The Los Angeles River : its life, death, and possible rebirth /
Blake Gumprecht.
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, c1999.
x, 369 p. : ill., maps ; 26 cm.
0801860474 (alk. paper)
More Details
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, c1999.
0801860474 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. [303]-355) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The River as It Once Was

Walking along the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River, straight and smooth and wide, it is hard to imagine what the river might once have been. History creates a vision of a very different waterway, one that has been a magnet for settlement for thousands of years. Long before the river was confined in concrete by flood control projects, before settlement by the Spanish and the increasing diversion of its water for irrigation and domestic use, the river flowed when and where it wanted, often raging out of control during the winter rains. It did not always empty into San Pedro Bay at Long Beach, as it does today. Sometimes it meandered west across the coastal plain, flowing into Santa Monica Bay along the present course of Ballona Creek.

    Much of the river's waters never reached the sea, instead spreading over the countryside and joining with springs flowing from surrounding hills to form vast marshes, shallow lakes, and small ponds (fig. 1.1). In other places, the river sank into the ground, its bed dry most of the year. Willow and cottonwood trees covered the overflow lands (fig. 1.2), and a dense undergrowth of shrubs made much of the coastal plain impassable. Great oak trees lined the stream course in the San Fernando Valley. This diverse environment provided a rich habitat for wildlife and helped support one of the largest concentrations of Indians in North America. The first European visitors to Southern California also immediately recognized the potential provided by the river, noting the rich soil that spread away from its banks and admiring the wild grapes and native California roses that grew nearby. The plain along the river, one of them wrote, was "so green and lush it seems as though it has been planted."

    Such a landscape was simply the latest stage in the natural history of a region that had been built in large part by its rivers and shaped by the water they carried. Much of the Los Angeles Basin is in reality a broad alluvial plain that stretches from Santa Monica to Newport Beach in Orange County. The waters of the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana Rivers often mingled on the coastal plain in times of flood. Floodwaters from these rivers deposited the rich soil that helped make Los Angeles County the most productive agricultural county in the United States until the 1950s. Their braided channels once spread over wide areas, and their courses shifted dramatically over time. The Los Angeles River sometimes flowed south, sometimes west. The San Gabriel River once emptied into the ocean at San Pedro Bay, along a course later occupied by the Los Angeles River. The Santa Ana River also repeatedly changed its path to the ocean.

    Twenty million years ago, most of the southern half of present-day Los Angeles County was covered by seawater, and the Palos Verdes peninsula was a distant island off the shore. Seas extended as far inland as Pasadena and Pomona and west to Ventura. The tall mountains that separate the coastal plain from the San Fernando Valley and the inland valleys from the Mojave Desert did not yet exist. As the waters slowly receded, these mountains were gradually uplifted. The granitic slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains, for example, have been continually uplifted since the early Tertiary period, twenty-five to sixty-five million years ago. The greatest period of mountain building, however, did not occur until the mid-Pleistocene, about one million years ago. Most of the mountains that ring the valleys and coastal plain are deeply fractured by faults and, as they grew taller, their brittle slopes were continually eroded. Rivers and streams carried boulders, rocks, gravel, sand, and silt down these slopes to the valleys and coastal plain. As the streams left the mountains, they created broad alluvial fans, their courses swinging back and forth and depositing sediments all the while. It was in this manner that the present ground surface of metropolitan Los Angeles was created. More than half of the soils on the coastal plain, in fact, were deposited in relatively recent time by the region's waterways. In places, these sediments are as much as twenty thousand feet thick.

    This pattern of deposition also established the character of Southern California's rivers and streams. As the coastal plain and inland valleys became covered with a thick layer of alluvial deposits, much of the runoff during the rainy season sank into the ground, collecting in underground basins. Only during major storms did stream channels have a significant surface flow. Most of the year, streams flowed both above and below ground, disappearing and reappearing several times between the mountains and the sea. Water rose to the surface when it encountered an underground rock obstruction or when a high water table prevented it from percolating into the sands. So great was the underground flow from the region's three major rivers that it created artesian basins beneath nearly three hundred square miles of the coastal plain.

