USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 10, 2012

A new vision for the LA River

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 10:04 pm

Since Los Angeles’ founding in the late 1700s, the Los Angeles River has been highly controversial.  Used originally as Los Angeles’ main source of water, the Los Angeles River provided enough water for both the city’s agricultural need and its domestic needs.  However, as the city’s population grew, the river failed to provide enough water to meet Los Angeles’ increased water needs.  In the late 1800s, city officials realized that the once life-giving river served the city more as a sewage and trash dump than a viable source of potable water.  As the city continued to grow, railroad and industrial development on the river’s bank continued to exacerbate the amount of waste discharged into the river.  The unsightly river encouraged citizen to submit cleanup and beautification proposals to the city.  Similarly, today, a new proposal—The Los Angeles Revitalization Plan—aims to improve the image of the river.

New legal interpretations of the Clean Water Act helped increase federal protection for the Los Angeles River.  The 2006 Supreme Court case Rapanos v. United States challenged the traditional criteria for navigable waterways under the Clean Water Act.  Traditionally, the Army Corps of Engineers regulates the development of flood control, navigation and reaction along waterways.  Rapanos v. United States attempted to reduce ambiguity regarding the terms “waters of the United States” and “ significant nexus.”  The case set precedence for what water bodies were accurately classified as a “water of the United States”.  Thus, the ruling essentially clarified the criteria for waterways to be federally protected.

In 2008, the EPA declared the Los Angeles River a special Case to the Clean Water Act.  In July 2008, a group of environmental activist kayaked the 51-mile Los Angeles River in order to prove the river was a navigable waterway.  Known as the L.A. River Expedition, the demonstration drew attention to the river as a navigable waterway, rather than a “storm drain”.  Previously, the Army Corps of Engineers classified only 5 miles of the river as a navigable waterway.  However, the demonstration proved that the entire 51-mile length of the river was in fact navigable.  On August 17, 2008, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water designated the Los Angeles River as a “Special Case’ as defined by the EPA-Corps 1989 Memorandum. The declaration transferred the river from the jurisdiction of the Army Corps to the EPA.

In 2010, the EPA announced that it would ensure more protection for the river under the Clean Water Act.  This announcement strengthened future environmental protection for the 51-mile river and its tributary streams and wetlands.  By being under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act, the EPA is able to more effectively protect the river from potential pollution and destruction.  These new regulations are important for protecting water quality, wildlife, recreation and public health.

In 2007, the city developed the Los Angeles River Revitalization Plan.  By improving parts of the 51-mile river, city planners hope to improve water quality, increase wildlife abundance and health, and ultimately increase the economic value of adjacent neighborhoods.  The plan attempts to return the splendor and natural beauty of the forgotten LA River back to the people of Los Angeles, while simultaneously maintaining necessary flood control systems. The plan consists of 239 projects along 32-miles of the river, from Canoga Park to downtown LA.  Although not projected to be finished for another 25 to 50 years, the plan is envisioned as a greenway of interconnected parks and amenities acting to connect communities along the river.

The river’s master plan has many new areas for development.  The plan aims to widen the channel in order to preserve its flood control capacity. Also, it hopes to expand the riparian habitat, thus increasing the watershed ecosystem. In addition to adding parks along the river’s banks, the revitalization efforts will also increase the number of walking paths, bicycle trails, gathering spaces, public art, community markers, restaurants, and mixed use areas.  These recreational developments will make the river a feature destination.

Prominent city officials, such as Councilman Ed Reyes and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have advocated for the preservation of the river.  These individuals reference significant areas, such as the Glendale narrows, where its soil river bottom encourages natural vegetation growth and wildlife inhabitation. Areas like the Glendale narrows encourage citizens to imagine what the river could be if it were properly restored.

While the proposal has gained significant public support, persistent economic conditions have delayed revitalization efforts. Although some areas of progress already exist along the LA River, such as bike paths and equestrian trails, the goal of creating an “emerald necklace” of parks is still far in the future.  However, if completed it would offer Angelinos a fresh perception of their city: a long forgotten natural treasure.

LA River Revitalization Proposal

Before and After

Pictures from:


And watch a video explaining the revitalization plans:

This post was authored by Scott Gross ’12 and Michaela McLoughlin ’12, both Environmental Studies majors.





April 5, 2012

Los Angeles Water: Past, Present, and Future

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:48 pm

Southern California residents have had a contentious relationship with water supply, since the founding of Los Angeles in 1781. After California became part of the United States in 1850, development and migration to Los Angeles from across the country and the world became prevalent; largely due to human perceptions of the environment that the Los Angeles River had supported. The proliferation of this trend resulted in an enduring growth in population and with it a greater need to supply water. Over the years of Los Angeles development, city officials were forced to look to outside of the city for sources water that would prove to have negative implications on the environment and for the future of Los Angeles water supply.

