LOS ANGELES—When the remnants of Hurricane Linda drifted over Southern California in mid-September, giving Los Angeles two-and-a-half inches of desperately needed rain, the boulder-strewn, tree-lined stretch of the L.A. River known as the Glendale Narrows turned into a brown torrent. During the morning rush hour, traffic crept along the freeway bridges that crisscross the river—normally favored with little more than a creek’s flow through its block-wide breadth—where it wraps around the eastern edge of Griffith Park and turns toward downtown. A rescue helicopter circled overhead, swooping down to pluck two people and a dog out of the tree they were stranded in when the storm waters rushed through. Such a lifesaving undertaking is repeated somewhere along the river nearly every time Los Angeles is drenched with rain, often to rescue homeless people who reside along the waterway.
As the commotion of a stormy day in a city of 3.88 million swirled overhead, a stately great blue heron stood along the river’s slanted concrete banks, and a family of ducks waddled along the water’s edge, the flow reaching nearly a third of the way to the top.
It’s here, along an 11-mile stretch of waterway, that the future of the Los Angeles River is playing out. After nearly a century of turning its back on the river that first gave the city life, Los Angeles is finally embracing it. With a $1.35 billion federal plan to restore the natural habitat along the Glendale Narrows recently approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, the historic heart of the city is set for a revival: 2015 saw a boom in waterfront property prices and development in the industrial and working-class neighborhoods nearby, the flashy involvement of a star architect, and glittering plans for an athletes’ village set alongside the green banks of a restored river placed at the center of L.A.’s 2024 Olympic bid. Designers of the project are promising a “linear Central Park.”
From Boulder, Colorado, to San Antonio, cities across the West are restoring the almost forgotten waterways that were once central to their existence, reintegrating them into the fabric of their communities. But in Los Angeles—typical of the place—it’s happening on an entirely different scale. “In terms of both the size of this project and the degree of modification—in other words, really changing it from a concrete roadway back into a living river—I think the magnitude of this project is going to dwarf any other project you can point to,” said Peter Gleick, the president and cofounder of the Pacific Institute, a water-issues think tank in Oakland, California. “The idea that we could restore the L.A. River to even a semblance of its natural condition would be hugely symbolic and healthy.”
FULL COVERAGE: How 2015 Changed the Future
Concern remains, however, that this new affection for the river will primarily benefit the city’s wealthier residents and white minority. From the draining of the Owens Valley via the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 to the titanic infrastructure projects built along the Colorado River in the 1930s, the history of Los Angeles could be told in a succession of stories about how water is harnessed for the city’s expansion—usually at the expense of both poor communities and the environment. The modern 51-mile waterway was born under just such circumstances. After flooding in 1938 killed more than 100 people and destroyed more than 5,000 buildings, modern ingenuity set the course of the once wildly meandering river, encasing it in a concrete straitjacket—and created new space for industrial and residential development along the banks, providing the city with new sources of tax revenue.
The question in 2015 is whether the plan for the Los Angeles River is a similarly styled project tinged green for the conscious capitalism era or an honest reversal of 20th-century natural resources management ideology. Cheap, imported water was fundamental to the century-long boom that transformed Los Angeles from a dusty outpost of 320,000 in 1910 into today’s metropolis. As the region struggles with a record fourth consecutive year of drought, there’s a clear need to reassess where it gets its water and how thoughtfully it uses it. With the return to the river, some see its potential to help on both fronts. But it's not clear whether the restoration will improve the city's ability to capture rainfall from heavy storms like Hurricane Linda—predicted to be more frequent under climate change—or continue dumping stormwater in the sea, as today’s concrete channel was designed to do. The city is not looking at the river because of the drought; because of the drought, it is looking at the river.
Cheap, imported labor has been just as important to L.A.'s growth. Whether the river becomes a new sustainable water resource or a multibillion-dollar beautification project, will it have been remade with poorer residents with immigrant backgrounds in mind too? Or will the river, as William Mulholland infamously said of water from the Owens Valley, be there for those with the means to “take it”? As Los Angeles finds itself in a hotter, drier climate, will there be some equity to how the benefits of the restoration project are distributed, with the thirst—for water, for recreation, for beauty—of both wildlife and humans, rich and poor, slaked at last?
