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The city of Los Angeles and water in the channelized Los Angeles River from Maywood, California.

To tame flooding in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers encased three-quarters of the river in a concrete ditch.

Photograph by Rich Reid, National Geographic

Hillary Rosner in Los Angeles

for National Geographic

Published July 19, 2014

There's a stretch of the Los Angeles River in the Elysian Valley, roughly midway along its 51-mile route to the sea, where native willows rise from the east bank and arundo—an invasive grass—closes in from the west. If you're lucky enough to be out there in a kayak, and there's no train rushing past on the tracks above, you will hear something very strange in this city of millions: quiet.

On a recent evening, Omar Brownson, the head of the L.A. River Revitalization Corporation, leaned back in his red plastic kayak, closed his eyes, and listened to the soothing sounds of birds singing and water slipping over rocks.

Wait—Los Angeles has a river?

Well, sort of. Once upon a time, gathering waters from an underground aquifer in the San Fernando Valley and from the surrounding mountains, the river nourished a lush coastal plain, creating rich soils that covered the region. Today, it's largely encased in concrete and barely recognizable as a river.

But thanks to an agreement this spring between the city and the federal government, the overlooked waterway is slated for a $1 billion restoration effort. That plan covers an 11-mile (17.7-kilometer) section of the river that runs roughly from Glendale to downtown. The ultimate goal: transform a neglected wasteland into an urban oasis—a 51-mile greenway, complete with bike path, bridges, parks, public art, waterfront businesses, and, at the center, a thriving river. Imagine New York City's High Line, but aquatic and at three dozen times the scale.

"The L.A. River," says Brownson, who grew up in Los Angeles, "is one of the few chances we have to hit the reset button."

Paddle the LA River participants come to the end of their journey through the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area.
Participants in Paddle the L.A. River, a program run by the L.A. Conservation Corps, kayak through the Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area in June 2014.
Photograph by Bill ALkofer/The Orange County Register/ZUMA Press, Inc /Alamy

Taming the Torrent

When the Tongva Indians first came to the area, as early as 5000 B.C., they settled on the river's lush banks. Cottonwoods and willows towered above the water, and bears foraged in thick tangles of berry bushes.

Much later, as Los Angeles boomed in the mid-1800s, European settlers built in the river's floodplain. For much of the year, it was a meandering creek. But winter rains turned it into a cascade, overflowing its banks and washing away whatever was in its path. That path shifted dramatically: At some periods the river emptied into San Pedro Bay near Long Beach (as it does today), at others into Santa Monica Bay to the northwest.

Over the next century, a series of catastrophic floods leveled buildings and swept away residents. In 1934, after a devastating flood on New Year's Day, Congress stepped in, authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to tame the river. They deepened its channel and encased three-quarters of the river in a concrete ditch, fixing it once and for all in its current—artificial—path.

Since then, it has looked more like an irrigation canal or a "water freeway," a narrow ribbon of water running at the base of gray concrete slabs. John Travolta's iconic car race in the movie Grease? It took place on the bed of the L.A. River, just south of City Hall.

In 1985, environmentalists began campaigning to restore parts of the river to its natural state—a vision that took shape over the intervening decades, with help from a few key champions of the river. Today, that vision is officially under way. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who took office a year ago, has made the river a focal point of his administration—even traveling to Washington to lobby President Obama in person.

In late May, the Army Corps of Engineers approved the far more ambitious of two competing proposals to revitalize the river. The plan, known as Alternative 20, involves tearing down roughly six miles (9.6 kilometers) of concrete walls and replacing them with a series of green terraces and wetlands, many of which will merge into parks. It will be several years before the concrete removal begins; the Army Corps plan still needs congressional authorization.

Beginnings of a Greenway

In the meantime, though, the city has been buying up chunks of land—most of them barren lots of crumbling asphalt—on the river's eastern flanks, in a bid to build a chain of parks where, says Brownson, "it'll be seamless in terms of how the city and the river come together."