Prior to the extensive urbanization of Los Angeles, the L.A. River was one of the only water sources that would flow year round. Due to the distinct geology of the region, the river’s pattern constantly changed from one rainy season to the next and much of the rivers water supply came from underground sources, which made capturing and distribution of water burdensome for city officials. In the early 1900s, in response to the need for more water and to prevent underground water supplies from becoming contaminated, Los Angeles city officials took extreme actions to ensure that the city would continue to have a reliable water source, despite the increasing population. City officials were able to supply millions of additional gallons of water to residents by installing new infiltration galleries, drilling several wells into the river, and creating a 1,178-foot tunnel that was driven into bedrock and served as a reservoir to collect percolated water from the wells. However, this only provided temporary relief to the mounting water crisis in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles River, its many tributaries, and underground supply was the city’s sole source of water until 1913. After which time the river could no longer sustain the needs of the city’s growing population. Today, Los Angeles gets its water delivered across 444-miles and over some 2-000 feet of elevation from the State Water Project; the 1,400-mile long Colorado River; a share of California’s collective 30% groundwater usage; and from aqueducts that collect water from: Owens River, Mono Lake Basin, and reservoirs on the east slopes of the southern Sierra Mountains, all traveling over some 223-miles. The distance at which Los Angeles has, literally, gone to secure water for this city is astounding. Especially when considering the huge amounts of energy that providing and using water consumes. Energy is a costly and environmentally intensive resource to produce, and when coupling that with the costs of the water supply-use-disposal chain (figure 1) and we have simply compounded these costs.

According to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, one source that provides Water to Los Angeles, The State Water Project (SWP), is the single largest user of energy in California, accounting for 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in the State. Supplying water through energy intensive projects like the SWP, ultimately leads to climate change, creating a water-energy-climate change feedback loop. According to this same report, power plants emit approximately 40-percent of all U.S. carbon dioxide pollution, the primary cause of climate change.

Today concerns about water trouble most regions of California and conservation efforts remain too minimal to counter the damage. Overshadowing these concerns, however, is an even greater threat—global climate change. Current carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are approximately 394 parts per million (ppm), per data from the Mauna Loa Observatory. Scientists believe that unless emissions are reduced to below 350 ppm, average temperatures in the United States could increase by five to ten degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with implications for greatly affecting water supply and water management. As more and more emerging studies continue to project rising temperatures across the world, California and LA in particular must resolve its water crisis, or soon face a crippling scarcity that could very well spell its ruin. 

Climate change presents a variety of obstacles to LA’s future as a globally powerful and influential metropolis, but none are as critical as the implications this has on the region’s water supply. As previously stated, the Sierra Nevada mountain range currently provides about one third of the nearly 200 billion gallons of water each year used by customers of the Department of Water and Power. Decreased precipitation, a highly likely consequence of climate change in southern California, will reduce Sierra snowpack accumulation, which sustains much of the city’s water supply in dry months. Higher temperatures are already troubling, with snow melt occurring slightly sooner each year. This water from the mountains is one of LA’s most vital sources of high quality water, though decreased flow volume and pattern could someday change that.

Moreover, many climate models showing rainfall changes forecast an overall shift to drier climatic conditions in many of the regions that supply Los Angeles. Even minor increases in temperature have been linked to altered flow patterns, with higher rates in winter and lower rates in summer when demand is at its highest. Droughts are expected to increase in frequency across the southwest, posing a threat to southern California’s continued diversion of the Colorado River as well as increasing the concentration of pollutants in shrinking bodies of water.

There is ample evidence to support the frightening scenarios for LA’s future that are increasingly a topic of serious concern among residents. The notion of water scarcity in this region is not new and some have attempted to combat it, however nothing has proven effective. Significant advances in adaptation and mitigation measures are imperative to southern California’s future, especially if population continues to grow.

Water conservation is a complex subject, one that LA residents must understand more completely before successful strategies can emerge. It is vital to identify factors and behaviors that contribute to water supply stress so that they may be targeted and resolved. One rather evident factor is that Los Angeles has been significantly slower than other large cities in the US in assessing the future of its environment, resources, and consumption. In recent years, more and more action plans, legal measures and shareholder committees have taken form, but few encouraging reports of progress are heard. Regulations or changes to land permit terms spend years in the courts and cases for conservation are often lost. Furthermore, there are frequent instances where seemingly good policies end up hurting the situation more than they helping it. Perhaps the most relevant example of this in regards to balancing growing demand and dwindling supply is the DWP’s tiered pricing structure for water use. Besides setting the price ceiling for water far lower than a free market system would indicate, the structure favors large property owners, who pay less per gallon to irrigate each acre than owners of modest parcels and low consumption. Keeping rates for use unnaturally low hides the truth of scarcity and provides residents a false sense of security that could soon give out.

The culture of Los Angeles water use is a direct result of the flaws in the water pricing system, and has created one of the cornerstones of this culture by encouraging wasteful water use practices. Runoff from overwatered lawns, hosing down of concrete sidewalks, ornamental plants, and countless other factors serve as evidence of a lack of concern over the possible consequences of everyday things. There is no incentive to not waste water, and since the effects of widespread withdrawals have yet to truly be felt, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for government subsidies for use of newer, efficient home products to actually exacerbate consumption. When price per use falls, use often rises because the true cost that is being paid is obscured by the imposed price break.