The city promises unleashing the river would be for the good of all of the above, but as residents of the low-income neighborhood of Frogtown, the locus of change along the river, face dislocation, and many endangered species are left out of plans altogether, the first major stage of the grand restoration project could be seen to follow the Mulholland mold. Critics worry that the communities that have long called the river’s edge home—Frogtown’s human residents, as well as the locally extinct red-legged amphibians that gave the neighborhood its name—aren’t being factored into the river’s future. The proposals for the river could turn a city popularly (and incorrectly) considered a desert into an oasis for people and wildlife in the changed climate we’re already grappling with—or not. Is a multibillion-dollar infrastructure project decades in the making worth all the trouble if it can’t benefit all the city’s broad social strata, its water supply, and its ample wildlife?
“When you look at what the plans are, we’re going to go for a fancier flood-control channel that maybe looks prettier, but doesn’t really restore river function and aquatic biodiversity,” said Rosi Dagit, senior conservation biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.
While Dagit admits to having a wildlife bias, Mia Lehrer, a landscape architect who worked on plans for the river, believes the river's future is about balancing interests, not saving any one species or community. “We’re talking about urban ecology, which is about people—we’re not talking about bringing any part of Los Angeles back to 1500,” she said. “So ‘urban ecological restoration’ is maybe a better term” than “habitat restoration” or “urban revitalization,” she said. “And it involves people.”
Rain may be rare in California these last four years, but running freshwater can still be found if you know where to look. Winding up into the Santa Monica or San Gabriel mountains, which cap the L.A. Basin, the drab army-green of dry chaparral gives way to lush, shady canyons where underground springs emerge, some forming tributaries to the river.
Around 95 percent of this landscape—Southern California riparian habitat—has been lost to development or other human activity in the last 150 years, along with nearly all the river-delta wetlands and marshes that used to pockmark the coast. Nevertheless, certain flora and fauna that called these places home can still be seen along the banks of the L.A. River and its channelized tributaries—wild roses and listing sycamores and aquatic birds and amphibians that have persisted.
Bringing back this largely forgotten landscape would help green a wide swath through some of the most population-dense and industry-laden sections of the city and create new wildlife habitat—but at the risk of the kinds of devastating floods the river was channelized to prevent. Still, un-channelizing parts of the river could have enough of a positive upside that some people are advocating for it and being taken seriously: Natural waterways allow more water to percolate down into underlying aquifers, potentially giving Los Angeles a significant local supply of water as climate change makes delivering snowmelt runoff hundreds of miles from the Sierra Nevada and the Colorado River ever more precarious. Los Angeles gets just 12 percent of its municipal water locally—a staggering 85 percent is imported.
“If you let the river flood, which it historically did on a regular basis, there is a potential to accomplish a lot of recharge for the groundwater,” said Graham Fogg, a hydrogeologist at the Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at the University of California, Davis. That’s how the largest aquifer in the state, which sits beneath the Central Valley, came to be: a few million years’ worth of water and snowmelt flushing down from the Sierra, which mark the eastern edge of California’s major farming region, into rivers that would overrun their banks from time to time. “It is important for cities, especially under climate change, to rethink their urban flood management,” Fogg said. “Making the most of the water you have needs to be part of a portfolio of solutions.”
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has set an ambitious goal to supply 43 percent of the city’s water from local resources by 2034. The increase would be achieved by upping the city’s reliance on regional groundwater (and recycled water), in addition to developing storm-water-capture systems. According to a Pacific Institute study, enough water to supply 100,000 to 125,000 households could be saved every year by implementing storm-water capture in urbanized parts of Southern California and the Bay Area—more than L.A. imports via the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Fogg coauthored a recent study conducted in the Central Valley that looked at how pushing back the levees on irrigation channels could increase groundwater recharge, but finding the equivalent of a fallowed lettuce field in the midst of a city isn’t so easy to do. You can’t just temporarily flood a neighborhood.
A park, however, is another story. This idea was at the core of the 1930 plan by landscape architects the Olmsted brothers and Harland Bartholomew to make the river the centerpiece of a vast citywide network of parks and playgrounds. It’s what the Corps of Engineers plan proposes to do with a piece of riverside property used as a Union Pacific rail yard that is often referred to as the “crown jewel” of the restoration plan.
