The Building of a Real Los Angeles River
I have a dream . . . that the concrete, congested, building-packed, stressed out, star-studded City of Los Angeles become a beautiful, romantic city with rivers and streams running throughout. I dream of parks and bike paths, of walkers and nature photographers, of parents teaching and children learning about wildlife along the river and streams. I dream of tourists and engineers flocking to the city and residents proud to be living here. I dream of a balanced traffic flow of bicycles and buses, trains, and a few cars. I dream of all the underground storm drains opened into streams planted with trees, bushes, and flowers. And I dream of the Los Angeles River being a real river, fed by rain and in turn feeding the aquifer. This is all possible. We've already started the process with the LA River.
What Is the Los Angeles River?
The Los Angeles River is currently a drainage ditch along most of its 51 mile length, according to its primary builder, the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps). Although Los Angeles has no current plan to open storm drains into streams, it has already turned 11 miles of the "ditch" into the semblance of a real river. The three mile Glendale Narrows has been opened to public use for the first time in 75 years. Local residents, clubs, the mayor of Los Angeles, and representatives of the Corps have already been fishing or kayaking down its length.
In a recent move the City, several council members, and LA County teamed up to finance the next leg of reconstruction - completion of a 12 mile bike path and walkway from West Valley (just south of Alhambra) to Griffith Park near the zoo. The paths will be shaded and flanked by natural habitat to encourage the return of wildlife.
Los Angeles River Map
The rest of the river is still a concrete-bottomed ditch, where only a thin trickle of slimy green water normally flows, surrounded by graffiti and trash. When it rains, city storm drains pour water into the concrete channel and flush the pollution out to the sea.
The few soft-bottomed areas of the river, beside which the bike path will run, are inhabited by wildlife, including over 200 species of birds. Alongside them the city has already built nearly 30 miles of walking and bike paths, regularly used by the public. It's new 12 mile path will extend that network.
This is not the first time the county and city have teamed up. In fact, some portions of the river are not contained in the city at all, and those the county is fully responsible for. Both government entities provide funding and staffing for river projects, as does the local branch of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Los Angeles River - City Channel
The L.A. River starts in the foothills north of Simi Valley, is joined by drainage from neighboring foothills, then runs south through the middle of the city, eventually exiting at Long Beach Harbor, which hosts one of the biggest ports in the world.
On an average day, 207 million gallons of fresh water flows through its mouth into the ocean. Some of that water comes from rain, some from irrigation overflow, some from water reclamation plants. None of it replenishes the aquifer.
River Flow After Heavy Rains
Tax Dollars to Support the Los Angeles River
In 2012 the US Army Corps of Engineers, supported by the city and multiple nonprofits, completed a comprehensive study of what it would take to rebuild the Los Angeles River. The Corps evaluated the feasibility of 33 alternatives and selected four, one of which was supported by all local participants and was approved in 2015 by the US Army Corps headquarters in Washington DC.
The plans call for both federal and local governments to finance the river's upgrade. Total cost could exceed one billion dollars, which is expected to be recouped by the economic uplift of neighboring communities and by tourism.
It's a great temptation to see the river's reconstruction as a costly enterprise that will draw tourists, but do nothing for the city's residents. However, actual demographics show the enormous potential for residents to benefit as well.
According to year 2000 census data, over 9,000,000 people live alongside or near the full 51 mile stretch of the Los Angeles River. Most of these communities have fallen into disrepair, like the river itself, and many of them are some of the poorest in the nation.
Along the eleven miles proposed for revitalization there are more than 1,000,000 people living within half a mile of the river, including more than 480,000 workers, many without jobs. Whereas the national unemployment rate in 2016 was somewhere around 9%, the unemployment rate in city areas around the river was an average of 18.4% unemployed.
These are the one million people whom reconstruction of the river could help most - in increased recreational and health opportunities, increased employment, and the opportunity to sell crafts, food, and services to an increasing number of tourists and cyclists. City officials and local nonprofits are well aware of the potential for these communities, and have included that potential in their plans.
If you can't imagine the L.A. River as the swan in L.A.'s future, then try to imagine it as a truly spectacular duck.
~ Jenny Price, Writer and L.A. River tour guide ~
- Guadalupe River Park Conservancy
Community projects are a good way for locals to engage with the river. Here are some designed by Guadalupe River neighbors in San Jose.