With these things in mind, developing and enacting more effective policies and behaviors seems less formidable. Perhaps if everyone understands the implications of water scarcity, a fair and equal pricing system can be constructed. Even if everyone in LA decides they’ll keep their large yards and pay the price, the DWP would generate revenue that could be channeled into improved technology and engineering practices. For instance, treatment of the gray-water from sinks, showers, and appliances has existed for quite some time, with some facilities able to restore some wastewater into potable water. However, such facilities rarely gained approval as a result of spreading misinformation that challenged the water’s cleanliness. Even if a city’s populace refuses to drink the water, it is rarely suggested that the water be recycled for agricultural or industrial purposes despite the availability of fully adequate facilities. Treatment and reuse of some wastewater could greatly alleviate current pressure on supply, yet no one seems interested. On a better note, plans to clean up the wells beneath the San Fernando Valley floor are making progress and reflect an encouraging shift in attitudes among policymakers seeking to improve reliability of local resources.

Finally, minor individual undertakings can add up to mean a lot in a city as large as LA. Besides replacing inefficient appliances and other goods, more people are adopting the practice of xeriscaping, which involves planting of landscape vegetation that is suited to the climatic conditions. One study’s calculations found that substituting plants that are suited for LA’s arid weather for a typical lawn could save roughly 50 thousand gallons of water per year. Xeriscaping is a not only a practical step in conserving water, it can be as vibrant as any other garden so city dwellers can retain the aesthetic value that they have come to prize so greatly. 

The history of extreme measures taken by the city would forever change the hydrology of southern California, the sources in which the city received her water, and continue to promote poor water usage habits by residents that persist throughout today. This has left Los Angeles vulnerable to changing climate conditions and placed and the burden on today’s generation to create solutions to address these issues. Because the consequences of overuse have rarely been directly felt, lax attitudes toward water wastefulness have become ingrained in the culture and poor policy decisions and enforcement have only made matters worse. As more studies project a dismal future for Los Angeles water supply and with climate change and development continuing to grow, city dwellers are faced with the need to change their habits before it’s too late. By isolating the key contributing factors of this water crisis, and adopting long term strategies for adaptation and mitigation, the city might find a way out of the mess that began so long ago when the first settlers arrived on the pristine banks of the LA River.

This post was written by Christina Robles ’12 and Gabrielle Ripert ’12 who are both pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies.


Climatopolis by Matthew Kahn

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power website

Natural Resources Defense Counsel

Water Education Foundation


River or stream, creek or brook: All are precious in my book!

Filed under: Los Angeles Politics,Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:27 pm

In many respects, it’s unsurprising to learn that the passive disdain with which most modern Angelinos regard the Los Angeles River was not an overnight development. The contemptuous nature of our relationship with the river dates back more than a century, and no matter what we would like to believe today, “[the river] was never the center of local life as some modern-day environmentalists have supposed” (Gumprecht 123). For instance, what little does appear about the L.A. River in the historical record generally takes the form of complaints about the various ways in which the river aggrieved local residents, namely by overflowing its banks. Infinitely more common than mentions of the river itself, however, are descriptions of the Southern California region’s bountiful croplands and high standard of living, both of which the L.A. River directly enabled.

Examining the reasons behind Los Angeles’ longstanding neglect of its eponymous river brings to light some concerning trends as to how we interact with the natural world. Interestingly, the L.A. River did play a fundamental role in establishing the city in its present location, but not in the usual way that a river fosters municipal expansion. Los Angeles began as a railroad town, more or less, precisely because the river devalued the surround area: Because the river was so prone to flooding, land on either side of the banks was deemed low-grade, and unfit for residential or other commercial purposes. Judged unsuitable for most other uses, the land lining the river became railroad. Particularly near the station, the newly lain railway incited the development of some of the city’s first industrial buildings, where “[w]arehouses, lumber yards, blacksmith shops, foundries, and wagon factories began to displace the vineyards and orchards” (Gumprecht 125).

Obviously, by initiating the city’s transition away from agriculture, instead positioning it as a center of industry, the L.A. River had a vital role in shaping present day Los Angeles. But one possible explanation for the chronic disregard shown by Angelinos toward the L.A. River could be that it doesn’t offer the utilities conventionally supplied by a river: Its flow was too meager and too inconsistent to ever make the waterborne transport of goods a viable consideration; by the time industry had become sufficiently widespread so as to make hydroelectric power necessary, too much of the surface water had been drained to make turning a turbine practical; and the feeble trickle of water in the channel was — thankfully — judged inadequate to dilute sewage, let alone wash effluents downstream (Gumprecht 125). For settlers relocating from other parts of the country, accustomed as they were to different, more robust varieties of rivers, the L.A. River scarcely constituted a proper river at all.

Given its meager surface flow and accordingly limited conventional uses, it makes sense why the L.A. River would be afforded less respect — reverence, even — than a river like the Colorado, that carved the Grand Canyon, or the “Mighty Mississippi,” which is so much a part of the local identity as to take on an almost mythic quality. But the L.A. River is no less important to the watershed it drains than the Colorado or Mississippi are to theirs. Just because it might be less superficially imposing does not diminish the absolutely crucial ecosystem services it provides.

In many respects, early Angelinos’ neglect of the L.A. River parallels certain actions of contemporary environmental non-governmental organizations. When designing campaigns to mobilize action against deforestation, overfishing, climate change and other environmental ills that lead to species loss and extinction, NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund have been criticized for disproportionately emphasizing the plights of so-called “charismatic megafauna” —whales and polar bears, for instance — while overlooking keystone species that may be more important but less photogenic. Such organizations rightly acknowledge that “if that’s what interests people then that’s how we start the conversation about conservation” (Tesar), but when discussing water resources, that rationale doesn’t hold water quite as well (pun initially unintended, but later gleefully embraced).

