Los Angeles: The River City

I’ve lived in LA my whole life and I didn’t know the LA River was natural until recently. I always saw the concrete walls and assumed that it was a man-made way to bring water to LA. Where did I think the water was coming from? I honestly never thought about it. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out that the river used to flow freely without boundaries.


Picture of LA River in Griffith Park (1898)
Photo Source: Water and Power Associates

The present day LA River follows one main path. It starts in the the San Fernando Valley and winds its way down to Long Beach where it empties into the ocean. However, in the past, the river had more freedom. Huge storms would sometimes make the river overflow up to 20 miles wide. These floods would cause the river to change course so that it emptied into the Santa Monica Bay.

With enough rain water, the river was capable of creating new landscapes. Animals and plants found ways to survive in the shifting habitats. The ancestors of the Tongva (the original stewards of the land we now call LA) also found ways to adapt to this changing waterway.

So why did the river stop being a carefree wild child living its truth? European settlers, obviously. The city that was being built around the river in the late 1800s was less capable of dealing with the floods. When the river would overflow it would destroy homes, properties, and roads.

If you’re like me you might be thinking, “Okay, so stop building so close to the f’ing river! It’s just going to keep flooding.” Well, they didn’t stop building next to the river. In 1938, a huge storm caused the river to overflow and 140 people died. In response to that tragedy, the Army Corps of Engineers poured three million barrels of concrete and channelized the LA River. And so here we are.

Knowing this history makes me want to have a Mufasa moment with the river:

I don’t think the river should only be thought of as the place where they filmed that car race in Grease. Even with the concrete, there is so much to love about the LA River. First of all, there are some sections that still have a natural soft bottom. If you head to the 11-mile stretch of the Glendale Narrows you’ll find lots of plant and animal life. There’s also some pretty great recreational activities. For example, did you know you could go kayaking in the summer? Definitely on the list for a BGT event.

If you’re surprised by the history of the LA River like I was, and you want to find out more about it or–even better–how you can help take care of it, you can check out organizations like Friends of the LA River (FOLAR). They host fun social events near the river, organize clean-ups, and have a mobile educational program called the River Rover.

LA River Kayaking
Photo Source: Los Angeles District

I think the LA River deserves to be on our list of unexpected nature in LA. This one was hiding in plain sight and I get the feeling there’s a lot more to learn. If you have more info about the LA River, or the plants and animals that live there, let me know! And if you have a question or see something during a visit to the river that you don’t recognize, feel free to ask me and I’ll do my best to figure it out.

Want to know what I’m finding in LA between posts? Follow me (Michelle) on Instagram @blackgirlstrekkin or @michelledoubleelle and let me know what you’re finding with #bgtnaturejournal

P.S. If at some point you thought: “Didn’t you say you just found out about the river. Where did you get all these facts?”. My first source is my boyfriend who used to work for FOLAR and who opened my eyes to places like Compton Creek. But most of my fact checking for this post came from the book Wild LA by Lila Higgins & Gregory B. Pauly with Jason G. Goldman & Charles Hood.

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