corps of Engineers into the flood-control business, with the L.A. River the first and biggest item on its agenda. (It remains the largest Corps project west of the Mississippi.)

So in Los Angeles, the river is a “water freeway,” in the words of one of its creators, complete with on-ramps metered during rush hour (detention dams to catch heavy rainfalls) and fast, smooth straightaways to keep “runoff” from slowing, swerving, or backing up as it glides safely away from parking lots and streets at speeds of up to 45 mph–like commuter traffic on the 405 Freeway, only faster. Diversions from the river, sole source of the city’s water until 1913, stopped entirely in the 1980s because the water was too polluted. Now the new, improved river flows in summer with runoff from lawns, roads and industry, and 90 million gallons a day of tertiary-treated waste water from the Tillman and Glendale sewage plants.

By comparison, it is hard to find a city that has not already put its rivers at the core of building a new identity: Boston, Denver, San Antonio, Washington, New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Seattle, to name a few. Many have been greened–restored to ecological balance by taking concrete out and putting biology and riverine processes such as meanders and sandbars back in. Others have been cleaned–“revitalized,” lined with parks and public spaces. In either case, rivers have been put back at the center of civic life they occupied for centuries, until America in the late 19th century turned its back to, and on, its rivers and lakes.

In L.A., the most park-poor major city in the country, parks occupy just 2% of the area. (Not much has changed from the 1930 survey that provided this figure.) The river is about all that is left of “public” open space in the urban core–though concrete, barbed wire and high-tension lines overhead stand in for grass, paths and trees. “It’s the only thing we’ve got that ties us all together, besides the freeways,” says Melanie Winter of Friends of the Los Angeles River, the first of several groups to envision a remade L.A. River at the heart of a regional renaissance. “The lack of contact, lack of urban parks, lack of public transportation all contribute to our twisted world view here. Imagine a 52-mile-long green way and bike path from Long Beach to the Valley.”


THE CHALLENGE IS TO SEE A RIVER WHERE NOW THERE IS ONLY A DRAIN. For Winter and others, you can already see it, if you squint–and if you understand the region’s complex hydrology.

The San Fernando Valley’s immense ground water basin–capable of holding more water than all but two of California’s huge man-made reservoirs, Oroville and Shasta–is injected with water pumped over the mountains from hundreds of miles away–a paradox of import and export pioneered and perfected in Los Angeles. The flood-control paradigm is a little like Oz: Behind a curtain of real technical virtuosity, the illusion is held together mostly by belief. In the end, it has come up short in the face of its own success: Every square meter of concrete poured in the river has created yet more vast expanses of pavement, preventing more rainwater from percolating into the ground, sending still more water into the river and increasing the flood threat. Before flood control, 215,000 acres in L.A. County were subject to inundation. By 1940, 325,000 were at risk–50% more area. In the west San Fernando Valley, seven miles of river appeared where none had been before–courtesy of development’s paving over the soil.

Carl Blum, who recently retired as deputy director of the L.A. County Department of Public Works, has conceded: “The river was designed in the ’30s. The design assumptions were made way back when they thought there would be a lot more agriculture, orange groves still out there. And they are not out there.” Since then, nearly the entire non-mountainous portion of the basin has been built out. Ecologists warn that when a watershed becomes more than 15% impermeable, it begins to crash. In the urban part of the L.A. River’s watershed, we have hardened 70% on average–which is to say, overkill, a 100-car pileup. In fact, in a calculation that still holds true, the Corps determined in 1960 that the river couldn’t handle the statistical event of the “100-year flood,” putting at risk the low-lying cities south of the Rio Hondo, including Pico Rivera, Downey, Paramount, Lakewood, South Gate, Lynwood, Compton, Carson and Long Beach.

In the Glendale Narrows, a three-mile stretch from Griffith Park to Elysian Park, the Corps left the bottom of the channel unpaved, or “soft,” because shallow bedrock there forces the underground flow to the surface year-round, making it impossible to pour concrete. Here, near where the last steelhead was caught, nature has staged an improbable comeback: 40-foot-tall willows and cottonwoods have taken root, forming a forest festooned with shredded trash.

The river bubbles in little rapids around polished boulders but remains oddly silent beneath the unearthly roar from I-5, which it squeezes up against. Birds, migratory and resident, swirl in the air and paddle in the water–the river shelters hundreds of species of swallows, ducks, shorebirds, herons. Fifty or so are rare or endangered, likely to be seen nowhere else in Los Angeles.

