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A river story: confined but not contained

The L.A. River, once reduced to a giant storm drain, is finding new life

By James Blair Special to The Christian Science Monitor / June 28, 2001


James Arness battled giant mutant ants in it in the early 1950s.

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Half a century later, Arnold Schwarzenegger outraced a homicidal, truck driving, liquid-metal terminator through its dusty, high-walled channel.

Altogether it's seen more Hollywood chases than most studio back lots. Like so much on screen, of course, this incredible stretch of concrete canyon is not what it appears to be. In fact, this familiar backdrop is the Los Angeles River.

Once the very lifeblood of the old pueblo of Los Angeles, the river today seems to many Angelenos to have been engineered into marginal inconsequence - simply a giant storm drain or the butt of talk-show jokes.

Yet as the rest of the nation watches Californians struggle to ensure an adequate supply of electricity, how people here choose to manage their river may well determine whether the 10 million residents of Los Angeles County will have enough of a commodity far more basic to sustaining their lives and economy: water.

To understand the struggles it is necessary to understand something of the river's history.

When the first Spanish explorers came upon it in August 1769, the river appeared a pleasant stream meandering through stands of cottonwoods, alders, sycamores, oaks, and walnuts. Steelhead trout could be taken from its waters. Pronghorn antelope, grizzly bears, and cougar were common. Overhead soared scores of different birds, including the giant Condor.

That promise of plentiful water and fertile land was enough to attract a group of 45 settlers from Mexico in 1781. As the new pueblo grew and prospered, however, the settlers discovered their river was more than a placid stream.

Even today, constrained as it is, the Los Angeles can be a dangerous body of water, says Doug Shure of Friends of the L.A. River.

During its 51-mile journey from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific, the Los Angeles drops about the same amount in altitude as the Mississippi does in more than 2,200 miles.

Flood velocities in the modern channel can approach 30 feet per second and, with less than three feet of water, it packs enough punch to "flush a car" all the way to the ocean.

What the early settlers were to learn was that they had built on a vast sloping flood plain and the river - swollen by seasonal rains and runoff from the mountain ranges to the east - could have a mind of its own.

River's flooding days were numbered

Real trouble came in 1815, when the flooding Los Angeles washed away the town plaza and, more importantly, changed its course. Where it had flowed westward through what is now downtown, eventually emptying into Santa Monica Bay, it suddenly shifted its mouth miles farther south down to San Pedro Bay. Later flooding would change the river's course again and again until it finally settled on its present site at Long Beach.

By 1904, the growing city's need for water had outstripped the supply from both the river and local aquifers, and development had sprouted along both sides of the river.

Moreover, the city was now largely populated by Easterners who expected rivers to behave as predictably as they generally did in New York or Ohio.

The seasonal threats of the Los Angeles were a challenge to a duel; and in the fight to "tame" Mother Nature, America's choice of weapon well into the 20th century was heavy civil engineering.

From the Brooklyn Bridge to the Panama Canal, there was nothing, it seemed, that iron, steel, and concrete couldn't handle. No surprise then that severe flood damage in 1914 brought the first talk of channelizing the river and the establishment of a flood-control district.

Even deadlier flooding in the 1930s which claimed more than 100 lives made channelization a reality. By the 1960s, the natural Los Angeles River had, for all practical purposes, disappeared, replaced by a massive concrete box channel. Flooding was largely controlled.

But it wasn't a perfect solution. Impressive as it was, the channel was just plain ugly and construction had decimated native plant and animal species.

Development and channelization combined to change the nature of pollution and debris flowing into the Pacific. Plastic bags, oils slicks from city streets, and urban detritus replaced more easily digested silt and uprooted vegetation. Beaches were fouled and coastal waters seriously polluted, threatening the lucrative tourist trade.

In recent decades, the Los Angeles has been the subject of legal battles between environmentalists eager to return the river to something approaching its natural state and flood-control officials equally determined to prevent the devastation which, they were certain, would be the consequence of demolishing its concrete liner.