Brownson's organization is raising money on a project-by-project basis, bringing together funds from city, state, and county coffers as well as from private and philanthropic sources. Their first major construction project is a $9 million pedestrian and bicycle bridge that will connect the east side of the river to a bike path and the 4,200-acre Griffith Park on the west side. Visible from the I-5 freeway, it's intended as a symbol of the river rising again.

Metaphorically rising, at least. Whatever happens, the Los Angeles River still has to function as a flood control channel. "Anything we do cannot lessen that," says Brownson. The river can't be allowed to shift its course over a large floodplain, as it once did, because there's now a major city in the way.

Brownson sees that constraint as similar to the one imposed on a poet by the sonnet form. "How can you be creative," he says, "within a set number of syllables and stanzas? Instead of it being a limiter of what's possible, it's just a structure for how do you create within that frame." The finished project, he says, will have to blend together wetlands and picnic spots, flood control terraces and bird habitat.

"This has the opportunity to become a regional natural resource," says Barbara Romero, the city's public works commissioner. "It's basically redefining people's opportunity to experience nature in their neighborhoods."

Much of the river is still inaccessible even to locals. In one neighborhood, 27 streets dead-end at the river but only four have proper access; the rest end at chain-link fences. One of the revitalization corporation's projects, called Street Ends, will help communities design and build their own gateways to the river.

A man fishes along the Los Angeles River in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Thursday, June 5, 2014.
A man fishes along the Los Angeles River in June 2014. A plan to return the river to a more natural state will cost an estimated $1 billion.
Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon, Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kayaking Through Elysium

Last summer, four kayaking companies set up shop, offering tours of two distinct stretches: a float through a calm, flat section called Sepulveda Basin, or a wilder journey down the Elysian Valley that involves four small rapids and considerable navigation among rocks. In both sections, the river—due to engineering challenges that the Army Corps faced during the channelization—retains some of its soft bottom rather than running over a concrete base.

When I kayaked the Elysian Valley with Brownson, as part of a group led by two local artists who run L.A. River Kayak Safari, the wildlife on display included a heron, an egret, several cormorants, and a smattering of ducks. Still, for much of the two-mile journey downriver, it was hard to forget that we were in the center of a major city. Trucks rumbled on freeways; double-decker commuter trains thundered past. And those concrete walls remained in place.

The L.A. River will never be wild. Even the water running through it is domesticated: 80 percent of the flow now comes from a wastewater treatment plant in the San Fernando Valley, next to Sepulveda Basin. Steven Appleton, who runs the kayak company and has visited the plant, advises his clients not to drink the water but not to worry about accidental ingestion.

The river project is primarily a sweeping exercise in urban renewal rather than nature restoration. Ed Reyes, a former city council member who was instrumental in pushing the river agenda, says he saw an opportunity to make smart decisions at a crucial time—expanding bike paths, reinstalling wetlands, turning abandoned industrial areas into parks.

"If we don't begin to identify spaces along the freeway, along our corridors, think about how we get water to our trees—if we don't build in these policies as new developments come online, we're going to miss an important phase in our city's growth," Reyes recalls thinking. The river, he believed, could be the catalyst for a whole new framework of city planning. "We have to formalize it through the river corridor," Reyes says, "and branch out from there, like a nervous system."

At the end of a two-and-a-half-mile kayak journey, Brownson and I pulled our boats out at a small sandy "beach"—roughly a kayak length wide—and portaged them up a steep trail to the bike path. From there, we placed them on tiny sets of wheels and pulled them down the path, under a fence, through a little park, and along the sidewalk to a waiting truck. Overhead on the I-5, oblivious to the river, traffic lurched onward.

37 comments
Arleine VonWagner
Arleine VonWagner

The river ran behind my grandparents home in Canoga Park.  It was a wonderful place to go play and explore.  A delight for all the kids.  It was a sad, sad day when they destroyed it and made it concrete.


As for mosquitoes - they breed in standing water, not flowing water. 