Taking in this scene, it is not hard to imagine what the river could look like if concrete were taken out along its entire length: a slow stream wandering through lush riparian forest rooted in honest mud, its banks lined with walking and riding paths. At the limit of optimism, some even see a revived run of steelhead trout in deep, slow-moving pools and eddies. But trees and pools back up the rush-hour traffic on the water freeway, and storm water delayed on its journey, just like harried drivers, will get off and flood the surrounding neighborhoods.

If the river is to be slower, it will have to be wider. Blum estimates that a naturalized river would have to be three to six times wider, depending on slope and location–meaning thousands of people and structures would have to be moved. “Where do I put the Long Beach Freeway?” he asks. “Where do I displace all these people?” Retreating from this conceptual precipice, the walking and biking paths are attainable without tempting the fates of flooding–and are relatively cheap. Already a lighted bike path runs through the Glendale Narrows.

Work is set to begin soon on several miles of landscaped bike path along the box channel in Studio City, complete with native plantings, shade trees, benches and pedestrian bridges, at a cost of $10 million over 25 years paid for by a county bond measure approved by voters. To many activists, this amounts to no more than tarting up the drainpipe. But the cosmetic approach shouldn’t be dismissed. Chris Kroll of the California Coastal Conservancy, a state agency, says: “Just because there’s concrete doesn’t mean a river can’t feel natural.” After all, he points out, Paris and Rome have full, hard-jacketed rivers running through them, flanked by roaring, frenetic roads. But in each case, the first difference is human scale: mature trees, boat docks, lighted quays for strolling–all integrating the river into the daily fabric of the city. The second difference is that the Seine and Tiber flow placidly year-round. The Los Angeles decidedly does not.

“What can happen that will allow concrete to come out,” says Blum, “is if enough water is guaranteed not to come into the river.” Since at least the 19th century engineers have known that rivers are dynamic systems: against the yin of straightening the channel for more speed is the yang of detention–keeping the water upstream longer and releasing it slowly. Back in the 1930s, the Army Corps even provided the blueprint for an alternate future on the rest of the river: the Sepulveda Basin, a flood-control structure complete with dam but also home to picnic tables, ball fields, a golf course, lakes, parking lots, a bit of nostalgic agriculture at the Tapia Bros. vegetable fields and stand–and habitat, including one stretch of the river that might not be out of place in the wildest wilderness. Best of all, say both engineers and river-reform activists, the basin provides detention–it, too is soft-bottomed–slowing down flood flows long enough for them to percolate into the ground, taking pressure off the system below the dam. Another example is Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax district, where the city dug out a vast hole, then greened it with ball fields, paths and lawns, all of which are designed to swim during big storms so that the neighbors won’t have to.

With more such basins repeated at different scales up and down the river, activists see a reduced flood threat, less reliance on imported water and, eventually, less concrete and more trees and fish in the river. The problem is, more where?


AT THE BASE OF A STEEP, DUSTY, BOTTLE-STUDDED SLOPE BELOW BROADWAY in Chinatown, barely visible beneath trash and head-high anise, are the last few remaining bricks of L.A.’s first umbilical cord: la zanja madre, the mother ditch, the Spanish engineers’ irrigation system, recently unearthed by amateur archeologists. My guide is Lewis MacAdams, the poet and journalist who founded Friends of the L.A. River 15 years ago. Stretching away from us is a grim swatch of land striped with steel lines, once called the Cornfield, more recently referred to as the Union Pacific Railroad’s Chinatown Yards, 47 acres southeast of Broadway from College Street to the river. Of those, 32 acres are up for grabs.

To MacAdams, this place is the last best opportunity to reclaim downtown’s once-intimate relationship with its river. Beyond its historical link between downtown and the river that made it possible, the land is between a future Blue Line station and Union Station, linking the surrounding communities to one another and the rest of the city. Among the most park-poor in a park-poor city, the neighborhood is in dire need of housing and economic development. MacAdams describes his vision: a park, doubling as flood-water detention–useful because downtown is a flood-hazard zone–housing and perhaps a school. The L.A. Unified School District needs to build 210 schools in six years, but it passed on this site.

The city has other plans. Majestic Realty (its president is Ed Roski Jr., who helped bring us Staples Center and tried to entice the NFL to the Coliseum) is in escrow on the parcel, intending to build nearly 1 million square feet of warehouses. Mayor Richard Riordan has been generous with his support: The city helped Majestic get nearly $12 million in federal money for the project. The planning commission accepted the developer’s assurance that the project will have no environmental downside.

