Posts tagged LA River

Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Jessica Roberts

Minneapolis, Minnesota. Photo by Jessica Roberts

I recently took a trip to Minneapolis, Minnesota to visit some friends. I found the city’s relationship with the Mississippi River endlessly inspiring, a true river town. The river’s edges were soft and meandering at stretches, hard at others, with ample pedestrian access points and dramatic views that celebrate the vitality of the river as well as the city. It gave me a chance to reflect further on the potentials of the Los Angeles River.

Photo by Jessica Roberts

Photo by Jessica Roberts

Once abundant, the Southern California steelhead trout is now nearly extinct. Creative Commons photo of Fisherman with catch of steelhead in lower Sespe Creek, by William A. Brown, winter, 1911

Once abundant, the Southern California steelhead trout is now nearly extinct. Creative Commons photo of Fisherman with catch of steelhead in lower Sespe Creek, by William A. Brown, winter, 1911

What might be the most obvious feature of the L.A. River is its channelized concrete banks. Although this feature limits the ecological potential of the river, it does provide easy access to people, both on foot and on bike. Remembering my last AHBE Lab post, ending with a call to action to develop hybrid technologies inspired by human and nonhuman cultures, I left wondering how to design a system and space with environmental conditions, material flows, and people all factored in.

Soil bioengineering – also called biotechnical slope protection – is the use of plants to control erosion along water banks. Plants can bind and retain soil and filter out sediment, unlike cement. Some endangered wildlife species, such as steelhead trout, are sensitive to fine-sediment disturbance from creek bank erosion. There are an estimated 500 left on Earth between San Luis Obispo and the Mexican border, and the last one seen in the Los Angeles River was caught off a bridge in 1948 in Glendale. Steelhead were once prolific in spawning pools within the river before it was transformed into a concrete flood-control channel in 1938.

Willow trees can be used to establish creek bank vegetation. They are easy to propagate and root readily. Living willow structures represent one way to visibly intertwine materials, plants, and organisms along the Los Angeles River. Two potential willows for the Los Angeles climate are Salix lasiolepsis, the Arroyo Willow, and Salix laevigata, the Red Willow. Who’s ready to experiment?




Over the weekend I finally biked the LA River Bike Path, more specifically, the Elysian Valley Bicycle & Pedestrian Path through the area known as the Glendale Narrows. It was one of those days that made me proud to call Los Angeles home.

Although lined with concrete and plant communities dominated by invasive species, the highly modified river is home to many. Hundreds of species of migrating birds use the LA River for food and shelter, and many of the birds you see in Los Angeles County can be seen along the channelized river. Great blue herons, egrets, red-winged black birds, and red-tailed hawks are just a few. In the soft-bottom areas of the river one can find many species of fish (even a fisherman or two), although few are native. In some portions of the river the federally threatened Santa Ana sucker and arroyo chub can still be found. Butterflies and moths flock to both native and non-native plants found along the riverbanks. Less glamourous urban mammals such as domesticated cats, skunks, rats, and raccoons find repose along the banks of the river.


Historically the river had a natural riparian edge much wider than what you see today. During floods the water would spread across the coastal plain and plant communities developed that were adapted to flooding. Meadows with a diversity of plants and a forest cover of cottonwood, alder trees, and willows provided habitat and river bank stabilization. As Los Angeles urbanized, becoming less permeable, flooding became a real problem. In 1934 the La Crescenta flood disaster caused LA to seek assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This resulted in a highly altered and channelized river condition – more than 30 miles of concrete – to develop between the years of 1938 and 1970. The 8-mile section of the Glendale Narrows was left with a natural bottom and researchers have found a diverse fish population, both native and nonnative, with surprisingly low levels of toxicity. This is thought to be in part because of the area’s natural bottom, but also because of the quality of the water coming from reclamation plants upstream.

Today up to 80% of the water found in the river during dry seasons is reclaimed waste water from the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, the City of Burbank Water Reclamation Plant, and the Glendale Water Reclamation Plant. These water reclamation plants have actually reduced the levels of bacteria and other pollutants in the River. There is a dominance of organisms that are more tolerant of pollution in the biological communities downstream, further from the water reclamation plants upstream. In a way the abundance of life one sees in the LA River is a product of both human and non-human technologies, inevitably intertwined, for better or worse.


How can we adapt to, embrace, and enhance the present conditions of the highly altered LA River? We need to learn from the abundant life currently lining its banks. We need to look back while continuing to move forward. We need to develop hybrid technologies inspired by human and nonhuman cultures. It’s already happening. Beyond a fascination with how plants and wildlife can survive in highly disturbed areas we can embrace these species and their technologies to further improve the ecological function and beauty of our urban watershed.

The L.A. River Is Now A Temporary Art Museum: “We used the L.A. River as a canvas, and light as a material, and we project several visual stories,” says artist Refik Anadol, who collaborated with Peggy Weil on the project. It’s 1 of 16 installations up now around the city—on and around the river—as part of Current:LA Water, a new public art biennial.”