Time after time, Americans have demonstrated a characteristic inability to value things that might not appear valuable. Our history of neglect and abuse of the L.A. River unfortunately fits this trend to a T, but with increased education about its less-than-obvious importance, the river will hopefully gain the respect it deserves from the region it serves.

The Los Angeles River near present-day downtown, ca. 1900. Seaver Center for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The LA River, view from 6th Street Bridge (illustrating the use of land on either side of the banks being in their historic use for railway). Photo courtesy of Mark Behr. 30 December 2011.

This post was authored by Louis Lucero II ’12 who is majoring in Environmental Studies with a double minor in English and Screenwriting.



Gumprecht, Blake. “Who Killed the Los Angeles River?” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. 115-134.

Tesar, Clive. “Tracking megafauna in Iceland.” Thin Ice blog. WWF, 27 June 2011. Web. <>.

April 2, 2012

Railroads: A Form of Expansion and Destruction

Filed under: Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 6:25 pm

When people think of the Los Angeles River nowadays, no one thinks much about it. As Blake Gumprecht states in his third chapter about the Los Angeles River, “Despite its utilitarian importance, the river also seems to have been one of the least-photographed sites in early Los Angeles” (Gumprecht, 111). But considering the LA River to be an eyesore was never the unanimous opinion. In the early years before the United States gained control over California in 1848, the early Tongva tribes, Spanish settlers and Mexican settlers were drawn to the area of Los Angeles due to the Los Angeles River. The river at this time flowed strongly enough to maintain the populations settling within the area, providing drinking water along with water supplies for agricultural purposes. The area was an agricultural goldmine, “capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit which may be planted” as Father Crespi wrote as he entered the Los Angeles area in 1769 (Bolten). Even when the United States took over the land, Los Angeles was filled with agricultural land growing oranges, grapes, along with a wide array of other crops. But slowly as the people of Los Angeles turned their attention toward oil drilling and other industrial practice, the attention to agriculture and the river as source of beauty and growth dwindled.

Gumprecht notes that development really started in the Los Angeles area once the Transcontinental Railroad was completed and the city was now linked with the rest of the world. Towns began springing up along rail lines, and industrialization took over this area. The railroads traveled alongside the riverbed, becoming the city’s main form of export and transportation, since the river was never large enough to support large transportation. The river turned into an exaggerated picture of beauty that would draw newcomers to the city who soon realized it was not a large staple within the community. The Los Angeles River was solely a source of drinking water and quickly dried up with the ever-growing population being brought over through the railroad system.

Railroads coming to Los Angeles was potentially one of the best developments and worse developments for the city. The area did not stand out among other Southern Californian cities because it had no direct port, and the LA River was not substantial enough to connect the city to sea ports. The railroads however could connect the city to the Pacific Ocean along with San Francisco and the east. But with this “power” source that made it a competitive city within industry came environmental impacts that Los Angeles still faces today. The railroads followed the river bed, and industrial plants wanted to follow the railways for convenience matters. Slowly all the industrial sites lined the LA River, which was drying up with the high demand for water. Even though officials said the river was not strong enough to support waste disposal, large companies were still dumping their waste into the river and taking what little resources they could from the river bed to maintain their expansion and development. The railroads close proximity to the river made industries able to also develop here and use the resources of the riverbed as they pleased. But the development of railroads and industry themselves destroyed the quality of the river for most of the history of Los Angeles and made the city much more prone to flooding.

Floods were for the most part seen as beneficial until the boom of the 1880’s. the floodwater deposited silt that enriched the soil, restored moisture to dry ground, and washed away salts that had accumulated because of irrigation. Floods, for the most part, did little damage because their low banks overflowed before the flow intensified and spread slowly over the country. The depth of any given flood rarely exceeded a foot and its velocity was minimal. In addition, there was less potential for damage because few people had constructed buildings or homes along the river because they knew to stay away from flood prone lands. Agriculture was the extent of riverside development until 1876. Most residential areas were situated on terraces and benches east of the river. The flood of 1862, which may have been the most extensive flood in the history of California, only resulted in “insignificant” damage (Gumprecht, 150).

According to Gumprecht, a lot changed in southern California when the railroad arrived. In 1876 the Southern Pacific Railroad extended its path from San Francisco to Los Angeles and people began to pour into the city. Long beach was founded in 1888 and became the county’s fourth largest city. The growing population increased the demand for trade. As a result, the city rushed to build a port on San Pedro Bay. Urban areas began to pop up all alongside the river. Newcomers constructed homes and businesses in the flood plain and within dry streambeds. Large amounts of tress and vegetation, that once slowed the floodwaters and held the soil in place, were removed. Construction crews used sand and gravel from the river and by doing so lowered the channel by 20 feet. They inadvertently increased the power of the river by forcing all the runoff into a narrower path. Flood hazard increased exponentially. Individuals attempted to protect their own property by building levies but their efforts were futile.

