Until 1985, the Los Angeles River was like virtually every other river in the Southwest--dry in the summer, wet in the winter and spring. During big storms, most of its water came roaring down Tujunga Wash from the San Gabriel Mountains. Otherwise, the flow was mostly swill from Los Angeles' 700 or so unregulated storm drains.
Enter the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant. It and a smaller L.A.-Glendale plant, located a few miles downstream from Tillman in the Sepulveda Basin, began pumping tertiary-treated, potentially reclaimable sewage water. First, 40 million gallons, now 60 million gallons of the water daily flows into the Los Angeles River. Volume will soon reach 100 million gallons.
The result: For probably the first time since the end of the last Ice Age, the Los Angeles became a year-round river. At some spots north of downtown, the water is more than three feet deep, even now at the end of the dry season.
In the late 1930s, when the Army Corps of Engineers used 3 million barrels of concrete to grade and straighten the Los Angeles River, the goal was to get the river's water to the Pacific Ocean as fast as possible. And it worked: The Los Angeles rolled three times faster than the Mississippi.
The only stretches of river left with a natural bottom were between Burbank and Balboa boulevards in the Sepulveda Basin, from Willow Road to the ocean in Long Beach and the roughly five miles where the river winds past Griffith Park, Glendale and Atwater to "Frogtown," just north of downtown. The water table at the east end of the San Fernando Valley during winter was too high, the Corps of Engineers discovered. Any concrete laid there would eventually have floated away.
Nearly 60 years later, these separate living sections of the Los Angeles River, despite utter neglect, remain intact. These stretches are probably the city's most overlooked natural resource.
A few yards away from the Golden State Freeway, cottonwoods are growing in the river, as well as young oaks, sycamores and walnut trees. If you look upstream from the Los Feliz Boulevard Bridge, you might see horses from the Griffith Park stables splashing through the river. If you're on the bridge at dawn or dusk, you might see big white American egrets and great blue herons wading up the river.
In the spring, the songs of nesting red-winged blackbirds fill the air. The living sections of the Los Angeles River are habitat for hundreds of land- and sea-going cormorants, mallards and grebs during their migrations. Even fish are starting to reappear.
In the last two years, the City of Los Angeles has begun to rediscover its river. Mayor Tom Bradley announced that a goal of his fifth term would be the "greening" of the river. Councilmen Joel Wachs and Michael Woo have asked the city Planning Department to come up with a greenbelt plan, which would include a bike path from the Sepulveda Basin to downtown. Proposals to revive the river have become virtually a cottage industry in local university urban-studies departments.
Then there's Richard Katz. The Sylmar assemblyman wants to do something about our increasingly congested freeways. His idea is to build a freeway in the Los Angeles River.
Never mind that Caltrans studied and rejected a similar idea 20 years ago. Katz is chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, to which the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission looks for most of its money. The commission dutifully found $15,000 to study the chairman's idea.
If Katz gets his way, the Los Angeles River bottom, beginning at the intersection of the Ventura and Golden State freeways and on to downtown, would be transformed into three car-pool lanes. From downtown to Long Beach, a truckway would be constructed in the riverbed. A 10-foot concrete wall would separate the cars and trucks from the 100 million gallons of daily sewage. The living stretches of the river would be replaced by a man-made "greenbelt."
The study predicted increased traffic, air pollution, noise and glare for every community along the river from Glendale to Long Beach. It mentioned only in passing the Army Corps of Engineers' proposal to spend a half-billion dollars to raise the river's concrete walls three feet to protect against an increased flood danger even without Katz's freeway. When Ray Grabinski, a county transportation commissioner and Long Beach city councilman, asked Katz who would be liable for, say, a flash flood during a traffic tie-up, the assemblyman replied that a bigger--and more expensive--study would be needed to answer that one. Dutifully, the commission voted unanimously to spend at least another $100,000 for the new study.
Larger questions, meanwhile, beg for attention. Which does Los Angeles need most, another freeway or a living river? Do we really want to make it easier for trucks to travel into downtown Los Angeles? And what's better for the future of Los Angeles County, increased reliance on the internal combustion engine or a Los Angeles River Park with bike paths from the Sepulveda Basin to Long Beach?
Maybe Katz's freeway proposal will turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The Los Angeles River, after all, will continue to flow, no matter what we do. Our task is to decide whether its course will be ugly or beautiful. It's about time to do just that.