The proposed design for the park at Piggyback Yard would allow for up to 60 percent of the 125-acre property to be inundated with storm water when the river bursts its banks (which used to happen every five to 20 years). Storm water would be absorbed by a series of wetlands and islands that would replace the concrete bank; inflatable dams would safely direct and hold the floodwaters, which would later be sent downstream. The feasibility study mentions that some percolation could occur after major storm events, but Mark Hanna, a water resources engineer with the consulting firm Geosyntec who worked on the Piggyback Yard plan, noted that quite a few buildings in the downtown area have foundations that reach into the water table, and their basements are regularly pumped to avoid flooding. Percolating storm water into the aquifer nearby would only make it worse, potentially creating some very unhappy, very rich neighbors.
There are 51 miles of river, however, and numerous locations, such as in South Los Angeles, where significant natural recharge occurred before the river and nearby floodplain were paved over. It is such sites that architect Frank Gehry says he wants to make the primary focus of a $3 million study his firm is undertaking as a pro bono project at the behest of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation. In November, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy gave the L.A. River Corp. a $1 million matching-funds grant to help pay for the work.
In an interview with Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne, Gehry said he told city officials he “would only do it on the condition that they approached it as a water-reclamation project.”
That thinking has not, as yet, led to any firm plans along the river that could help bolster local water resources, and the fine print of the Corps of Engineers study is clear that the restoration of the Glendale Narrows will not have any major effect on local water resources. Plans to build a series of infiltration basins there were deemed both too expensive and too difficult, considering they would save enough water for fewer than 1,000 families. While the river can be allowed to flood in a safe, controlled way along the stretches set to be restored, the tilt of the land and the high-water table make recharge in the narrows an unlikely prospect.
Everyone’s talking about real estate development along the river, but not a lot of people are talking about economic development.
Damian Robledo, River Wild
A decade before it was decided to spend more than a billion dollars restoring the Glendale Narrows, the stretch of river saw some of the baby-steps restoration efforts that began in the early '00s: eight miles of bike path. Before then, few people were looking at the channelized canal as anything more than a polluted eyesore.
That is, unless you grew up alongside it. Luis Trujillo remembers riding his bike along the Los Angeles River when he was a kid, well before the riverbanks there became something of a destination for cyclists in the city. Trujillo, 25, spent much of his childhood in Elysian Valley—better known as Frogtown for its marshy tendencies and the amphibians that came along with them. A working-class, predominantly Latino community hemmed in by natural and human-made features, Frogtown is not a place you just pass through. Yet the neighborhood has arguably taken over from nearby Highland Park as the epicenter of gentrification in the city. House flippers convinced the Army Corps project will boost property values are buying homes for far above their assessed value, enriching some residents while others are being forced out by rising rents.
Before Trujillo was a Ph.D. student in ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside, and a member of the anti-gentrification Northeast Los Angeles Collective, he was just another Latino kid from Frogtown. On a hot August morning, sitting by the edge of the bike path, he recalled, “This is where people would come every day.” What is today neatly paved, he explained, used to be rough and neglected, the area above the sloping banks filled with dirt piles that a young Trujillo and his friends used for bike ramps.
Now the bank is home to Marsh Park. Sandwiched between it and the Highway 2 bridge, the Lego-like blocks that comprise the apartments at the L.A. River Lofts housing developmen are being stacked in place. It’s the kind of project that, with its height and lack of affordable units, some in the neighborhood are determined to stop.
We sat at the end of a path that ran through the park and down to the river, where California fuchsia were beginning to unfurl red-tongued blooms to bait hummingbirds, and boulder-filled bioswales—“The Rock Stars of Infiltration,” an educational sign informed visitors—for filtering storm water were interspersed amid the drought-tolerant landscaping. As we talked, cyclists hunched over titanium alloy frames zipped by, and another heron, a common sight along the narrows, preened its feathers midstream.
Trujillo scoffs at the idea of Angelenos suddenly discovering the river. “We already had a relationship to it,” he said of Frogtown residents. “We’re right next to it.” Kids played in the water; adults cast lines into the channel to catch fish; grandparents ambled along its rough edge for a morning or evening stroll. “Every day, people would be walking up and down the river—it was like a little nature path for us.”