    Because the rivers and streams seldom flowed above ground, their channels were shallow and poorly defined. They were incapable of containing the great quantities of water that would rush from the mountains during winter rains. Sudden storms transformed normally dry streams into raging torrents, often in a matter of hours and sometimes with the sun still shining. Usually placid rivers overflowed their banks, inundating large areas and occasionally turning portions of the coastal plain into a huge lake. Swirling floodwaters, carrying great loads of rock, sediment, and trees, cut new channels through the countryside and dug depressions in the soil, leaving sloughs, marshes, and ponds in their wake. The Los Angeles River was typical in this regard. Before its character was significantly altered by human activity, it was really two different waterways--a small, gentle stream flowing through a broad, sandy bed most of the year and a large, turbulent, unpredictable river for a few days every winter.

    The description of a traveler who witnessed the catastrophic floods in Los Angeles in 1884 perhaps best conveys the erratic nature of the river before it was controlled. "The Los Angeles is one of those streams whose bed, at some points, is above the water. In other words, it flows underground, or is lost in the sand," wrote Emma H. Adams in one of a series of letters to an Ohio newspaper. "During the rainy season it enlarges to a broad river, with a powerful current and a dangerous shifting bottom. Widely overflowing its banks, it sweeps away real estate and personal property in a most merciless fashion. Scarcely a season passes in which adventurous men do not lose their lives in attempting to cross it with teams when at its flood. Both driver and horses soon disappear beneath its restless quicksands. But let the early Autumn come! Then the once raging torrent purls along, a narrow, shallow, garrulous brook, which bare-footed children may easily ford."

    An Upside-down River

Before it was confined in concrete and its present channel was excavated through wandering sands, the Los Angeles River began much farther east than it does today, its waters first rising to the surface somewhere near the twentieth-century San Fernando Valley suburb of Encino. Water that collects in a huge underground reservoir beneath the valley was here first pushed to the surface by the submerged base of the Santa Monica Mountains, which rise more than a thousand feet above the south side of the valley and project in front of this reservoir like a giant wing dam. The overflow from this natural reservoir supplied most of the dry season flow of the river before flood control. Because the bulk of its flow came not directly from mountain or surface runoff but from this subterranean source, the Los Angeles River has sometimes been called an upside-down river.

    This natural reservoir was created by rocks and gravel washed from mountain slopes by seasonal runoff. The San Fernando Valley is a mountain-enclosed basin, twenty-four miles long and twelve miles wide, the sides and floor of which have been covered with thousands of feet of mountain sediment carried by dozens of intermittent streams. The character of deposition determined the location and capacity of the underground storage basin and ultimately influenced the nature of the river the basin supplies. The slopes that rim most of the valley are composed primarily of soft, sedimentary rocks--shales, sandstones, and clays--that produce fine, relatively impervious soils when eroded. These soils cover the central and western part of the valley. Before flood control, seasonal runoff in this area tended to flow above ground because of the compact nature of the fine sediments. Subsurface flow was minimal.

    The San Gabriel Mountains, which tower above the northeastern corner of the valley, are much different. Rising to twice the height of the other mountains surrounding the valley, they are composed primarily of granite. Their long, steep slopes, deeply cut by faults, encourage erosion, which leaves mountain soils shallow and rocky surfaces exposed. Debris washed from these mountains is larger and more irregularly shaped, reflecting the nature of the source materials. The soils created from these sediments on the valley floor, as a result, are less compact, more porous, and, thus, more permeable than the soils of the central and western San Fernando Valley. Winter after winter for thousands of years, heavy precipitation washed boulders, gravel, and other debris down the steep mountain canyons to the valley floor. The size of the debris determined how far it was transported because mountain streams gradually lose their carrying power after they emerge from the hills and their gradients decrease. Boulders and other large stones were typically deposited at the foot of mountain slopes. Smaller particles, such as clays, silts, and sands, were carried the farthest. Coarse gravels, too heavy to be carried great distances, spread across the valley floor. The eastern half of the San Fernando Valley, consequently, is composed primarily of porous sediments, which were capable of absorbing most of the mountain runoff before the region was heavily developed.