The Riordan administration sees the last developable piece of industrial land near downtown and hears about the 1,000 jobs promised by Majestic. It is the old paradigm: tax breaks in exchange for tax base; industrial development in the city center, housing in distant suburbs. “This is how [the city] has been run forever,” MacAdams complains. “No planning, no civic or urban agenda–just the assumption that what’s good for business must be good for L.A.”

Converting other parcels along the river into detention areas is daunting. Most are slipping away. Taylor Yard, the former 200-acre railroad-maintenance facility in the Narrows, has been whittled down by development to about 100. The Headworks, a 31-acre former water well field across from the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, has been targeted for women’s soccer fields by Riordan, who is under pressure from Title IX activists to provide more space for women’s sports. The idea of relinking that parcel to the neighboring river has been dismissed. Add to this Southern California’s historical governance problems of fragmentation and gridlock, and the welter of jurisdictions along the river–13 cities and 26 government agencies–and the outlook would seem grim.

But the fate of Chinatown Yards may not be settled. A coalition of environmentalists and community activists has stepped forward with Friends of the L.A. River to challenge the planning commission’s ruling, on environmental and other grounds. They promise to make the Cornfield an issue in the 2001 mayoral election.

“The battle over Chinatown Yards I would compare with the battle over Robert Moses trying to put an expressway through Washington Square Park” in New York City, MacAdams says. “He ended up being defeated by a coalition of artists and moms. It was the first defeat for the Forces of Progress. This battle is symbolic for the future of Los Angeles. The future is not building warehouses at the core of the city.”

Earlier this year, springtime might have finally come for the L.A. River. In March, state voters approved two stunning bond issues for parks and water projects: Propositions 12, at $2.1 billion, and 13, at $2 billion. March bonds brought April politicians in full bloom–some of the smiling faces at press conferences were Gov. Gray Davis, Sen. Barbara Boxer, former State Assembly Speaker and L.A. mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, state Resources Secretary Mary Nichols, County Supervisor Gloria Molina and City Councilman Mike Hernandez.

In part this signals what MacAdams calls “a huge coming together of forces and politicians on the issue of urban parkland.” In part, it shows a realization that ignoring the issue may mean political death. Suddenly the land logjam seems to be breaking, washed away by torrents of cash, including $83.5 million from state bonds earmarked for creating a fragmented Los Angeles River state park scattered in various bits and pieces along its 52 miles, plus $10 million to $20 million for projects on the San Gabriel.

The California Coastal Conservancy is funding two studies of major properties that are likely to lead to their acquisition as state parks. They would be remade into showpiece demonstrations of the new mixed-use park and detention thinking.

The first is Taylor Yard, 62 acres of which will become parkland. The remaining 41 have been approved for industrial development, but activists hope to overturn this decision. The second is the Arroyo Seco, where river advocates see the best opportunity to fully naturalize a stream, removing concrete from 11 miles of the drainage from Devil’s Gate dam in Altadena to the confluence with the L.A. River–itself a historic site now buried under railroad tracks, a street and two freeways. On the San Gabriel River, even more possibilities beckon: old gravel pits near the mountains, wetlands near its mouth and, since it is soft-bottomed for all but 10 miles, a mountains-to-mouth green way is not far-fetched. A new state conservancy, created to further these goals, encompasses all of the San Gabriel River and the lower half of the L.A. River.

But will all of these parks amount to more than a Disney riverbank ride along an unchanged concrete channel? If Corps of Engineers calculations are to be believed, it would have taken 30,000 acre-feet of upstream detention just to cancel out the need for higher walls to prevent flooding of those cities along about 20 miles downstream from the Rio Hondo, walls built amid much rancor.

Even were Taylor Yard to include all 200 of its original acres, it could provide just 1,700 acre-feet of storage. It might take 50 such sites before concrete could come out of the river–even at 103 acres, the current best-case scenario, Taylor Yard would be a spot of mud in a concrete sea.


ON AUG. 13, 1998, A SMALLER BUT PERHAPS MORE SIGNIFICANT RAIN BEGAN to fall, aimed by men holding fire hoses on the roof of a modest bungalow in South-Central Los Angeles. A knot of officials was gathered under umbrellas to witness the brief deluge, which had been organized by Andy Lipkis, founder and president of TreePeople, an organization dedicated to making the city environmentally sustainable through cultivating an “urban forest.” Lipkis and his partners had transformed the house into a kind of visionary diagram of all that they see as wrong with how Los Angeles has been conceived, constructed and operated, and of how to remedy it.

