By the time the last steelhead trout was pulled from the Glendale Narrows in 1940, the Los Angeles River was nearing perfection--transformed from an unpredictable, flood-prone wash into a streamlined, super-efficient machine for moving rainwater to the sea as quickly as possible. Visionary and rational. The first modern American river.
The proud fisherman who hooked that last steelhead might have worked for one of the aircraft plants in the area, plants whose chromium wastes were first noticed in the river one year later, in 1941. Soon swimming would be banned. But the re-engineering of the river, begun in 1936 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, marched on. Between the Los Angeles and its twin, the San Gabriel River, joined together at the hip by the Rio Hondo channel in South Gate, the balky, sandy guts of a 1,700-square-mile watershed were replaced with concrete: 100 miles of main stem channel, 370 miles of tributary channel, five major dams, 15 small dams, 129 debris basins and tens of thousands of storm drains, each unit playing its part in an elaborate opera of engineering. At peak capacity, the L.A. River moves 183,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Pacific--the equivalent of 80 million garden hoses, 14 times the flow of New York's Hudson River.
This plumbing helps keep 10 million people high and dry in what is otherwise a dangerous floodplain encompassing more than half of Los Angeles County, minus the mountains. Getting water out has been as crucial to the creation of the Southern California metropolis as bringing water in. And the synergy has been just as perfect: flood control enabled growth by protecting property values; growth in turn financed flood control with property-tax rolls and bonds approved by fearful homeowners. "Without the presence of the flood-control system," one former county chief flood-control engineer has said, "80% of the intense development within the county could not have taken place." If growth has been God in Los Angeles County, the flood-control engineers have been his priestly brotherhood.
That's why it would seem unlikely casting today for this perfect excuse for a stream to become the vehicle of our communal redemption.
BY MOST DEFINITIONS OF A RIVER, THE LOS ANGELES HAS NEVER MEASURED up. It is occasionally too full, but is almost always too empty, no more than a bleak concrete channel of garbage, graffiti and toxic runoff, its only year-round flow provided by a rivulet of treated sewage. Its barren box channels seem the image of the alienation and racial, ethnic and class divisions that fracture the metropolis, scars across its brittle skin where its navel ought to be.
Actually, engineers have conjured the City of Angels from the unlikely chalice of the L.A. River not once, but twice. When the Spanish came through in 1769, they found "a most beautiful garden" of lush willow thickets rife with roses, grapevines and bears; its cool, shaded pools nurtured big steelhead--now nearly extinct in Southern California. L.A. River water, diverted in gravity-fed irrigation channels, watered first the old pueblo, then California's first nationally acclaimed wine industry in the area now east and south of downtown.
Though it seems surreal today, L.A. first became known to the rest of America as the "City of Vines," supplier of bulk wine and brandy. Later, in 1877, the first boxcar of oranges sent east was grown on the river's banks with diverted river water. Such fecundity guaranteed a flood--of people seeking their mortgaged piece of the new garden paradise. The city doubled its population every four years--too quickly to remember that the river flooded every eight or so years.
During storms the lowly Los Angeles morphs into one of the most dangerous rivers in America, with the potential to put no less than 336 square miles under water. Where the Mississippi falls 605 feet in 2,000 miles, the L.A. drops 795 feet in 51 miles. It and its tributaries have killed more people in the county than have earthquakes. After three days of rain, the New Year's flood of 1934 killed at least 49 people and destroyed 600 houses. Woody Guthrie made "the wild Los Angeles River" famous nationwide. The '38 flood killed 87 and flooded 108,000 acres. These floods led to New Deal legislation that put the Corps of Engineers into the flood-control business, with the L.A. River the first and biggest item on its agenda. (It remains the largest Corps project west of the Mississippi.)