    These pervious materials created the subterranean reservoir that underlies 175 square miles of the San Fernando Valley. Studies have shown that this underground storage basin can hold 3.2 million acre feet of water, roughly one trillion gallons. Only two human-constructed reservoirs in California, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, are larger. Water that collects beneath the valley flows southeast with the gentle slope of the underlying topography, rising to the surface when it encounters the impenetrable rock mass that also forms the Santa Monica Mountains. One can visualize the San Fernando Valley as a huge bowl filled with water that has been tipped slightly, causing its contents to overflow. That overflow created the Los Angeles River.

    Most of the water that percolates into the aquifers beneath the San Fernando Valley originates in the San Gabriel Mountains. Because these mountains rise much higher than nearby ranges, they receive significantly more precipitation. The Santa Monica, Santa Susana, and Verdugo Mountains, which surround three sides of the valley, seldom reach heights above three thousand feet. The western San Gabriel Mountains, in contrast, have elevations of more than seven thousand feet. These higher ridges often trap eastern-moving winter storms. Although downtown Los Angeles averages just fifteen inches of rain a year, some mountain peaks in the San Gabriels receive more than forty inches of precipitation annually. Nearly all of that falls as rain, and 80 percent occurs during four winter months. Archaeological evidence suggests that the microclimates of Southern California have been relatively stable for the past ten thousand years.

    Seasonal rains quickly saturate the shallow mountain soil, and water runs off rapidly, draining into hundreds of mountain canyons that feed three principal streams--Big Tujunga, Little Tujunga, and Pacoima Creeks. Big Tujunga Creek is the largest of the three. It emerges from a canyon north of Sunland and, before its character was significantly altered by human activity, joined with Little Tujunga Creek a few miles west to form Tujunga Wash. Pacoima Creek leaves the hills just east of the city of San Fernando. Until hundreds of small dams and debris basins were built in the mountains to prevent floods, dozens of smaller mountain streams, nearly one per mile, also discharged onto the valley floor. None of these streams reached the Los Angeles River except during extreme floods. Most of the water they carried sank immediately into the porous valley surface, contributing to the vast underground supply that fed the river.

    The Native Landscape

The Los Angeles River at its beginning in Encino was but a few feet wide before flood control projects enlarged its channel. It was narrow enough to walk over, really more of a spring than a river or even a creek. Early Spanish explorers noted the presence of marshes and tule patches nearby, no doubt formed from the same underground flow that created the river. The river gradually widened, flowing east for twenty miles, above and below ground, along the base of the north slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains. Much of its flow was subsurface. Its course through most of the San Fernando Valley was ill-defined. On an 1890 map of Southern California, in fact, the river is shown as an extension of Big Tujunga Creek and Tujunga Wash, flowing west after leaving the San Gabriel Mountains before turning south along the west side of the Verdugo Mountains. The river is not shown at all in the western three-quarters of the valley.

    The river as it is now recognized meandered east along the base of the Santa Monica Mountains through present-day Universal City and Burbank before turning southeast near Griffith Park, where it followed the eastern terminus of the mountains. Verdugo Wash and the Arroyo Seco, dry most of the year, added to its flow during winter months. The river reached the coastal plain via a gap between two hills known as the Glendale Narrows, the San Fernando Valley's only outlet to the sea, so named because the hills on both sides of the river come progressively closer together farther south until they are but a few hundred yards apart near Elysian Park. The river had its greatest natural surface flow in this area because the ridge that forms the eastern extension of the Santa Monica Mountains dips below ground here but is barely covered with alluvium. Bedrock, sometimes only forty feet deep, is much closer to the surface here than anywhere else along the river's course. As a result, much of the water that flowed underground in the San Fernando Valley was pushed to the surface, a condition that assured an abundant and surprisingly consistent year-round flow in the river between Burbank and downtown Los Angeles. This is the only section of the river that was not dry at least part of the year before diversions from its channel became significant. The subterranean reservoir that supplies the river is so large, in fact, that even during extended droughts the flow of the river through the Narrows rarely fell below 20 percent of its average discharge. The river through this section provided all the water needed by the city of Los Angeles for more than a century.