Aside from the surge of population growth caused by the railroads, railroads also directly increased flood hazard in Los Angles. Rail lines often used trestle bridges, which act like dams during heavy storms. Debris, tress, and other material being carried by the river would stack up behind the bridge, force water out of the channel and flood nearby lands or would knock down the bridge itself and unleash a rush of water and debris that endangered the people downstream. In addition the planning or lack of planning of the rail lines was not very wise. Some rail lines were build on flood plains or artificial embankments that constrained flood waters that would have otherwise spread over a wide area and made them more powerful. (Gumprecht)

Few people noticed the precarious situation Los Angeles was putting itself in. Most of the settlers were newcomers and had no knowledge of the river’s power and ignored the warning of those who did. The occasional flood was acceptable in their mind as long as they lived in paradise. But, major storms did not hit until 1884. That year the floods resulted in $2.4 to $16.3 million in damages. The river washed away homes, train cars and there are accounts of dead horses, cows and people drifting in the river.  Families were left homeless and lost everything.

One would think that by now Angelinos and city planners have learned their lessons but that is not the case.  In 1884 the LA times reported: “The river rose all night and created a scene of destruction, at points close to its banks, which can hardly be pictured. Numbers of families lost everything they had. The destruction is immense”. Almost 150 years later, in 2010, msnbc quotes a victim of the Decemebr 2010 floods: “We didn’t have time to get anything. It happened really fast, water started coming in from all the walls. Then the wall fell and we got out through the window.” J. J. Warner warned Angelinos in 1882 “of the risk to which many…are exposing themselves, their property and their families in the selection of places upon which to build their dwellings” (Gumprecht, 154). Over a century has passed and we continue to ignore his warning.


Reporters from the Herald-Express Coy Watson Jr. (left, photographer) and reporter Fred Eldridge try to go from Hyperion Ave to Long Beach via boat. The storm that produced this flood (1938) lead to the concrete channelization of the LA River.

The 310 train crossing over the old Los Angeles River Bridge.

Silverado Canyon mudslide, Dec 22, 2010

Road blocked in Dec 2010 storm

The Los Angeles River Dec 22, 2010 near San Fernando


The Downey Avenue Bridge after the flood of 1886. Gumprecht, p. 160.

Alameda Street turned into a river by floodwaters in 1897 even after levies were built. Gumprecht p.138.

Works Cited

Bolten, Herbert Eugene. 1927. Frey Juan Crespi: Missionary Explorer. Berkeley:   University of California Press.


Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth.Johns Hopkins University Press: June 1999.


NBC,, NBC,, and News Services. “Mud, More Evacuations in Wake of L.A.-area Storm.” Msnbc Digital Network, 22 Dec. 2010. Web. 27 Mar. 2012. <>.

This post was authored by Amelia Bahr ’12 and Evelyn Cintron ’12 both majoring in Environmental Studies.


March 30, 2012

Making Water Last

Filed under: Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:22 pm

As Los Angeles as the surrounding areas have continued to develop, access clean drinking water has consistently been a vital factor to sustaining this growth. The reading discussed the channelization and water management factors regarding the Los Angeles River. However, in order to meet the needs of Los Angeles residents many adjacent rivers have required similar control methods. When the San Gabriel flooded in the 1900’s, changing course and dividing into separate rivers, the damage was severe. Since then, the San Gabriel has been dammed multiple times, reducing flood danger and has had channels established along the banks of the San Gabriel and the Rio Hondo. These rivers, essentially the old and new forks of the San Gabriel, have year round flow due to these water control methods which has significant implications for the residents of the Los Angeles Basin.

Although the rivers are now considered in different watersheds, they are both funneled through the Whittier Narrows. Therefore, the Whittier Narrows Dam has become a vastly important structure in flood control and water resources since its construction in the 1950’s.

In conjunction with 4 other dams the San Gabriel River’s danger to residents has been reduced and enhanced providing for recreation and drinking water. The Whittier Narrows Dam itself has about a capacity of 67 k acre ft however the nearby spreading grounds make the area much more effective at storing water than most other dams. By releasing water from the Dam into the spreading grounds the LA county Department of Public Works estimates that 150 k acre ft of water are recharged into the ground supply through the use of these dams.

The spreading grounds are similar in operation to the facilities described in Chapter 3 near Burbank that recharge water in the Verdugo Wash. The water passes through the a treatment facility and then enters the spreading grounds (as pictured above) which have also  become an area that supports a wide range of recreational activities. While flood control measures have changed the ecology of the region they were necessary for population growth. It would seem that dams that focus on replenishing groundwater resources should be a focus as demand continues to increase.

The Sepulveda Flood Control Basin and Dam are another example in taming the Los Angeles River.. In 1938, the Los Angeles River flooded farms and homes, killing 144 people and causing about $40 million in damage ($360 million in 1994 dollars). As a consequence of the historic 1938 flood, the public demanded that the river be controlled. The Army Corps of Engineers began channelizing the river in 1938, completing work in 1960. Located near the intersection of the 101 and 405 freeways, the Sepulveda Dam was completed in 1941 to further protect San Fernando Valley residents from floods.