Lipkis describes a cycle of addictions, the bad effects of each compounded by the “disintegrated” way the city’s resources are managed: too much pavement–more than 60% of our surface area–heats up the air, causing us to use too much energy to stay cool, driving too many power plants running on imported oil, polluting the air. Too much water runs off the pavement, causing us to spend billions of dollars on flood control and on cleaning up the toxic brew that fouls the beaches. We capture too little of the rainfall: retaining the annual average of 15 inches could satisfy half the city’s needs, reducing the demand for imported water. Too much of our garbage, 30% to 40% of which is clippings from lawns and yards, gets hauled away by too many trucks to too many landfills.

The concept bungalow offered a neat solution: rainwater is captured from the roof and stored in cisterns for yard irrigation later, cutting water use 50%. Additional runoff is allowed to percolate into the ground in “dry wells” built where pavement had been removed. Trees are planted for shade, cutting air-conditioning costs. Yard trimmings are shredded into water-conserving mulch for use on the property, saving water and eliminating many costly, polluting trips to the landfill. All of it, $5,000 to $10,000 for a typical house, would be paid for through a retrofit process modeled on the successful low-flow toilet trade-in campaign but slightly more ambitious.

Lipkis calculates that more than enough public money is already allocated to fund these benefits. For example, Los Angeles will have to invest $10 billion to $20 billion during the next 10 to 20 years for water infrastructure alone–to import it, drain it to the ocean and clean it up. The problem is that the spending has never been rationally thought out and integrated into a single system.

There are reasons to take Lipkis seriously: Several years ago, L.A. Unified wanted to use $187 million of Proposition BB school renovation funds to tear out old asphalt around the district and repave. Lipkis suggested an alternative. In many areas, he said, the district could remove asphalt and plant trees instead of repaving, reducing air-conditioning costs.

The district is now planning on removing 20 million square feet of asphalt from 400 schools, replacing it with grass, shade trees and shrubs, which will be naturally irrigated by rainfall.

Carl Blum was among those huddling under umbrellas outside the bungalow. By several accounts, the then-deputy director of public works had a revelation. “Something happened to Carl that day,” says Lipkis–though the epiphany may have been more gradual, helped along by the Department of Public Works having been sued by TreePeople and Friends of the L.A. River to prevent the clearing of growth from the Glendale Narrows, and having watched, in his 36-year career, an ever-growing portion of flood-control dollars being given to “nonstructural,” non-concrete projects.

“From an engineering standpoint it can all be done,” Blum says. “People say the engineers only know how to do concrete, but that’s what society wanted at that point.” Now he and the county’s engineers are collaborating with TreePeople to find an alternative to a long-delayed, $42-million storm drain the county planned to build in Sun Valley. Using an elaborate computer model developed by the group, the drain will be replaced by a combination of detention basins, cisterns, dry wells and tree planting. An additional tens of millions will be shared by other government agencies looking for gains in air quality, energy, parks, water supply and sanitation.

For its $42-million contribution, the county will not only solve the flooding problem in Sun Valley, but can also keep every drop of a storm that lasts up to four days in that watershed and out of the L.A. River.

How long will it take before the concrete can start to come out of the river? Blum and Lipkis guess 25 to 50 years, depending on how committed Angelenos are and how fast urban renewal proceeds. “We will have to retrofit vast tracts of land to make a difference,” admits Lipkis.

Blum says: “A lot of it will be a paradigm shift in people’s minds. A lot of education has to take place. Five years ago there was a small handful of people; now you can fill meeting rooms, but there are still 10 million people here, so you have to change the mind set of the citizens who, in turn, influence the politicians. I see us turning the Titanic,” he says, then reconsiders. “Not the Titanic, the Queen Mary. It’s going to be slow, but eventually you get there.”

If it is any consolation to the visionaries, Rome, with its engineered Tiber River, wasn’t built in a day. Even the Corps of Engineers needed decades to do its relentless work in Los Angeles.

As for the steelhead, heroic ones continue to turn up in Southern California streams, testing the waters for a possible comeback. There are rumors that a big one was caught a few months ago in Long Beach, nosing from the blue Pacific into the mouth of the L.A. River.