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Creation of a Real Los Angeles River

Updated on March 8, 2017
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Susette has a Masters degree in wise use of natural resources. She leads the Green Council and writes for The Sustainable Business Review.

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.

A still natural section of the Los Angeles River, with ducks, heron, fish, and room to kayak.
A still natural section of the Los Angeles River, with ducks, heron, fish, and room to kayak. | Source

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

Several streams running south through the San Gabriel Mountains join  together one by one to form the river.
Several streams running south through the San Gabriel Mountains join together one by one to form the river. | Source

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, where the bike path will be, 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 city portion of the river is mainly a drainage ditch. In the future this will be a real river surrounded by greenery and bike paths.
The city portion of the river is mainly a drainage ditch. In the future this will be a real river surrounded by greenery and bike paths. | Source

River Flow After Heavy Rains

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.

In the early days of the river, before the massive floods that scared people into channeling it, horseback riding was one of its enjoyments.
In the early days of the river, before the massive floods that scared people into channeling it, horseback riding was one of its enjoyments. | Source
Los Angeles River as seen through the window of a subway train. Note the difference from its original, natural state pictured above.
Los Angeles River as seen through the window of a subway train. Note the difference from its original, natural state pictured above. | Source
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 ~

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 LA 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 is somewhere around 9%, the unemployment rate in city areas around the river is 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. City officials and local nonprofits are well aware of the potential for these communities, and have included that potential in their plans.

Los Angeles River Restoration Vision

A prototype of a restored section of the Los Angeles River, as visualized by the city. Alternative 20 has been approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers headquarters and is now before Congress for funding.
A prototype of a restored section of the Los Angeles River, as visualized by the city. Alternative 20 has been approved by the US Army Corps of Engineers headquarters and is now before Congress for funding. | Source

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.

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.

The River Walk in San Antonio TX is a good example of a restoration project that has become a major tourist attraction and tax boon to the city of San Antonio and its citizens. A private company approved by the city offers boat tours to tourists.
The River Walk in San Antonio TX is a good example of a restoration project that has become a major tourist attraction and tax boon to the city of San Antonio and its citizens. A private company approved by the city offers boat tours to tourists. | Source
  • 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 bike to work along the river.
  • Historic bridges and other structures, public art, and interesting urban design features to see along the way.

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?

See results

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 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

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm not sure how I missed this the first time...sorry about that. I love the way you started this, with the "I have a dream" introduction...and a great dream it is. I have been there and seen that, and coming from Washington with our wild rivers flowing free with banks and wildlife...well, the L.A. River came as quite a shock. Great article; I hope your dream comes true.

    • watergeek profile image
      Author

      watergeek 2 years ago

      Just found out the US Army Corps of Engineers in Washington DC has approved the most comprehensive reconstruction plan (Altern. 20)! They've submitted a request to Congress for funding, so now we'll see what happens.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 23 months ago from Northeast Ohio

      This is a great hub, Watergeek. It's well detailed and informative at the same time. Congrats on HOTD!

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 23 months ago from Chicago Area

      Congrats on Hub of the Day! Well deserved for this interesting and well organized hub. Cheers!

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 23 months ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      I used to live near the Los Angeles River. It was, as you said, a slimy trickle of water in a concrete trench, surrounded by litter, old mattresses, and discarded furniture. I would love to see it restored to something beautiful.

    • watergeek profile image
      Author

      watergeek 23 months ago

      Thank you everyone. I loved writing this hub. It's still one of my favorites, so I'm glad it was chosen, and thank you for reading it and commenting. I, also, cannot wait to see what the river will look like in the end.

    • WannaB Writer profile image

      Barbara Radisavljevic 23 months ago from Templeton, CA

      I saw a lot of this river while growing up in L.A. County, and was always sad I'd never seen a real river. I'm just hoping revitalizing the river won't be wasted effort and money, since I can also envision gangs taking over the surrounding parks and making them unsafe for other citizens. It would be nice to think that access to nature will suddenly cause young criminals to become tree huggers, but it's not realistic. It also seems unfair that the rest of the United States taxpayers should be footing the bill for a lot of this work. Much as I'd like to see the river restored, I think the Army needs to spend more of its money defending the country.

    • watergeek profile image
      Author

      watergeek 23 months ago

      @WannaB - I see what you're saying about potential gang activity. I worry the opposite - that the reconstruction will cause gentrification, which will kick out the low income people, who won't be able to afford the rise in property taxes but have no other place to go. Desperation is how gangs increase their sizes. If the local government were to hire some of these young people to take care of the parks, and somehow prevent developers from taking over the neighborhoods too, then we could possibly decrease gang violence instead.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 23 months ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on HOTD!

      What a fascinating, well-researched and laid-out article!

      I did know about the parts of the "river" that feature in movies, and have little or no water, but I had no idea that there were still viable sections of actual river, or of the plans to restore it to at least some semblance of its former self.

      That would indeed be a wonderful thing to see happen. I don't live in the LA area at all, and don't have a travel budget, so I'm sure I'll only hear of it sporadically as the project moves forward. But move forward I surely hope it does!

      Voted up +++ shared and pinned.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 23 months ago from Home Sweet Home

      at least they didn't close up the river, here in our country, our government is eating up part of the sea, building manmade lands to build condos, offices to make money. Where has the nature gone to?

    • melbel profile image

      Melanie Shebel 23 months ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

      Wow! This is awesome! That river was awesome... just a cement sort of garbage dump. It'll be nice to have a real river running through it! It'll probably really benefit L.A. ecologically. Awesome news!

    • watergeek profile image
      Author

      watergeek 23 months ago

      Thanks folks. In looking for the latest news about how close the US Congress is to appropriating funding (they aren't) I found an article about urban farming along the river. I've added it to the last links section. It's a very interesting article and the project looks doable.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 23 months ago from Oakley, CA

      Not surprising; the current congress is more interested in obstructing anything the POTUS is trying to accomplish...

    • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

      Gypsy Rose Lee 23 months ago from Riga, Latvia

      Excellent and informative hub. Now I want to see the movie and see LA breathe easier.

    • wheelinallover profile image

      Dennis Thorgesen 23 months ago from Central United States

      During heavy rains I have driven on parts of freeways. which become part of the Los Angeles river. It appears they don't have to worry about this for now. It is something I hope they have taken into consideration. Flooding during the rainy season is the reason they put in the concrete "river" which exists today.

      My home today is next to a creek greenway. This year some of my neighbors had flood water in their houses. The flooding here is caused by two turns in the river. One where the creek feeds the river. When it floods the water backs up the creek causing my local flooding. This is something they intend to do with this plan. Those changes should take into account the excess water during floods.

      I do have benefits as well. Deer, foxes, skunks, and snakes all frequent my yard. A great barn owl sings me to sleep some nights. On the days take time to go outside I see the tracks of deer and other wildlife as well as a large number of birds including a single cardinal.

      The current culture can only be changed one individual at a time. If the teachers and adults don't explain what the people will gain, they won't gain as much as they could.

    • watergeek profile image
      Author

      watergeek 23 months ago

      These days the biggest floods we have in the LA area are from broken water mains. :-( If you really look at it, wheelinallover, it doesn't matter whether a river bottom is concrete or gravel where floods are concerned. What matters is any obstructions in the river or its outlets. So it would need regular maintenance, once it's built. Once we have a more natural habitat we'll also be able to enjoy some of those great benefits you have. BTW the last big flood (natural) was in 2005 (37 in. of rain) and before that 1938 (10 in.)

      .

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