Wildlife in the Sepulveda Basin


During winters when waters stream down from high elevations, the reservoir can hold up to 17,000-acre-feet of water. The dam and basin control the heavy winter flow rates, preventing flooding of the river downstream along the Los Angeles River, also allowing the trapped runoff to seep back into the water table without causing further damage. Recently, in the 1980 flood, water reached about twenty from the top of the dam, filling the dam to about two-thirds of its capacity.

Although the central function of the flood basin is the control of floods, the basin has enjoyed a new role. Beginning in the 1960s, the Sepulveda Dam and its surrounding area has played host to many recreational activities. The area includes many golf courses, sports centers, and parks. The most interesting feature of the park being Lake Balboa, a 27-acre lake filled with reclaimed water. Visitors participate in activities such as fishing, boating, jogging, and bicycling along a paved bike path. The area also includes aJapaneseGarden at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, where visitors can see evidence of the peaceful and beautiful uses of water.

The Japenese Garden at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant

The Japenese Garden at the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant

The reclaimed water enters the Los Angeles River in the Sepulveda Basin. As much as 75 million gallons of water is released daily from the reclamation plant into the basin, adding to the Los Angeles River’s modern day year-round supply. While this water is not suitable for drinking, it has been treated enough to not pose a health hazard. This treatment is vital for the wildlife that resides in the basin today. The Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve gives visitors an idea of what Southern California looked like before agriculture and industrialization changed the valley. Visitors might find cottonwoods and sycamores lining the valley, along with birds such as herons, egrets and ducks. Small birds like the woodpecker and oriole also make homes in the Reserve.

The Whittier Narrows Dam and the Sepulveda Dam are two of the 19 dams in Los Angeles, helping to prevent floods and also recharging groundwater from rainfall and runoff. As the Los Angeles population grows, these two projects work towards replenishing the dwindling water supply and protecting residents from natural disaster. Whittier Narrows and the Sepulveda Basin have proven a great opportunity to educate the public and promote efficient water use, serving as a recreational area in addition to their roles as a flood-control basins. The flood control measures at both sites sprouted from residential problems with population growth in an area where floods were likely. Their focus on flood control, groundwater recharge, and recreation has without doubt added to their success.

This post was written by Daniel Kasang ’12 and Christopher Miranda ’12, who are each pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Studies.




March 11, 2012

The Pueblo by the River

Filed under: Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 3:34 am

The Los Angeles River’s early settlement was marked by Tongva tribes, also known as the Gabrielino Indians. The river provided a rich plant and animal habitat that allowed the Gabrielino Indians to thrive in present-day Los Angeles and Orange Counties, including parts of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. They also moved throughout the Channel Islands. It was not until 1769 that the first written description of the Los Angeles River is entered by Juan Crespi on the Portola expedition. He described his experience saying “After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river . . . This plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all that we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement.” Instantly, the importance of the river for means of production became apparent to the Spanish.

Gabrielino Territory before the arrival of the Spanish in 1769

The earliest Spanish settlers brought very new values to California’s water, land, and native people. Nature was seen as an obstacle to conquer and make useful, and the California land was a perfect place to develop missions, pueblos, and of course, military holdings or forts. However, because much of California lacked sufficient water resources, the Los Angeles River was made useful by the original Los Angeles Spanish pueblo, El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles. Each of the original inhabitants, only eleven pobladores after 3 were expelled, with their families, “ . . . was given a house lot and four fields for planting crops, only two of which were to have access to irrigation water” (Gumprecht 43). The pueblo followed the same consistent form set forth by the Spanish government in the establishment of the first pueblo at the Guadalupe River in San Jose 1777. “In its early years, the town was a small, isolated cluster of adobe-brick houses and random streets carved out of the desert, and its main product was grain” (Los Angeles History).

Although Pueblos were the centers for Spanish civilians, they needed water distribution systems to succeed. The Spanish Crown officially claimed ownership of water resources but it did grant water rights for the common benefit of the Spanish settlers. The earliest system focused on a dam upstream, at a higher elevation, and a main irrigation ditch known as the Zanja Madre in order to provide a flow of water to the Pueblo and agricultural land. This main water ditch carried domestic and irrigated water from the upstream diversion, near today’s North Broadway. The local town council, known as the Ayuntamiento, usually made water decisions and elected a Zanjero, who supervised irrigation and water rights.

Map Showing the Original Zanja Madre and where it would flow in LA today

When the first Spanish missions were founded in Baja California, they were having difficulties growing food and feeding themselves. They would rely on funds from Spain and from food from central Mexico, most likely from the agriculturally fertile area known as Sinaloa. They lacked the hunting and gathering techniques that the local Indians possessed, which they also relied on at times for food. Felipe de Neve, who came to be the first governor of Los Angeles, was sent by the viceroy of New Spain to seek more fertile soil farther north.


1936 re-enactment of the founding of Los Angeles, image from

When they arrived, Los Angeles was founded as an agricultural village by the Spanish to prevent the same problem they had suffered down South. It is the land nearer to the Los Angeles River that proved to be the most fertile and the best fit for founding the pueblo. Families from the areas of Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico were chosen in 1781 to inhabit the pueblo and to begin to farm with supplies provided by the Spanish. After the water system was in place, the first crops were wheat, beans, and maize. Five years later, in 1786, the pueblo was able to sustain itself. Grain was the primary and most successful crop by 1796, but most of this success was due to the hard-working Indians, who were sent by the colonists to do most of the work. In about 50 years, the cattle industry began, which was to crash due to drought. But Los Angeles itself did not crash because grape vines became so abundant and were to sustain it.

