Reviving the Los Angeles River

One hundred years ago next week, the water came to Los Angeles. On November 5, 1913, civic dignitaries gathered at the north end of the arid, undeveloped San Fernando Valley for the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a marvel of both engineering and chicanery. Five years in the making, the aqueduct pumped the water out of the Owens River Valley (to which the spring runoff from the melting snows of the Sierra Nevada descended) and carried it over 223 miles of mainly desert to the L.A. suburb. Raising his voice to be heard over the noise of both the crowd and the water cascading downhill, the project’s chief engineer, William Mulholland, proclaimed with epic succinctness: “There it is—take it!”

And the city did.

When the project was first announced in 1905, with the city council’s recommendation of a $25 million bond measure that L.A. voters subsequently authorized, no one argued that Los Angeles didn’t have enough water to meet its current needs. The 1900 census had turned up a mere 102,479 Angelenos. But the purpose of the aqueduct was to provide the water for the city’s growth, and grow the city most certainly did: By the time of the 1930 census, L.A.’s  population had increased more than ten-fold, to 1,238,438.

The city’s population explosion, and the huge economic growth that accompanied it, proved very lucrative to the handful of rich Angelenos who had the foresight, or inside information (accounts differ), to buy up huge tracts of the San Fernando Valley before the city council announced that an aqueduct was in the works. Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler, who together owned the Los Angeles Times, railroad magnates Henry Huntington and E.H. Harriman, and a few other wealthy locals were tipped off before the project was publicly announced, and afterwards funded the campaign that persuaded city voters to approve the bond measure. The real loser in the deal was the Owens River Valley, which quickly became as barren as the San Fernando Valley had been. If this story sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it provided the basis for the great Roman Polanski-Robert Towne film Chinatown—the work of art that most closely approximates a Los Angeles creation epic, and one that recognizes that without the water, there’d be no L.A.

But even as Los Angeles got its water, it lost its river. Beginning in the Valley, curving around downtown, and then flowing south to the sea, the Los Angeles River provided 51 miles of fresh-water fishing and riverbank wildlife. After a couple of devastating floods in the 1930s, however, Los Angeles asked the Army Corps of Engineers to save the city from future inundations. The Corps had never handled a flood-control project before, and its solution was to pave over 41 miles of riverbed with concrete embankments. For decades thereafter, a chain-link fence kept Angelenos from accessing the river—not just the 80 percent that was concrete, but also the 20 percent that was still a river, however neglected it may have been. Hollywood studios staged car chases down the embankments, but that was the extent of locals’ ability to use the river for anything but containing the rain.

In 1986, that began to change. Lewis MacAdams, a local poet, and a couple of his performance artist buddies, snipped the fence that walled off the non-concrete portion of the river (called the Glendale Narrows), walked the riverbed clear to downtown, and announced—initially, just to themselves—the formation of Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). The organization set as its goal the restoration of as much of the river as safety allowed, and the transformation of the land surrounding that part of the river into accessible parkland and wildlife sanctuaries. In time the artists were joined by environmentalists, city planners, scientists, elected officials, and the Environmental Protection Agency. In time, and as a result of a FoLAR lawsuit, both the city and county of Los Angeles devised revitalization plans for the river. In time, the poets, enviros, and scientists persuaded even the Army Engineers that flood control and river restoration weren’t mutually exclusive.

Last month, the Corps released several alternative plans for restoring the river, a project to be substantially funded out of the Corps’ budget. This week, L.A.’s new mayor, Eric Garcetti, sundry other elected officials, and that most persistent of riparian activists, MacAdams, have come to Washington to lobby the Corps to adopt the most far-reaching of its plans. Even if the Corps chooses a less ambitious option, MacAdams has written, Los Angeles will still be “on the way to a far more vibrant river for the city.”

One hundred years ago, Los Angeles was a vast arid tract through which a river nonetheless ran. It got the water. Now, it just may get its river back.

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