Revitalizing the Los Angeles River

“And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh.” Ezekiel 47:9

From the dawn of recorded history, humans built cities along rivers. Over 6,000 years ago, Sumerian city-states grew along the fertile banks of the Tigris-Euphrates rivers system, relying on these rivers for irrigation and transportation, water to drink and fish to eat. And in the millennia to follow, from the Yangtze to the Mississippi, across the continents, rivers have been the enabling arteries of civilization.

With the arrival of the industrial revolution came rapid population growth and an explosion of new technology. In 1800 the earth and its rivers sustained 990 million people; today, that number approaches 8 billion. As cities expanded along their rivers, to prevent winter floods, dams and levees at an unprecedented scale were constructed to contain them. And at the same time as many urban rivers were transformed into gigantic drainage culverts, their waters were fouled by contaminated runoff, poorly treated sewage, and outfall from industry.

The turning point in the desecration of urban rivers was in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the modern environmental movement began in reaction to polluted air and water. A defining event of this era came in 1969 when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland […] Read More

The Fate of the Los Angeles River Epitomizes the Choices Facing Californians

From its pristine headwaters in the San Gabriel Mountains all the way to its sordid finale as a gigantic culvert emptying into Long Beach Harbor, the Los Angeles River – what’s happened to it and what the future brings – is an apt metaphor for California’s story and California’s ultimate fate.

Until a few years ago, the Los Angeles River was an unrelieved victim of human progress. In less than 150 years, its lower watershed has been transformed from an Arcadian floodplain to an urban metropolis with over ten million inhabitants. After a series of floods in the 1930s devastated the growing city, the Army Corps of Engineers was brought in to tame the river. By the time they were done, what had been a verdant ribbon of life had become a concrete wasteland, dry enough and wide enough for car chase scenes in countless movies, occasionally deluged with safely channeled floodwaters whenever California’s infrequent storms hit the mountains and the water raced down to the sea.

Starting around 1980 the citizens of Los Angeles began to view their river as more than an intriguing eyesore. Under pressure from artists, journalists and environmental activists, the city and county of Los Angeles, with help from the Army Corps, issued a series of studies that imagined a restored river. Most recently, in June 2022, the County of Los Angeles published the “LA River Master Plan.” All of these lengthy reports offer blueprints for turning the Los Angeles River back into […] Read More