Robert Dahl
Robert Dahl

Could and should have been done years ago. But take into consideration the impending drought years.

Maya Tsho
Maya Tsho

Love it! Taking the train over the rivers in LA is a very depressing sight. Especially when at the source of where LA get its water in the Sierras the water is so pure, beautiful & clean. Grateful for this project & the abundance of meaningful work it will provide for those who get to be apart of this amazing transition. Everyone has a right to live with clean air, water and air.

Srihari Yamanoor
Srihari Yamanoor

I would point the author to Northern California where the same Army Corps is using shallow excuses to prevent the widening of the Guadalupe River. Writing about that would be very nice. 

Michael Stenstrom
Michael Stenstrom

I recently took a one-day photo outing with the LA Center for Photography. It was an interesting trip, from the Sepulveda Dam area to Vernon, south of LA. There are some very beautiful stretches with lots of birds - ducks of various sorts. The bridges are also interesting from an engineering/architectural prospective. The River could be quite a resource for Los Angelenos. It needs more water and money to undo a lot of things that have been done to it. Even so, there are places even now that are worth visiting, and worth visiting more than once. 


mks


Duane Nash
Duane Nash

Reintroduction of beaver into tributaries of the LA river and the LA river itself offers a mean to increase water storage, dissipate floods and droughts, bolster habitat heterogeneity, and increase biodiversity.

southlandbeaver.blogspot

Miguel Paredes
Miguel Paredes

The people in Elysian Valley are worried about how this will negatively impact our community because what we are seeing is outside interest coming in and buying out the poor working-class people. We understand this to be gentrification and not any kind of progress because it does not benefit the Mexican, Filipino, and Chinese American residents of the neighborhood.

As far as the river project, we are not opposed to it but feel that the project must be mindful of the impact that it will have in the community because we understand that this project is NOT designed for the poor working-class Mexican people who live there. The development must reflect the community or it does not serve the city or anyone but those already in power.

In any case, we will be watching closely to ensure this is not a repeat of what we saw in Chavez Ravine over 50 years ago when three separate Mexican-American communities were displaced in an attempt to promote a public works project that turned out to be a private enterprise for the Los Angeles Dodgers. We have a long and historically rooted memory around here in Northeast LA.

Danny Wigington
Danny Wigington

If they tear the concrete out how are they going to deal with the mosquito's? I lived next to the river in Maywood and Bell before it was paved and I remember how bad they were. That needs to be addressed before any work is done.

RAYMOND OLANDER
RAYMOND OLANDER

With the severe drought and the accompanying water shortage in CA, why would the water be allowed to run off into either bay, and ultimately out to sea? Why can't it be dammed and used as an emergency reservoir?  

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

I want to see the LA river cleaned as a symbol of hope for conservation. true it will never be what it once was but it can stand as a statement of new age ressource consumption:


"we take, use, clean and return"


Rarian Rakista
Rarian Rakista

They should tear down 30-40% of the single family homes in LA county and make the East Side a wetlands.  

Connie  Dalton
Connie Dalton

I grew up there and am amazed to see water there at all. In the 30 years I spent there I never saw more than just a trickle and now with all the water shortages to see water enough for fishing and boating is fantastic and gives me hope for the area. 

ztev conrad
ztev conrad

And the flood channel, where will the flood waters go ?

This is a great idea but the next big flood will tear it all away, or overflow the banks into  the suburban areas.  As the  city has paved more of the  suburban area increasing peak runoff the water  has to go somewhere. Where are the plans to  increase storage in the canyons or slow runoff in the streets and houses

James Putnam
James Putnam

Restoration of the watershed is the first step to improving environmental health.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

There are SO MANY rivers and other water ways that were lined with concrete and even COMPLETELY SURROUNDED WITH CONCRETE AND BURIED that have been long forgotten that need to be uncovered and restored to their previous state. Most of these waterways have the capability to restore towns and cities their wilder side and the wild life will return. The fish and turtles and other creatures will finally have a place to be and many endangered species will thrive. These waters are what originally GAVE LIFE TO THE AREAS, And they are why many of the cities were established where they were. The people NEED THESE WATERWAYS, and our children need them. We need to support the many plans in the many cities and towns that want to restore then to their more natural states. We are made of mostly water, It is in us and all around us and it should be protected for our future.