    The river turned more directly south after exiting the Glendale Narrows, sometimes flowing along the terraces that rise gently west of the river, where the pueblo that became Los Angeles was founded in 1781. At other times, it hugged the base of the bluffs (now known as Boyle Heights) on the east side of its valley. South of the original pueblo site, now downtown Los Angeles, the river's course became even more indefinite, shifting back and forth over an area two miles wide, with most of its flow again sinking into the absorbent sands and gravels brought down from the mountains. On a map drawn in the 1830s of a large land grant directly south of the pueblo lands, the river course is labeled as the "Arroyo del Pueblo." Arroyo is the Spanish word for a dry wash. The bulk of the water that had been pushed to the surface in the Glendale Narrows disappeared underground beneath the coastal plain, except during winter storms. This underground flow contributed to the vast subterranean supply that for years was the chief source of water for most of the coastal portion of Los Angeles County. The first shallow wells were drilled near the river in the 1860s, and by 1904 there were more than eight thousand wells on the coastal plain. Some of the underground supply returned to the surface in especially low-lying areas or when it encountered a line of hills or a subsurface obstruction. Where this happened, marshes, lakes, and shallow ponds dotted the landscape.

    Wetlands created by the river's overflow once covered large areas of the countryside from Los Angeles to the sea. A tule patch once sat in a shallow depression near the present location of Fifth Street in downtown Los Angeles. Early residents said that there were two ponds on the east side of the river near Boyle Heights. An area north of the confluence of the Los Angeles River and the Rio Hondo (see fig. 1.1), now occupied by the city of Commerce, was once known as Laguna for a twisting slough formed by the subsurface flow of the two streams. Old maps also show marshes near Lynwood and in a line west of Compton, where pockets of shallow water and a dense growth of willows and cottonwoods made the area "almost impassable," in the words of a nineteenth-century resident. There was a peat bed in Watts. The city of Paramount, north of Long Beach, used to be called Clearwater because of a lake nearby.

    The Los Angeles River is in many ways like a desert watercourse. The Mediterranean-type climate of Southern California produces extremes of surface flow typical of more arid environments, with floodwaters periodically carving new stream channels across the landscape. The Los Angeles River has shifted its path to the sea by as much as ninety degrees. Sometimes, the river turned sharply west near downtown Los Angeles, following a route today approximated by Washington Boulevard, and eventually emptying into the sea at Playa del Key. This course is now occupied by Ballona Creek. At other times, the river flowed directly south to San Pedro Bay, joining the San Gabriel River seven miles north of its mouth; the combined flow of the two streams reached the ocean through Wilmington Lagoon. This is roughly the river's current course, although its exact route has been significantly altered by port development and flood control projects.