Residents who remember the eminent-domain evictions in a vibrant Latino neighborhood to make way for Dodger Stadium in the ’50s, just over the hill to the west, and the construction of the Golden State Freeway that sliced off the neighborhood’s commercial strip, are worried that once again a part of the city they enjoyed, undiscovered, will be sacrificed as a scheme of "impovement" for people who have never been a part of the neighborhood.
Helen Leung, who grew up here, works in one of the river-facing offices that are another indication of a changing Frogtown. After working for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti while he was still a City Council member, Leung spent some time away, living in Washington, D.C., and attending graduate school, but moved back two-and-a-half years ago to be closer to her parents—and to take a stake in the neighborhood.
“I wanted to make sure that as this neighborhood changes there is some social equity,” Leung, co–executive director of LA-Más, a nonprofit design firm headquartered in. L.A., said of coming back to work and live in Frogtown.
She said in a recent interview that there’s been “a greater focus on involuntary displacement” in Frogtown—of folks such as the renters who have lived there for 20 years or the cabinetmaker who loses his shop after a building gets a new owner. “I think those stories tug at the heartstrings, and it’s a visible transformation.”
In May, LA-Más released an extensive report, called Futuro de Frogtown, looking at the neighborhood, its state of flux, and how its residents hope to move forward. The report expresses support for homeowners who choose to cash in and move out—though Leung acknowledges that choosing to sell isn’t a solely economic choice.
“My parents are the perfect example: They have had a house that’s in the commercial manufacturing zone for 30 years, and they get offers weekly for a lot of money,” which they could live on comfortably if they were to say yes and move away. “But they say, ‘We love this neighborhood, and we want to stay here.’ ” Others have come to a different decision.
Leung wants not to halt or prevent change but to ask how “as a neighborhood changes, people who have lived here for a long time can continue to change it.” As part of the community outreach efforts that informed the report, LA-Más offered free workshops for first-time homebuyers in the neighborhood. It also provided legal advice on renters’ rights, in addition to holding community meetings and other outreach events about what’s happening to Frogtown as a result of the river restoration.
Leung similarly hopes that gentrification doesn’t turn the neighborhood into a “homogeneous, higher-end community,” she said, and that somehow “you still allow diversity and affordability.” To retain the make-up of neighborhood residents, she doesn’t mind seeing greater density—as long as it's in the name of affordable housing.
While activists and policy makers can do little to stop gentrification, there are means of directing it, to a degree. Activists see building codes as one of the few tools able to keep trendiness in check, and the city appears to have heard those concerns: In September, the L.A. City Planning Commission voted to change zoning guidelines in Frogtown. (The proposal would still need to be passed by the full City Council.)
Leung, however, doesn’t see the zoning changes as a victory. She sees rules intended to preserve physical characteristics of the neighborhood as having the ancillary effect of keeping density low, hiking up prices. “It’s a missed opportunity to have a more balanced community by encouraging more affordable housing that’s compatible with the existing neighborhood,” she said.
To keep Frogtown from becoming the affluent, homogenized community Leung fears, housing is only half of the equation. This section of the river used to be called L.A.’s breadbasket; a handful of commercial bakeries on each bank provided 3,000 jobs, many of them union. Back in the day, with a well-paying position at the Frogtown Hostess factory, which closed in 2012, you could make a decent living and maybe buy a bungalow here. But Frogtown has been losing jobs and amenities for decades and now lacks even the most basic retail establishments.
The last holdout of this food-manufacturing past is Kruegermann Pickles & Sauerkraut, which sits across the street from the former Twinkies bakery. As I walked through the factory with Greg Kruegermann, whose family has run the factory here since they escaped East Germany in 1961, the predominantly Latino staff trimmed basketball-size heads of cabbage. Most of the staff live in the neighborhood, he said, except for those who have had to move away because of rent hikes.
Instead of cashing out, the Kruegermanns are investing more deeply in Frogtown. On the next block, a building the family owns is being rented out for below market rate to Cafecito Organico, a Latino-owned local coffee chain, whose owners will soon open a roasting facility. In a retrofitted shipping container sitting in the parking lot, Damian Robledo of the economic developer River Wild is also planning a community-minded coffee shop—the first steps toward his grand plan for a food manufacturing and retail corridor in the neighborhood.