NOTE: one of the landscape installations is a collaboration between the artist Mel Chin, landscape architects Calvin Abe and Glen Dake, with advice from Lili Singer of the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wild Flowers and Native Plants!

Smart bricks will give homes and offices their own ‘digestive system’: ‘Smart’ bricks which can recycle wastewater and generate electricity are being created as part of a new project aiming to transform the places where we live and work.

Phyto Kinetic: Green-Roofed Buses Add a Breath of Fresh Air to the Urban Jungle: “How would you like to be transported to work in a moving garden? If Marc Granen has anything to do with it, you may be able to. The landscape artist, who we discovered through Urban Gardens, has developed a green roof for buses called Phyto Kinetic.”

Before It Runs Off: “People are generally very interested in being part of the problem solving. The community at large has been used to water not costing much and the opportunity to use a lot of water. There is an incentive beyond being a good citizen.” Be assured, collection and dispersal of local Southern California rainwater will become an integral discussion of the development of Los Angeles Version 2.0.

Technology Is Monitoring the Urban Landscape: “Big City is watching you. It will do it with camera-equipped drones that inspect municipal power lines and robotic cars that know where people go. Sensor-laden streetlights will change brightness based on danger levels. Technologists and urban planners are working on a major transformation of urban landscapes over the next few decades.”

Image via Materials & Applications.

Image via Materials & Applications.

TURF: A Mini-Golf Project: “TURF: A Mini-Golf Project explores Los Angeles through the playful tropes of artificial terrains and fantastical architecture in a nine-hole miniature golf course. Organized by Materials & Applications (M&A), nine architects, designers and artists considered topics relevant to Los Angeles today — including topography and territory, drought and lawns, parking and traffic, nature and neighborhoods, housing typologies and identity — to create obstacles in the form of the miniature and the absurd.”
When: June 18 – July 31, 2016
Where: 1601 Park Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90026 (Echo Park Ave. / Park Ave.)

La Kretz League Beach Day: Join the La Kretz Center for a day of beach science and learning! The La Kretz Center has funded three UCLA graduate students conducting ocean related projects this year. We would love for you to hear about them and participate in their work.
When: July 16th, 2016, 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Where: 23200 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90265

Is South L.A. an Urban Success Story?: A Zócalo/The California Wellness Foundation Event moderated by Jennifer Ferro, President, KCRW. Community Development Technologies Center CEO Benjamin Torres, former president of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works Valerie Shaw, USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) director Manuel Pastor, and El Nuevo Sur founder Jorge Nuño visit Zócalo to examine whether South L.A.’s should be considered an urban success story.
When: July 13, 2016 7:30 PM
Where: Mercado La Paloma, 3655 S Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90007

CURRENT:LA: Get a fresh perspective on the LA River at this art biennial, where local artists have erected installations at 16 sites along the river, from the Hansen Dam in the Valley down to Point Fermin in San Pedro. The first edition is organized around the theme of “water,” a critical and timely resource. The city-presented exhibition includes the help of a dozen community programs, like Clockshop and FoLAR.
When: July 16 – August 14, 2016
Where: Various locations in L.A.

Adamson House Garden Tour: Take a walk in Adamson House garden by the sea and learn about trees and exotic plantings around the Spanish Colonial Revival style home – a National Historic S. Tickets are $7 for 17 and older, $2 for ages 6-16, and 5 and younger are free.
When: July 15, 2016 – 10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Where: 23200 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu

TreePeople Community Tree Care Team Training: “Have you planned a greening project at your home, neighborhood, school or park? Then join TreePeople and the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council Community Greening Committee for this fun, informative, and hands-on workshop where you and your family and friends will learn how to care for trees and other plants where you live, learn and play.”
When: July 16, 2016, 9:00 am to 12:00 pm
Where: Northeast Los Angeles


As we watch the LA  river expel water at freeway speeds, we Californians will proclaim the end to a long drought.  Unfortunately, this is not the truth. “Epic” drought is a literal truth in our case.

The last 5 years was the worst drought in a millennia (I heard the worst Californian drought in 1,200 years!).  It’s going to take a bit more than even a record-breaking single wet season to get us back to where we were.  So, buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, we are up for a rough ride of mud slides, mosquitoes, fires, La Niña, and possibly more drought. But that’s why we all live in sunny SoCal, right?  For the theme parks…

That’s the funny thing about climate change. When you hear the talking heads in cable news, they talk about climate change like it is a John Cusack movie: we’ll wake up one morning and all of sudden Santa is putting presents under our tree in June.  No, it will be more like bad cosmetic surgery – whatever you had going on might have been bad, but whatever you did to try and fix it made it worse, and it will only get worse as you become older.

California has always been the land of drought and storms.  In a article, they quote UCLA historian Norris Hundley:

“It is a mistake…to think of California in terms of averages and regular cycles of precipitation.”