    A ridge of hills that stretches forty miles northwest from Newport Beach nearly to Beverly Hills strongly influenced the river's natural route to the sea. This ridge was created by the Newport-Inglewood fault zone and is represented on the surface by a series of intermittent low hills. The tallest of these are the Baldwin Hills, north of Inglewood, which rise four hundred feet above the surrounding countryside (see fig. 3.11). Cheviot Hills, north of Culver City, Dominguez Hills in Carson, and Signal Hill near Long Beach are also formed by this ridge. On its western course, the river inundated a large area when its underground flow encountered the base of the Baldwin Hills and was pushed to the surface. Joined by streams and springs flowing from the south side of the Santa Monica Mountains and swelled by seasonal floodwaters, this overflow helped create a vast marshland labeled on maps even in this century as Las Cienegas, Spanish for "swamps." The name of one of Los Angeles's major streets, La Cienega Boulevard, reflects this legacy. Beverly Hills occupies an area once known as Rancho Rodeo de las Aguas, or "ranch of the meeting of waters." Thick groves of sycamores and other water-loving vegetation were so common in the area that the first Spanish explorers to Southern California named a small stream near the present intersection of Highland Avenue and Venice Boulevard the Spring of the Sycamores of St. Esteban. Marshes and small ponds extended on both sides of the river for three miles, from near Beverly Hills southeast to roughly the present site of Crenshaw High School, directly east of the Baldwin Hills. These wetlands were popular duck and geese hunting grounds in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    The river was forced into a more narrow course farther west as it passed between the Baldwin Hills and the Cheviot Hills to the north, before again spreading over a wide area at its mouth to Santa Monica Bay. Mud flats and lagoons created by the river's overflow once covered more than twenty-one hundred acres from Santa Monica to the north-facing bluffs at Westchester, forming what eventually became known as the Ballona Wetlands. Most of the year, this was brackish or freshwater marsh, teeming with wildlife. Sea otters may have occasionally moved about on the edges of the marsh. One early naturalist visitor described the tidelands as "unsurpassed by any other on the Pacific Coast." In winter, flood-swollen streams turned the lowlands from Culver City to the ocean into a large lake. Indians called this area pwinukipar , meaning "it is full of water."

    The ridge created by the Newport-Inglewood fault zone also influenced the river's southerly course. South of Los Angeles, the river swung back and forth across the coastal plain. Most of the year, its bed was dry. Near Compton, however, two sets of hills formed by this ridge confined the river to a more narrow course. The Dominguez Hills prevented the river from wandering farther west. A long line of rolling hills, best known for the abruptly rising Signal Hill, north of downtown Long Beach, kept the river in place on the east. The ridge continues underground between these sets of hills, which forced much of the river's subterranean flow to the surface. Marshes created by this overflow lined the north side of Dominguez Hills. Sloughs and a half-dozen small lakes curved around the base of the hills east of the river. Waterfowl were so abundant in the wetlands that a Pasadena duck hunting club purchased land in the area for the use of its members. Another gun club operated along the base of Signal Hill.

    South of the gap between these hills, the course of the river was even more indistinct and impermanent than it had been farther upstream. Sometimes the river meandered east toward Long Beach. More often, it flowed in a fairly direct line south, emptying into the ocean--at least when it carried enough water to reach that far--two miles west of downtown Long Beach. At other times, it occupied the course of Dominguez Creek still farther west and spilled its winter overflow into a line of three lakes northeast of Wilmington, known as the Watson Lakes (see fig. 1.1). As on the river's western route, its seasonal overflow helped create extensive marshes and tidal lagoons near its mouth. Saltwater marsh once stretched from the Palos Verdes hills to Long Beach, a distance of five miles. In such an environment, the location of the river's mouth was in a nearly constant state of flux, shifting this way and that as normal deposits of silt blocked one channel and forced floodwaters to create another.

    Eighteenth-century surveys of the coastline, imprecise though such early surveys may have been, nevertheless give some suggestion of the variability and indistinguishability of the river's outlet to the Pacific. A survey of the Rancho San Pedro conducted in 1857 located the eastern shore of the river's mouth 289 feet farther west than had a similar survey conducted twenty-two years before. A subsequent survey, completed in 1866, placed the eastern end of the river's mouth 379 feet farther east than had the survey conducted nine years previously. A U.S. Coast Survey map published in 1872, meanwhile, placed the eastern shore of the river's mouth fully 1,275 feet farther west than where it had been located in 1866. If that map is to be believed, the location of the west end of a railroad trestle built over the river in 1892 suggests that the mouth of the river had shifted east more than fourteen hundred feet during the intervening twenty years.