Jonathan McFarland
Jonathan McFarland

@Illyria Mxo I am a Christian who loves this article.  (Not that it's synonymous with Republican, but I admit the similarity).  I love that new companies are setting up shop.  God gave Adam responsibility to take care of the planet, and we should be at the front of the charge.  The Bible is all about integrity and doing the right thing, even when it costs me (profiteering is not encouraged).  It's no challenge to His return, as nothing we can do can delay that except perhaps NOT spreading His love.  Regarding the dates; the Bible genealogies place the start about 6500 years ago, and though I reject the stated dates, it doesn't result in hate.  I love because I have been well loved.

I know I may be inviting a firestorm and these sentiments will be very unpopular in this forum, I just want to be the change I want to see in the world, and speak up.

Scott Hagerman
Scott Hagerman

@Miguel Paredes You mean American families?   I dont recognize "Mexican-American" families.    Why do you have to make this about race anyways?   You are whats wrong with this country.

Duane Nash
Duane Nash

@RAYMOND OLANDER Because, as the article metions, 80% of the flow is treated effluent i.e wastewater. Reintroduction of beaver would be a natural compromise of course that would benefit habitat heterogeneity, replenish groundwater, aquatic life, and bird life.  

southlandbeaver.blogspot

Rarian Rakista
Rarian Rakista

@James Putnam Can't happen unless you completely tear down adjacent buildings and infrastructure.  Simply too much concrete in LA.  

craig hill
craig hill

@Scott Hagerman @Miguel Paredes Actually, the use of Mexican-American is to stress the racism behind the removal of the large number of families squatting in the Ravine. Had they been poor Anglo squatters, the situation might not have been handled as blatantly in the dismissal of concern for those people. Needless, to say (?) AVOIDING the reminder of their ethnic identities keeps the continuation of that specific sort of racism, rampant today, under wraps.


I found your highfalutin' umbrage offensive, a braggadocio extolling how color-blind thou art, to the detriment of the ethnic identities of the people you seemingly profess concern about. It's not about your pain. Further, your insistence to nullify their identities makes your outrage suspiciously racist in itself.

Chris Meyering
Chris Meyering

@Scott Hagerman @Miguel Paredes Im as American as they come and a fifth generation Californian and I fully understand what Miguel is saying. Chavez Ravine was a true human tragedy that we never hear about. Entire communities were displaced for pennies on the dollar and we cant make the same mistake again. 

However, I do agree with the "Mexican -American" krap. Its annoying and not productive in terms of building a society. You're either an American or you're not.

Miguel Paredes
Miguel Paredes

God Bless America!

Someday I will believe that this applies to all of us...

James Luna
James Luna

@Scott Hagerman Historically, it's been poorer, ethnic, working-class communities that have been shafted-- economically and politically-- whenever it comes to past large-scale municipal projects here in LA (ie; the Chavez Ravine affair.) I'd suggest you brush up on your local history, because your sheer ignorance is *exactly* whats wrong w/ this country.

#SupportTheLARiver #ButInvolveTheSurroundingCommunities

Maya Tsho
Maya Tsho

I honor your concerns and agree no one should be displaced. As long as your community stays the impact can only be positive with places for children to play, families to fish and the environment made more beautiful. Perhaps one is better to commit to supporting this project & supporting the social rights of the people as well. This way nature & the people flourish.

Srihari Yamanoor
Srihari Yamanoor

@Miguel Paredes Except YOU are the one that brought race into the equation. You could have said poor, middle class and downtrodden and had the positive effect you SAY you wanted to have, yet you chose to talk about race. 

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