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In the Beginning 

An introduction to and brief history of the river

Wednesday, Aug 8 2001
Photos by Leor Levine
LOS ANGELES IS GATHERING AT THE RIVER. What is the L.A. River? For decades, that was Angelenos’ most common question about it. But you’ve heard of it now, and know something is happening. And yet you might not know where it is, exactly. Or what, exactly, is going on. Or made a pilgrimage to see for yourself. In the past two years, as river restoration has accelerated faster than winter rains down the canyons, the question has evolved from “What is the L.A. River?” to “What is all this L.A. River stuff?” The myriad answers are in this guide. The 21 new parks, the 76 new projects. Why the funds for restoration increased to $100-plus million last year from around $0 million in 1985. Why urban planners, environmentalists, social activists, architects, neighborhood groups, Public Works engineers, bikeway advocates, historians, Environmental Protection Agency officials, City Council members, county supervisors, and state and U.S. senators have all concluded that restoring the river to a more riverlike state is a key strategy in their diverse agendas for health, justice, environment and community in L.A. And most important, how to get there, and what you can see — because the most eloquent advocate for river restoration is the river itself.


The L.A. River is a central natural fact of L.A. L.A. is a river basin. Just look up at the mountains, and you can see that they have to shed water downhill. The river is 51 miles long, and drains huge sectors of the Santa Monica, Santa Susana and San Gabriel mountains. The San Gabriel and Santa Ana rivers flow through the L.A. basin, too, but the L.A. River swings through its heart -- east across the entire San Fernando Valley, around the northeast shoulder of Griffith Park, then due south through downtown and Southeast L.A. into the Long Beach harbor. The river few Angelenos can locate, exactly, crosses the 405, 101, 134, 2, 110, 5, 10, 105, 710 and 91 freeways, and the Pacific Coast Highway. Van Nuys, North Hollywood, Glendale, Boyle Heights, Vernon, Cudahy and Long Beach all sit right on it, as do Elysian Park and Union Station, and Universal, Warner Bros., CBS and DreamWorks. The river flows through 11 cities in Los Angeles County, and joins them all together in one watershed. To say L.A. has no center is a longtime act of denial.

Wildlife refuge, Sepulveda Basin

The L.A. River is where L.A. was founded. In 1781, the settlers from Mexico founded El Pueblo de Los Angeles not by the emerald Pacific Ocean or in the cool mountain air, but by the basin's most plentiful year-round freshwater supply, on the L.A. River at its confluence with the Arroyo Seco. In today's preferred navigational lingo, that's the 5/110 interchange. A lush forest of sycamores and cottonwoods lined the river's banks, and willows choked the floodplain; big patches in the future Valley and South and West L.A. were wetlands. The city spread and leapt outward from its original spot: Now, on a map of the county, it's that chaos downtown where all the freeways meet and tangle up. L.A. used the river as its major source of drinking and irrigation water (and its major sewage dump) for 120 years; it was only after 1900, when the city outgrew its river's water supply, that it went pillaging for water in other watersheds. The river itself stayed put. It was polluted, and pumped almost dry. But it was hardly forgotten, because . . .

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The L.A. River is the most destructively flood-prone river in a major American city. Mark Twain wrote that he fell into a Southern California river and "came out all dusty." True, the river is not startlingly wet most of the year, and can be seasonally dry in spots. Yet it drops 795 feet from Canoga Park to Long Beach -- 190 feet more than the Mississippi drops in 2,350 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. The San Gabriel peaks rise over 7,000 feet, and during storms, all three mountain ranges send torrential rains cascading directly toward L.A. The crescent of land L.A. sits on can hold a megalopolis, but it's small for a river drainage. If you want to build a city in this basin -- and pave over hundreds of square miles of it with impermeable surfaces -- you need a plan to control floods. But what sort of plan?

Storm drain, Glendale Narrows

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