In 1826, Joseph Chapman put in 4,000 vines and became the first grower in Los Angeles, growing vines that up until that time had only been grown and sold privately by missionaries and other individuals. By the 1830s, many Angelinos and even some immigrants were growing “mission” grapes and grapes of many other varieties for profit and producing wine and brandy. But it was not until Jean Louis Vignes, a Frenchman, fed up with the too-sour taste of the “mission” grapes, brought in the Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc from France that grape-growing became a real industry. Los Angeles then became famous nation-wide, sending wine and brandy to San Pedro, San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and even to the east coast to New York and Boston. Orange groves also became prominent and widespread throughout Los Angeles, especially because a need for agricultural diversity presented itself when more people came because of the Gold Rush and the transcontinental railroads. Angelinos then came to grow at least 40 other crops.


Images from a Los Angeles wine-making company, circa 1876, image from Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

Most people believe grape-growing in California originated in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, but history proves otherwise, that it originated in Southern California. This industry is one of the factors that helped Los Angeles grow and gain its fame. This success all came as a result of the farming that was initiated by the Spanish to feed their missions. Success was also due in large part to the fertile soil and natural abundance of water from the Los Angeles River. It is the same Los Angeles River that maintained the Gabrielinos, that called the Spanish from Mexico, and that nourished the many crops that fed Los Angeles and helped it grow to eventually become what it is today.

This post was authored by Patrick Talbott’12 who is pursuing a B.S. and M.A. in Environmental Studies and by Alejandra Rocha’12 who is pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies.


 Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Johns Hopkins University Press: June 1999.

“Los Angeles: History.” Cities of the United States. 5th ed. Vol. 2: The West. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 129-130. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 04 Mar. 2012.

El Pueblo: Los Angeles Before the Railroads. [Los Angeles]: Equitable branch of the Security trust & savings bank, 1928.

 Indian Tribal Territories

 LA River History

Los Angeles Department of Public Works

Street, Richard S. “First Farm Workers.” CogWeb: Cognitive Cultural Studies. Web. 04 Mar. 2012.





March 9, 2012

The LA River Pre & Post Channelization: Mountain Lions, Antelope and Bears…Oh My!

Filed under: Los Angeles River,Water — admin @ 9:29 pm

The LA River, with its rich and diverse ecosystem, was a very crucial part in the development of the city of Los Angeles. Before Spanish settlers came into Sothern California, the river was the foundation for Native Americans that inhabited the land for nearly ten thousand years.  Among the many Indian tribes living in the Southern California region, the Gabrielino were the most technologically advanced and prosperous tribes in the area. This was more than likely due to the river and its surrounding ecosystem providing all the necessary raw materials and nourishment needed to expand the extensive trading system they had in place.  As the map below shows, these people were spread out through the southland in what is now known as the Los Angeles and Orange counties, including the Channel Islands. Surrounded by other Indian tribes, the Gabrielino were the only tribe that predominately utilized the river, its resources and understood its patterns over the significant amount of time passed since Indians were first there. As a result, their settlement followed the pathway of the river as floods enabled it to erode and meander a new path because it provided a critical foundation for their way of life.

Map of Southern California and the Gabrielino territories.

The ecosystem surrounding the LA River was quite extensive, which the Gabrielino made abundant use of. First, Willow trees and large oaks lined the streams and water flow that provided the staple of the Gabrielino food diet- the acorn. The floodplain forest was also extremely useful as it provided the wide range of small animals, seeds and berries that were hunted and gathered for food. In addition, the marches provided raw materials used to build shelters and tools for important use; among these included supportive beams for housing, bows and arrows, and natural bright-colored woods that they would wear to distinguish themselves from prey. However, most importantly, the river was the main source of drinking water and the spot of ritual bathing before sunrise for religious purposes. This was the cleansing ritual supposedly dictated by Chengiichngech, their creator-god that played a central role in their society. Since the Gabrielino settled in association to where water resources were located, they did not utilize agriculture but rather used the native ecosystem for nourishment.  This lack of cropping did not tie them to the land and allowed them to be nomadic in nature by re-settling along the river in multiple spots, but were most prevalent in the San Fernando Valley.

The Gabrielino tribe is a great example a community taking full advantage of the LA River and its resources sustainably. Although the LA River was unpredictable after heavy rainfall, changing its water flow many times, the Indians living in the region learned to adapt and thrive in the ecosystem nonetheless. Until the Spanish took over and pushed the Gabrielino out of the area that is current-day Los Angeles, the Gabrielino flourished and prospered on the river that built the largest and most important city of the American West.

There are few people who know that Los Angeles used to be a messy jungle of thorny thickets and oaks, antelope and grizzly bears, marshes, desert washes and quick sand. None alive and only those who read histories remember the days when Los Angeles was known for not only bird watching but bird hunting due to the fact that the air would blacken with migrating geese, ducks and other water fowl like the herons and cranes.

The green backed heron now rare was one of the millions of wetland birds that frequented the marshlands that were fed by the Los Angeles River.