“Everyone’s talking about real estate development along the river, but not a lot of people are talking about economic development along the river, which directly affects communities,” Robledo said as we stood in the shadow of the empty Hostess factory. His next project, for which he’s lining up grants, is an overhaul of the only corner market in Frogtown.
Such efforts might address the question for Trujillo and others with roots in the neighborhood of whether their community will still be there once the ecological improvements—and the high-end apartments, bars, and restaurants that will overlook the new habitat—are completed.
Twenty-four miles northwest of the Glendale Narrows, the confluence of Bell Creek and Arroyo Calabasas marks where the Los Angeles River officially begins, but the point where the two concrete-lined channels meet looks more like a flooded freeway off-ramp than like a headwater. A few miles away in West Hills, toward the edge of both the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles County, is a more symbolic transition: the point where Bell Creek goes from a mostly natural streambed to a concrete apron dripping with urban runoff.
Cutting through the chaparral and down to the bottom of Bell Canyon, where sage scrub gives way to willows and the occasional gnarled coast live oak, Katy Delaney, a wildlife ecologist with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, pointed out the small pools of standing water hidden amid the brush. It’s the kind of habitat where Southern California’s few native amphibians might live—but it’s likely that invasive crayfish are somewhere in the stream too. The freshwater shellfish have been devastating California streams since they first took up residence more than a century ago, helping to kill off the local population of red-legged frogs altogether.
“Anything under the water—native fish, native amphibians—are going to have a really hard time unless the water is cleaned up,” Delaney said. That would require removing invasives such as crayfish and addressing hydrology issues.
There’s no keystone species for riparian habitat in Southern California—no iconic, ecologically significant animal whose health and abundance can stand in for that of the larger ecology. But Lewis MacAdams—who cofounded the river’s first dedicated environmental group, Friends of the Los Angeles River, in 1987—has said he’ll know his work is done “when the steelhead trout run returns to the Los Angeles River.” MacAdams and his organization have played a major role in bringing the city’s attention back to its central waterway, and while he has been critical of Gehry’s involvement, MacAdams has been supportive of the Corps of Engineers’ vision for the river.
Yet the habitat restoration plan for the Glendale Narrows accounts for neither fish nor frog. According to the plan, the restored habitat would help the endangered least Bell’s vireo, a small brownish bird, but the question of steelhead, a member of the salmon family, is couched more in terms of maybe or someday.
For conservationists like Delaney and Dagit that’s a disappointment. “This is our once-in-a-lifetime chance to do it, basically,” Dagit said of the needs that would have to be addressed to bring back steelhead. “We either do it now, or we lose it. Look at the bill: No one is ever going to pay for it again.”
The rare fish, which was likely never found in large numbers, seemed to disappear from Southern California in the late 1990s. But they have since begun to show up here and there, prompting the federal government to give the distinct population segment in Southern California endangered species status in 1997, with the boundaries expanded in 2002 following sightings outside what was believed to be the fish’s range. An estimated 500 or so remain.
Bringing steelhead back “has to be a conscious effort,” said Mark Capelli, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s south-central California coast recovery coordinator. NOAA has a recovery plan for the species, which focuses on restoring waterways across Southern California to make them more suitable habitat for steelhead, as well as on maintaining the existing populations. But despite its year-round opening at the Pacific, “the Los Angeles River presents some really unique challenges because of how much it has been modified,” Capelli said. While there are soft-bottom sections suitable for spawning, there’s a whole lot of concrete between such spots and the river mouth. Even breaking up the concrete banks and restoring riparian habitat wouldn’t do the trick.
“There are some physical problems and some hydrological problems that need to be addressed in a very particular way,” he said, none of which have been picked up from the NOAA recovery plan by the Corps of Engineers or other groups working on restoration plans.
“I totally recognize that we’re never going to get back to a totally natural L.A. River,” Dagit said. After all, this was once habitat for Southern California grizzly bears too (the last one was shot in the Santa Ana mountains in 1916). “We’re not going to unbuild everything that is there—but there are places along the L.A. River where we could do a better job.”
