BY JENNIFER ZELL, ASLA
The Glendale Narrows, Courtesy Peter Bennett/Green Stock Photos.
The long campaign to restore the Los Angeles River met a major milestone on May 28 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would support a $1 billion plan to transform 11 miles of the river from a concrete drainage channel back to something like a natural, living waterway. The Corps’ backing of this plan, rather than of a more limited and less visionary one for about half the cost, was crucial to open the way to congressional funding for the project. The mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, has pushed hard for a plan that river activists have long sought to remake habitat, open space, and recreation areas around the river’s banks. You can read the Los Angeles Times report on the final decision and what may come next here. Below is LAM’s report by Jennifer Zell from the April issue about the history of the project, the intense efforts by river restoration proponents, and their building anticipation of a decision by the Corps, which, as it turns out, runs very much in their favor.
In the early 2000s, if you were to ask L.A. residents about the Los Angeles River, chances are they wouldn’t have known the city has a river, or they might recall the concrete-lined drainage canal that can be seen while driving over downtown bridges. If you ask the same question now, chances are good that residents are aware of the river’s presence; some may even view restoration of the river as a symbol of L.A.’s rebirth as a healthier, more connected city. Today, visitors to Los Angeles and Angelenos returning home through the LAX airport are greeted with a newly installed photo of Mayor Eric Garcetti kayaking the Los Angeles River with the caption, “Welcome to Los Angeles, where nature catches you by surprise.” This turnaround isn’t an accident. Popular and political support for restoring the river has been growing for a decade, and decisions will soon be made by Congress and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that will determine the future of the river, its ecosystem, and the neighboring communities.
The Los Angeles River runs 51 miles through a complex metropolis with its headwaters in the San Fernando Valley at the confluence of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek, where two massive arcing concrete boxed channels meet precisely on tangent below the football stadium at Canoga Park High School. Along its course, the river flows past shopping centers, parking lots, residential tracts, and industrial corridors, and along the way it is joined by creeks and washes that all empty into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach.
To the dismay of many people, an estimated 90 percent of the river is paved in concrete. In the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started on an ambitious plan, the Los Angeles County Drainage Area project, to contain the river in a concrete channel and move the water flowing through the L.A. Basin into the Pacific Ocean as swiftly and efficiently as possible. A recent history of catastrophic floods—in 1914, 1934, and 1938—and the water’s destructive power gave a sense of urgency and singularity of purpose to the plan. The project continues to provide flood protection and has enabled 336 square miles of land that was subject to flooding to be developed. But the zeal for a single elegant solution to flood control has in turn created a complex new set of hydrological and environmental problems for the 14 million people living within the Los Angeles River watershed.
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