The wandering river, when it was running on the surface, was a meandering river that didn’t have a set path with solid banks to keep it on course. This was due to the fact that it really only ran substantially after the winter rains and with the spring melt from the mountains. During these times it was a raging river that would rip trees out of the ground. At these times there was massive flooding that fed the surrounding marshlands, lakes, and water loving vegetation, and the water followed the path of least resistance to the ocean.

Early human accounts from the 1850s describe a Los Angeles river basin that was too dangerous to cross through on account of the quicksand, mountain lions, flash flood, and grizzly bears waiting to meet the human traveler on one of the only two trails that passed through the thick, thorny thickets of the basin.

The rest of the year most of the water flow was bellow the surface and the river was no more than a gentle creek and sometimes completely dry. This huge riparian ecosystem with very rich biodiversity was supported by what is now one of the nation’s largest storm drains: the Los Angeles River.

The muskrat habitat is one where wetland grasses and shrubs are abundant and water is plentiful. The Los Angeles basin was once famous for its bird and muskrat habitats, the birds for game and the muskrat for its prized waterproof fur.

The Los Angeles River is now forced to follow one course to the ocean. This is totally against the natural existence of the river. It is estimated by the City of Los Angeles that 100% of natural wetlands and 90-95% of natural riparian ecosystems have been lost through the urbanization of the Los Angeles River (Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan).The river used to travel miles east or west of its current path and it emptied into different areas on the coast from the Port of Los Angeles to Ballona Creek. Today there is a lot of talk about revitalizing or restoring the Los Angeles River. When people talk about restoring the river it warrants the question, “Restoring the river to what??” The Friends of Los Angeles River state that their mission is to “protect and restore the natural and historic heritage of the Los Angeles River and its riparian habitat” ( The City of Los Angeles claims that the Los Angeles River is a “landmark resource” ( Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa says that the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan will create an “emerald necklace” of parks and green spaces surrounding the 32 miles of the river that runs through LA ( But what does all this mean for the river itself?

The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan would incorporate bike trails, recreational parks and green ways along the banks of the LA River but keep the river partially cemented for flood control.

The FoLAR is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1986 with the “utterly attainable” goal of restoring the river and its banks physically but also in the minds of modern Angelenos. The organization aims to change the dismissive view of the LA River as “storm drain” to an idea that the LA River is a place of natural beauty and meditation. Generally the LA River today is thought of as almost a joke and refers in speaking to the LA “River” in quotations. FoLAR however plans to change this image through education of the local LA children and by holding canoeing classes and seminars about the restoration and history of the River.

The LA River today is currently one of the world’s largest storm drains. Running a total of 51 miles, 32 of those miles lie within the City of Los Angeles.

Obviously restoring to pre-contact times is absolutely impossible. Both sides of the LA River are lined with neighborhoods, 35, 000 businesses, roads and almost 400,000 housing units containing over a million people. To let the river wander like it once did would be the complete relocation of millions of people, cost billions to implement, move more than 80 schools and almost half a million workers with jobs in the Los Angeles River Corridor (  Although complete restoration is impossible, current plans bring into question the standards or baselines are for this restoration. The plan shows basically a “bio-engineered” river that consists of rubber dams, concrete eddies, fish ladders and terraced sides (Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan). While these things are necessary in such an overly urbanized area, and will be a great improvement to the current state of the river, the plan also shows green ways and parks that are supposed to provide water clarification, recreational opportunity, and a wildlife refuge corridor. Although there is some mention of using native plant species there are many areas that will be grass to provide areas for soccer fields and such. There are very few to no native grasses outside the bunch grass category in Southern California! While it is impossible to argue that our city neighborhoods don’t need more green space, it would be more reassuring to the conservationist if a bigger emphasis was placed on assuring that large portions of the “emerald necklace” would be dedicated to wildlife.

As the area surrounding the Los Angeles River becomes biking trails, parks and wildlife refuge in the next 50 years, house values and rent price may rice beyond what many renters and thus a majority of the people current living in the River Corridor can afford.

Another potential issue with the Revitalization Plan is the fact that one of the goals is to create value in some the poorest neighborhoods that border the LA River. From Downtown LA, through Boyle Heights and Compton these neighborhoods have some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation at an average of 20%. The Master Plan argues that bay creating aesthetically and recreationally valuable land along the river, homes values will go up increasing the economic status of some of our poorest neighborhoods. Historically however this does not work. When state or city money is put into a beautification project, money moves to the areas with rising home values. A perfect example of this gentrification is Downtown Los Angeles. After the 50s and 60s, Downtown was down and out. Old movie houses, banks and hotels were changed into cheap or welfare housing for the poor. With the revitalization of Bunker Hill and Historical Downtown Districts there was an exodus of middle and upper class folk into the city ( This eventually raised the rent prices and pushed the poor further east to what is currently and also being gentrified, the LA Arts District. Where will the poor go? Although this plan aims to empower and uplift the lower socio-economic brackets it may actually be back-fired upon.

No matter where the baseline for restoration lies, I don’t think we will ever see or want to see the type of habitat that covered Los Angeles more than a million years ago.


This post was authored by Sherwood Egbert ’13 and Mariah Gill ’12 who are both pursuing a BS in Environmental Studies.


Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, April 2007

The Los Angeles River, Chapter 1 and 2