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LA River: Thin Green Line Between Civilization and Nature
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LA River: Thin Green Line Between Civilization and Nature

Picture of Andrew Wilder
Updated: 24 April 2017
Whether you are in town visiting, or have been a longtime resident of the Los Angeles area, the river is a beautiful and under-utilized destination that reveals the thin green line between urban and natural environments in LA. Awareness of the environmental threats facing the river, as well as the conservation goals for the river’s future, will prove vital to insuring its continued existence.
The Los Angeles River flowing in Downtown Los Angeles | Downtowngal
The Los Angeles River flowing in Downtown Los Angeles | © Downtowngal

In the eyes of many Angelenos and those outside of the city who know of its existence, the Los Angeles River is considered more of a waterway than a true river, as it certainly doesn’t pack as much punch as the Colorado or Mississippi Rivers.

For much of the LA River’s Journey, from where it begins in Canoga Park, to where it empties into the Pacific Ocean in Long Beach, the river trickles over the surface of the concrete channel that was poured in the first half of the 20th century to control the perennial — and sometimes catastrophic — flooding that would alter the river’s course every few years over the Los Angeles flood plain.

Los Angeles River at Griffith Park, ca.1898-1910
Los Angeles River at Griffith Park, ca.1898-1910 | © WikiCommons

The banks of the LA river were first inhabited by the Tongva, an indigenous people who along with the Chumash, made up the most powerful and populous society in Southern California prior to the European’s arrival. Today, their trace lives on mostly in the words we have borrowed from their language (Topanga, Cahuenga, Cucamonga).

In 1769, Spanish explorers with the Portola expedition became the first Europeans to set eyes on the river. In honor of a holiday that coincided with the river’s discovery, a Fransiscan monk who apparently wasn’t a fan of brevity, christened it The River of our Lady Queen of the Angels of Porciuncule. The name was later significantly shortened.

Channelized Los Angeles River in Downtown Los Angeles | Downtowngal
Channelized Los Angeles River in Downtown Los Angeles | © Downtowngal

Until 1913, when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was built, the LA River was the primary source for the city’s water needs. Throughout the early 20th century, the river continued its habit of unpredictably flooding and relocating itself across the alluvial plain. After a particularly devastating flood in 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers began to pave the river. The only parts that avoided complete concretization are behind the Sepulveda Dam near Van Nuys, an area east of Griffith Park referred to as the Glendale Narrows, and the final stretch in Long Beach before it spills into the ocean.

Unbeknownst to many residents of the city, these areas of the Los Angeles River are rife with greenery. The stretches of the river that did not receive a full paving from the army corps of engineers, though often still contained within the walls of concrete banks, are flanked by beds of rocks and sand along with a wide array of flora and fauna. One of the best ways to enjoy the splendor of the Los Angeles River is to make use of the three mile bicycle path that runs along the Glendale Narrows, passing through the the neighborhoods of Frogtown and the Elysian Valley. Over 300 species of birds can be seen in and around the river, whether they call it home year round or are simply stopping through on a migratory route. You are likely to see herons, ducks and even osprey returning to their nests with fresh fish for their young ones.

Los Angeles River Subproject No. 129 | U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Los Angeles River Subproject No. 129 | © U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The river is used for a number of recreational activities, including kayaking and fishing. The kayaking season is generally open during the dry summer months and last year ran from May through September. One of the most beautiful and untouched portions of the river runs through the Sepulveda Basin in the San Fernando Valley, and is a prime destination for urban kayakers in Los Angeles. Several companies offer kayak rentals and tours during the open season.

There is also a dedicated community of fisherman who enjoy the the river using both spin- and fly-casting methods. Although the current drought has made conditions difficult for the past several seasons, anglers target a variety of sport fish that reside in the Los Angeles River, including carp, bass and catfish. Historically, the river was home to species such as Steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, but the paving of the river has prevented migratory fish populations from returning to reproduce. The last native Steelhead was taken from the LA river in 1948.

Many conservationists believe that restoring the river’s sandy bottom would enable these critically endangered species to gain a foothold in the river and flourish again.