The article goes on to describe early California settlers’ descriptions of our weather conditions,  conclusions that the Sonoma Valley was “unsuitable for agriculture” in 1841 and that the Sacramento Valley was a “barren wasteland” (political haters add snide comment here).  Two decades later, Sacramento could only be transversed by canoe, and then was overcome with drought just two years after that.

Floodwaters in Los Angeles River destroy Southern Pacific railroad bridge. The photo was taken from North Figueroa Street bridge. Photo via Vintage Everyday.

Floodwaters in Los Angeles River destroy Southern Pacific railroad bridge. The photo was taken from North Figueroa Street bridge. Photo via Vintage Everyday.

Locally, depression era Angelenos had “dust bowl” droughts from 1929-1935 only to have the great Los Angeles flood in 1938 that caused great loss of life and spurned the channelization of the river which we are trying to desperately undo today. So, we’ve always had periods of highs and lows.  What climate change is doing is making those highs and lows more extreme, hence the worst drought in a millennia, and the worst El Nino ever recorded back-to-back.

As a water conservation and sustainability guy, I was recently researching the history of drought in California when I realized that drought has always been a part of my life. Big events in my life seem to coincide with big droughts. I thought it might be interesting to do a blog series on my experiences growing up in California during drought and put it in a historical perspective.

The first “big” drought that I remember was from 1976-1977 (ironically, the same time a little movie called Star Wars opened on the big screen… wonder if anybody remembered that movie?). During that childhood drought, homeowners were encouraged to put bricks into their toilets to take up space in the tank and reduce the amount of water per flush. Watching my dad slide a brick into the toilet tank was a surreal experience. My 10 year old brain told me, bricks and toilets don’t go together. That reassuring flush that I could always depend on just wasn’t the same after that heavy, bulky thing was dropped in the tank.  In fact, horrors of all horrors, sometimes the contents didn’t even make it down in the first flush! Gross!

But my dad – a child of the Great Depression and a thrifty-to-a-fault civil engineer – decreed that there would not be any water wasting in his household. California was in a drought and we were not to act like those wasteful, Dodger-loving, car-washing Southern Californians. Showers were to be strictly timed. “Number 2” would be the only reason to flush our brick-modified toilet.  Plants in the yard would only be watered by the San Francisco fog. And the car would only be washed when the caked up dirt caused a drop in it’s resale value. To me, this was the dumbest thing I had ever heard. I wanted my toilet to flush correctly. I wanted to take my 30 minute showers. Who ever heard of saving water? You turned on the tap and it always comes out.

Despite my vigorous objections, my dad was resolute in his orders. All that was left for me was to grumble and sulk. The year was 1976 and my dad was right about a couple of things: 1. Southern Californians love the Dodgers (well, at least until the Angels beat our beloved Giants in the 2002 World Series), and 2. the state was in trouble…water trouble.

Photo from July 6, 1976 Los Angeles Times: "California’s drought — now regarded as the worst in half a century — has begun to produce critical shortage that will leave some communities without drinking water, force some farmers to abandon irrigated fields, and, in a few cases, leave firemen without water reserves to fight wildland fires." Sound familiar?

Photo from July 6, 1976 Los Angeles Times: “California’s drought — now regarded as the worst in half a century — has begun to produce critical shortage that will leave some communities without drinking water, force some farmers to abandon irrigated fields, and, in a few cases, leave firemen without water reserves to fight wildland fires.” Sound familiar? Photo by: Steve Fontanini / Los Angeles Times

The question I always had was: why was that drought so bad (at least until this last one)? For one thing, 1976 was the first drought during what I would call the “modern” era of California. Prior to that drought, California was a boom state in population growth. Our population roughly quadrupled between 1928 and 1976.  California had a population of 15 million souls during the previous drought in 1959-1960. By 1976, the population had grown 143% to 21.5 million (we currently stand at 38.8 million). Quite simply, we had outstripped our infrastructure and had forgotten – or just didn’t anticipate – what drought would do to the state that had six and a half million more people living in it.

1960 to 1976 was worlds apart socially, culturally, and in every way possible for the American people, so our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, and grandmothers can be excused, I suppose. But this drought did hit like – ahem – a ton of bricks. It caused extreme local regional water shortages (an emergency pipeline had to built across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge as Bay Area reservoirs began to run dry) and in some parts of the Central Valley had to shut down all farming activities. It was a scary time for my parents who had seen tremendous social upheaval in San Francisco and in the country: from the Summer of Love, to a long foreign war, to the resignation of a president.

The good news is that after we finally got rain and snow during the 1977-1978 season, municipalities and water districts finally woke up and started to fund capacity and infrastructure improvements to try and take care of the next drought. The bad news was that this opened up a whole new set of problems…

Next Month:  “Love, Life, Per diem, and the Peripheral Canal”