Life of the L.A. River

It isn’t the Mississippi, but the city’s namesake waterway may be on the path to renewal. Put on your galoshes—we’re going in

When the expedition of the Spaniard Don Gaspar de Portolá stumbled through Southern California in 1769, it found what Tongva Indians had discovered long before: “a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river.” Bivouacked where downtown would rise a century later, the explorers called the waterway “the Porciúncula.” Without the Los Angeles River, there would be no Los Angeles. But those who lived near its banks inevitably learned the same lesson: Paradise was a floodplain. Shallow and unassuming most of the year, the Los Angeles could transform into a feral beast during the rainy season. In the winter of 1884—the city’s wettest on record—three straight weeks of rain tore out bridges, sending homes, people, and livestock into the turbid current. By 1938, after several other floods, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began plans to dig out and pave the waterway, transforming most of its 51 miles into what many regard as a massive drainage ditch. But it’s our massive drainage ditch, and through the efforts of groups like Friends of the Los Angeles River, the flood control channel is being transformed again—if not to its original state, then to something less severe and more a part of the city. Each spring FoLAR leads the Great L.A. River Cleanup, or La Gran Limpieza, with volunteers picking up tons of trash. This year’s, on April 30, will be the biggest yet: FoLAR is competing with the Friends of the Chicago River to see who can bring out the most volunteers. When you go, you’ll need some facts to impress comrades as you gather the river’s urban detritus.

Riparian Hell
Talk of channelizing the river began after the floods of 1914. Floods in 1934 killed 49 people. In 1938, just after the Army Corps of Engineers began its work, floods killed 87.

Channel Surfing
The world’s longest paved waterway, the Los Angeles River Flood Control Channel was conceived as a “water freeway”; during storms, its currents can reach 45 mph.

Banking on It
There are 17 miles of bike path along its banks. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan envisions more than $2 billion in improvements, including a series of parks, over 25 to 50 years.

Urban Ecology
The river runs through 15 cities on its course from the Santa Susana Mountains to Long Beach Harbor. All told, about 13 miles of the river bottom remain unpaved.

Troubled Waters
A popular dumping ground, the river was deemed a “mass of filth” by the Los Angeles Times in 1896. From the 1940s to the ’60s, it was tainted with dangerous levels of chromium 6.

Feeling Flush
In dry months the trickle in the channel is mostly discharge from the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the Valley. It is considered suitable for irrigation.

Altered Spate
The river has changed course several times. Before 1825, it traveled through marshland between Baldwin Hills and Beverly Hills, hence the street name La Cienega, or “the swamp.”

River Tour:

theessentials_masa_tThe headquarters are beside Canoga Park High School, at the confluence of the Calabasas Creek and Bell Creek Box Channels.

theessentials_masa_tBrett Goldstone’s Great Heron Gate stands by Glendale Narrows, a three-mile segment of river with a soft bottom, a newly extended bike path, and lush plant growth.

theessentials_masa_tTen bridges cross the river downtown, including the 6th Street Viaduct, which went up in 1932 and is slated to be rebuilt.

theessentials_masa_tLast July at Compton Creek, EPA administration Lisa Jackson reclassified the river a “traditional navigable waterway,” entitling it to protection under the Clean Water Act.


Movie Madness:

Soldiers go into the river in search of giant ants.

Jake Gittes sees a shady deal going down in the channel.

Terminator 2
The governor from our future rides his Harley to salvation.



Even amid so much concrete, a lively ecosystem has managed to muddle on

theessentials_masa_tThe Santa Ana sucker and Arroyo chub—two local natives—are scarce in the river’s lower reaches, where carp, fathead minnows, black bullhead catfish, green sunfish, and mosquito fish thrive.

theessentials_masa_tCottonwoods, willows, cattails, sycamores, and other natives grow along unpaved portions, despite such invasive plants as the bamboo-like arundo.

theessentials_masa_tSeveral endemic species live on the river, including great blue herons and snowy egrets. More than 300 species of migratory birds use it.

UPDATE: Click here to read about Paddle the L.A. River, the first non-motorized boating program permitted to offer canoe and kayak trip along the Los Angeles River in the San Fernando Valley. [ August 9, 2011]

Photographs by Sian Kennedy.Illustrations by Bill Sanderson.