The Rebirth of Our River

We end our year-long series on Los Angeles’ watersheds by focusing on LA’s largest – the Los Angeles River watershed.

Father Juan Crespi of the 1769 Spanish Portola expedition was the first to write about the LA River and its surrounding valley, describing “Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula” as a “beautiful wide river” running through a “very lush green valley.” As the expedition explored the area, they would have walked along fertile riverbanks where lilacs, willow trees, egrets, mule deer, raccoons and steelhead trout flourished.

Fast forward 250 years and one finds a vastly different Los Angeles River. While the concreting of the river and its tributaries may have been viewed as necessary for flood control purposes in the middle of the 20th century, it dramatically changed the 51-mile waterway and its surrounding 834-square-mile watershed, unintentionally creating a vast network of channels where polluted urban runoff from city streets flows untreated to Long Beach and, ultimately, the Pacific Ocean. Despite this “concrete straight jacket”, Angelenos are working to bring the LA River back, partnering together to find ways to provide flood control measures while offering recreational opportunities and restoring wildlife habitat, reducing pollution and capturing rainwater,.

It’s been a decade since the adoption of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan and restoration efforts keep moving forward. In January 2017, the Los Angeles City Council authorized the purchase of a 42-acre parcel of land adjacent to the LA River in the Elysian Valley.  The long-term plan for this land is to create a publicly accessible nature preserve and flood control area. And, just last month, the Los Angeles State Historic Park, which is pictured above and was formerly an abandoned railroad yard near Chinatown, opened. It provides Los Angeles with an amazing 32 acres of green space just west of the LA River.

Recreational opportunities on the river abound as well. The LA River’s recreational zones in Elysian Valley and Glendale Narrows return this summer beginning Memorial Day weekend. River activities include kayaking, fishing, bird-watching and biking. And, speaking of biking, don’t miss out on the 17th Annual Los Angeles River Ride, taking place on Saturday, June 4. Created by the LA County Bicycle Coalition, this annual event works to create a more bike-friendly environment here in LA and brings So Cal closer to Greenway 2020.

Despite revitalization efforts, trash and debris continue to be a challenge in the LA River watershed. Enter the local non-profit Friends of LA River, who have been conducting La Gran Limpieza – The Great Clean-Up – along the LA River since 1989. This year’s clean-up included three sites over as many weekends in April with 10,000 volunteers removing a staggering 100 tons of trash from the LA River! With those numbers, it easily retains its title as America’s largest urban river clean-up.

The videos of the LA River roaring back to life during our recent wet season reminded us all of the Dr. Jeckll/Mr. Hyde nature of this river and the importance of continuing to find ways to infiltrate the rain water that flows through the LA River watershed. To that end, during January and February of 2017 – the two wettest months this past winter – LA Sanitation green infrastructure projects in the LA River watershed collected 648 million gallons of water, enough water to fill 980 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

This is an exciting time for the Los Angeles River. And, while it’s not realistic to think that it will ever return to the idyllic scene described by Father Crespi, it is becoming a river that works for Los Angeles in the 21st century.  Angelenos are waking up to the myriad opportunities and benefits offered by this natural resource and watching the rebirth of our river.

Photo courtesy of LA Stormwater.

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