While steelhead and red-legged frogs aren’t set for a comeback, other wildlife—especially birds and mammals—should fare much better under the restoration plans, according to Delaney.
If the L.A. River were a “more natural stream corridor, P-22, the lion that’s in Griffith Park, he might be able to get out,” Delaney said enthusiastically. “He might be able to just go down the L.A. River to get out, and go up to the San Gabriels” via the Arroyo Seco. Instead, he’s stuck in Griffith Park, where, as she put it, he’s the poster child for habitat fragmentation and urbanization.
Even if the $1.35 billion Corps of Engineers plan for the Glendale Narrows won’t result in any significant amount of water percolating into the big aquifer that the LADWP draws from, it’s only phase one. There may be places to recharge groundwater elsewhere along the river’s path, and also at locations away from its banks. Just as governments and public institutions are taking the lead from environmentalists and reconsidering the 51-mile-long waterway, the same thing is happening for the heavily paved 800-square-mile drainage that surrounds the river.
Much of the focus on river restorations efforts has been on taking away its concrete banks. But, said Deborah Weinstein Bloome, senior director of policy at TreePeople, an L.A.-based environmental group, “the river is concretized because we did the same thing to the watershed.” Rain used to fall on grasslands or chaparral and filter into the ground—95 percent of the basin was once permeable—with some of the water reaching the river. But because so much of L.A. was paved, nearly all the rainwater that falls in the Basin has nowhere to go—a sure recipe for flooding. Paving the basin to grow Los Angeles from a dusty outpost to a booming metropolis is why the river needed to be channelized in the first place, Bloome contends.
She said that TreePeople, which has been advocating for the development of sustainable local water resources for nearly 40 years, is encouraged by the Corps of Engineers and city master plans. While the group wants to see the river return to something of a natural state, she said, “we don’t think that can happen by looking at the river in isolation.”
Instead of looking at the waterway as the only place where water can be captured, TreePeople wants to deploy water-saving infrastructure and practices across the river drainage—in many instances completely independent of the river per se. Other cities, including Philadelphia and Chicago, are experimenting with similar ideas. Here, a suburban block with a soccer field is capturing 30 acre-feet of water a year. The $7 million Sun Valley Park Drain and Infiltration System in the eastern San Fernando Valley, completed in 2007, turned a neighborhood where news crews could routinely get footage of flooding streets after even a small storm into a prime example of next-generation water infrastructure.
Instead of flushing rainfall off the low-lying neighborhood and into storm drains, water is directed to a series of underground concrete caverns. There, 30 feet below the baseball and soccer fields and other public amenities at Sun Valley Park, it is filtered of heavy metals and other contaminants and allowed to percolate down into the aquifer until it is pumped back up for residential use. While the park only drains a 21-acre area of the 2,800-acre Sun Valley Watershed, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District estimates it saves about enough water each year to supply a city block. TreePeople sees it as a proof-of-concept project, one that shows how flood control and municipal water concerns can scratch each other’s backs.
Expanding such infrastructure, according to Bloome, is even more important with rainy weather ever more a rarity in Southern California.
“Last year, which I believe was one of our driest years on record, it still rained enough in the city of L.A. for each Angeleno to actually capture 7,000 gallons per person [enough for 50 average days of water use] had we been set up for it,” Bloome said. With less snow predicted in the mountains we depend on for our water, capturing as much local storm water as possible will become even more important. Add recycled water, gray water, and other resources to the increased storm-water-capture capabilities, and “you’re starting to look at a pretty water-secure Los Angeles,” Bloome said. “We definitely think it’s achievable.”
The city has spent more than a century treating its far-flung water resources much in the way William Mulholland envisioned: aqueducts gurgling water down and over mountains, traveling hundreds of miles from higher, wetter climes, to fulfill Los Angeles’ needs. “It worked in the past,” Bloome said. “Now we need a new, smart water infrastructure for the future,” to supply Los Angeles with water for the next 100 years. TreePeople’s vision—which has the support in principle of both the city and the LADWP—is of water independence that Los Angeles’ city fathers and the state bureaucrats who built the Chinatown-inspiring water infrastructure never imagined. The irony is that the river might not have much to do with it.