City Revitalization Plans for the LA River
The development plan preferred by the cities of Los Angeles and Burbank, and now approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, includes the following:
- Restoring wildlife habitat, including removing invasive vegetation (338 acres) and planting native species (288 acres). Installing signage to remind visitors to respect newly created wildlife areas.
- Connecting restored areas to wildlife habitat already existing, like the Santa Monica Mountains, Verdugo Hills, Elysian Hills, and the San Gabriel Mountains.
- Deepening or widening the river bed in areas identified as beneficial. Removing concrete bottoms and sides, so water can seep down into the aquifer.
- Building terraced, planted banks along the edge of the river, along with park areas and bike paths.
- Restoring and maintaining a riparian ecosystem along suitable banks of the river. Opening up culverts that connect 14 streams to the river and creating wetlands (46 acres).
- Recurving the river where possible, or creating backwater areas to slow down the flow and allow for absorption of water into the aquifer.
- Turning the Verdugo Wash into an open marsh, and Piggyback Yard (a rail yard) and other unused areas into public parks. Relocation of railroad tracks in Piggyback Yard to trestles above the river.
- Removing accumulated trash and sediment deposits, as well as minimizing negative reconstruction effects on the river. Installing fencing, grading, and plantings to prevent dirt and land pollutants from washing into the river when it rains.
Los Angeles River Restoration Vision
See interactive maps here:
- Visit the LA River | Los Angeles River Revitalization
There are so many ways to experience the Los Angeles River!
Expected Benefits of the Revitalized River
Tourists are used to seeing and weighing the relative merits of different destinations. Here are some of the benefits you can expect to see more of, as LA river restoration is completed.
- Lots of recreation areas, including parks, wetlands, promenades, and ponds that will encourage residents to take good care of their properties, each other, and tourists who come.
- Corridors for wildlife to travel easily from the river to current wildlife preserves, opening the way for native species to re-establish themselves from the river to the mountains. Great for wildlife photography and tracking.
- Higher employment rates in neighboring communities, whose residents will help maintain the new recreation areas, and provide food and ethnic crafts for sale to tourists.
- Less congestion on the freeway and city streets, as more people cycle to work along the river.
- Historic bridges and other structures, public art, and interesting urban design features to see along the way.
- Growing Quality of Life | Science Findings
Urban greenery provides relief from the built environment. Two new studies explore the measurable effects that urban trees and green spaces have on human health and crime rates.
Potential Negative Impacts of River Reconstruction
The river reconstruction will also have some negative impacts, many of which will decline over time. For example, air quality will be disturbed with all the construction equipment. There may be impacts associated with closing rail yards and converting industrial lands to parks. Traffic will be impacted as some roads and rail lines are closed or rerouted. Birds and other wildlife will be temporarily impacted during construction, but are expected to recover and thrive afterward with the increase in native vegetation.
Which do you think could be the biggest benefit to reconstruction?
Los Angeles is Changing
Can you imagine how the tenor of Los Angeles would change, if the entire length of the Los Angeles River were to look and act like a real river? Can you imagine all of the benefits listed above applying to all the communities up and down its 51 mile length?
That would be nine million people uplifted - nine million people whose lives would be enhanced by nature. Wildlife and native fish would have a place to thrive. Our kids would have trees to climb, and natural habitats to teach them who they are or could be. Adults would have a place to unwind from work, to calm themselves, to regroup. Traffic would be safer with drivers more calm - maybe even speed up a little, as more people bicycle to work.
The city expects the current project to take about ten years to complete, all told. The aim is to have the entire river revitalized by 2025. If citizens living near the river were to assist, it could be completed even before that time.
In any case, tourists who like watching things grow could visit several times over the decade, take pictures, and be able to say, "I was there and saw the whole thing change."
Los Angeles River History
Check these links for more in depth information:
- State Legislature Approves $100 Million For LA River Restoration | CBS Los Angeles
The California Legislature approved $100 million in Proposition 1 funding for restoration of the 51-mile Los Angeles River.
- Los Angeles River Revitalization | City of Los Angeles
This project will restore hundreds of acres of habitat along an 11 mile stretch of the river and is an opportunity to create more open space throughout our congested metropolis.
- Lower LA River Revitalization Plan
Get involved with the Lower LA River Implementation Advisory Group (IAG), a public discussion outlet for future proposed projects relating to the Lower LA River.