Los Angeles River Basin Past, Present & Future

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

Imagine the Los Angeles basin as a rolling grassland with the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers flowing through riparian lowlands of cottonwood, alder and sycamore. Further imagine marshes, lagoons and large lakes interlaced with thickets of willow, grape and brambles, chaparral and oak forests draping the hills, numerous springs bubbling to the surface, even hot springs and tar seeps. Snowclad mountains provide the water, and marine estuaries and the ocean receive the clear, clean streams. Marshes, lagoons and dunes lie along the coast. Peaceful villages of the native Kumi vit dot the landscape from the mountains to the coast.

That’s what Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola saw when he rode into the Los Angeles basin in / 769. Portola soon established the first mission at San Gabriel. In 1781 twelve families numbering 46 people founded the pueblo that would become Los Angeles, located at a village site of the Kumi vit (renamed Gabrielinos by the Spaniards) overlooking the river. Before long the Spaniards drained the marshes and farmed the rich soil. The natives were forced to provide the labor as the era of a natural landscape populated by a peaceful people ended.

Today, the Los Angeles River pours into Long Beach Harbor near downtown Long Beach. The CCT crosses the river on Anghim Street before entering downtown, coming out on the river channel at Shoreline Village. The river is unrecognizable, encased in a concrete lined ditch designed to hasten flood waters through the intensely developed Los Angeles basin. Almost all of the 51 miles of the main stem and the 400 miles of tributaries suffer the same indignity, funneled into a huge storm drain to protect the area from the short but occasionally intense rainy season and naturally occurring flooding of lowlands.As the population grew and the economy flourished, the open flood plains and marshes lured development irresistibly. After a severe flood in 1914, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District formed to interdict the natural patterns of the river. Dams and basins attempted to tame the river to no avail. The river flooded severely in 1934 and again in 1938, killing 113 people and causing $800 million in damage (1990 dollars). In 1936 Congress approved the Flood Control Act. Soon 15,000 depression era people went to work on the project. By 1954 almost the whole river system suffered imprisonment while development continued unabated. 

The population keeps growing, creating more hard surface. With rain unable to penetrate the paved ground, even more water hits the drainage ditches. The Corp of Engineers warns that low lying areas (former marshes) along the river risk flooding in an exceptionally heavy rainy season. The solution proposed by the county’s Public Works Department, a $280 million project to increase the river’s carrying Capacity, places concrete parapets up to eight feet high along the banks for 21 miles. 

Not everyone accepts that solution or has given up on the river. The failure of Mississippi River dikes in 1993 floods showed that channelizing rivers to get the water downstream as quickly as possible is a doomed approach. Friends of the River, a group started in / 989, proposes to work with natural forces, making the river an environmental asset for the people and wildlife of the region. Several stretches of the river remain in a semi-natural state, with soft bottom and natural vegetation lining the banks. The Friends want to see any further flood control measures more in line with nature. Proposals include wider soft-bottomed channels, flood basins with riparian habitat, permeable surfaces in the watershed to reduce runoff and direct the runoff into the aquifer. They envision a greenway from mountains to sea with trails along naturalized banks connecting parks and natural areas with neighborhoods.

With environmentalists and developers at odds, the contentious discussion continues over the best approach. The city and county prefer engineering methods. Supported by developers, they want the land along the river for projects instead of open space and flood basins. The city and county began a watershed master plan project with many jurisdictions and interest groups participating. While acknowledging the concept of a river greenway, authorities seem to favor the parapet plan.

Friends of the River and the environmental coalition Unpave LA. continue to press for parks, greenways and trails, using a campaign of education and information. Will the river remain simply a concrete drainage ditch, or can it again resemble at least in part the river of old, meandering through wildlife-rich riparian forests and marshes? Can the people of LA. again come to appreciate the river flowing in their midst?

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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