    Such attempts to locate the mouth of the river precisely are exercises in foolishness, however, because it is unlikely that the river carried enough water to reach the sea most of the year. Its sundry channels were probably as insignificant as the summertime flow. Thus, it was only natural that with each new storm floodwaters would seek a new outlet. "The water courses which appear so clearly depicted on the map are in reality shallow beds in readily erodible soil," a U.S. Army engineer wrote in 1915. "Their banks are low and not always well defined, and a single freshet is sometimes able to obliterate the channel at one place and establish a new channel elsewhere." Floodwaters brought down by the river, consequently, often fanned out between San Pedro and Long Beach. Sometimes they backed up along the south and west sides of Dominguez Hills, where they created a stagnant backwater known as Nigger Slough (later renamed Dominguez Slough). The intertwining channels of Nigger Slough once covered some seven thousand acres, stretching all the way to Gardena. Occasionally, floodwaters formed a shallow pond even farther north, known locally as Johnson Lake. Soil believed to have been laid down by the river has been found as far away as Inglewood.

    Most of the ponds and marshes that were once such a common element on the Southern California landscape gradually diminished in size or dried up altogether as diversions of water from the region's rivers increased and pumping for underground water intensified across the lowlands. Development also hastened the demise of the wetlands, as marshes and ponds were drained using artificial means. Still, even as late as 1888, according to a report of the state engineer, nearly a third of the coastal plain was covered with soils that were regularly inundated or had been permanently "damaged" by floodwaters. Lands classified as "moist or semi-moist" covered 68,000 acres, almost 15 percent of the surveyed area. Freshwater marshes occupied 5,750 acres. Wetlands bordering the rivers and marshes covered 2,850 acres. Salt marshes and estuaries at the mouths of the rivers occupied 15,200 acres.


Copyright © 1999 Blake Gumprecht. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-05-10:
For those even aware that it exists, the Los Angeles River conjures up an image of a barren concrete channelÄa place best suited for Hollywood car chases and gang brawls. There was a time, however, when the L.A. River, which runs from the San Fernando Valley into the Pacific, had an entirely different image, not to mention a different course. Before modern flood control programs fixed the river's path with high cement walls, it ran variously south and west, at one time emptying into the Santa Monica Bay. In this exhaustive and lively investigation, Gumprecht, a geography professor and former Los Angeles Times reporter, charts the waterway's evolution from a "beautiful stream, wandering peacefully amid willows and wild grapes" to the refuse-strewn, "ugly, concrete gutter" it is today. Gumprecht describes the crucial role that the river played in the settlement and growth of L.A.Äboth as a water source and as a symbol of the region's Arcadian promiseÄand, conversely, how the river was remade in the image of the metropolis itself, becoming depleted and degraded by the very development it made possible. Like fellow L.A. historian Mike Davis, Gumprecht scatters an archive of startling photos throughout the book, from a man holding a 25-pound trout caught in the river in 1940 to the scene of a riverbed drag race broken up by the police in 1950. Conjuring images of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Gumprecht's river "biography" breathes vitality into a subject that in the hands of a less enthusiastic author might be drier than the industrial wasteland that he describes. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Choice on 2000-01-01:
Gumprecht's book is a detailed biography of the human use and modification of a short but important river that cuts across the Los Angeles Basin. It is an original piece of research by a doctoral student in geography and draws from a variety of archival resources as well as the author's fieldwork. Gumprecht seeks to enhance the general understanding of landscape evolution and applies his insights to the heart of the nation's second-largest metropolis. The first two chapters treat the prehuman natural landscape and the early stages of settlement through the arrival of the transcontinental railroad in the late 19th century. The next three chapters trace the subsequent taming of the river and its eventual transformation into a concrete channel. The consequences of this alteration of the waterway are weighed in the final chapter ("Exhuming the River"), along with a discussion of the advantages of revitalizing the natural stream. Well supported with maps, diagrams, a wealth of photos, and more than 50 pages of notes. Recommended for environmental studies and planning collections, and all libraries in Southern California. All levels. P. O. Muller; University of Miami
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, May 1999
Los Angeles Times, August 1999
New York Times Book Review, August 1999
Reference & Research Book News, November 1999
Choice, January 2000
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
Preface to the Paperback Edition
The River as It Once Was
Sustenance for the Young Pueblo
Draining the River Dry
A Stream That Could Not Be Trusted
Fifty-one Miles of Concrete
Exhuming the River
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

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