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Navigating Danger: Safety in the Los Angeles River

In observance of the 1938 flood, this is the last in a four-part series explaining why and how the Los Angeles River was channelized. Don't miss part one, part two, and part three of the series. Explore the history and current issues of the river in Departures: L.A. River.

Since its channelization following the deadly floods of 1938, the Los Angeles River operates foremost as a flood control channel. Discharging a daily average of 207 million gallons of water into the Pacific, the river hauls run-off from the mountains, trickling down a series of tributaries throughout the LA basin, collecting storm drainage along the way from adjacent cities. Part of a system that spans approximately 470 miles of open channels - equivalent to the distance between San Diego and Sacramento - the channelized river was designed to move water as quickly as possible to the sea.

Subject to flash floods and swelling with each major storm, the Los Angeles River can be dangerous. The river's 52 mile stretch is bereft of safety features such as lifeguards, ladders, and calm eddies that could serve as points of escape for anyone caught in a deluge. The L.A. County Office of Education produced the following cautionary video, "No Way Out", to educate school children and the public about the hazards of the flood control system:

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In response to the drowning after a failed rescue of 15-year-old Adam Bischoff in 1992, the Los Angeles Fire Department created the Swiftwater Rescue Team to meet the challenging conditions in the flood control system. Consisting of nearly 50 members divided into four teams, strategically planted throughout the city, the Swiftwater Rescue Team established several "drop sites" along the river that allow team members to reach flood victims with an array of rescue devices. Helicopters and water crafts can also be deployed in wider sections of the river. In the video below, Captain Craig White of the Swiftwater Rescue Team offers an overview of the special division:















Safety should be paramount when visiting the Los Angeles River. Below are a few tips from the Swiftwater Rescue team and the L.A. River Master Plan that will ensure a pleasant and safe excursion to river:

  • Do not visit the river after dark. The LA River Greenway is closed from sunset to sunrise.
  • Check local weather before visiting the river.
  • Do not enter the LA River Greenway during the threat of rain, rain, or high water flows.
  • If bicycling on the bike paths, make sure to wear a helmet.
  • Do not cross railroad tracks to gain access to the river.
  • Do not enter the riverbed. Enjoy plant and wildlife from a distance.

L.A. River flows dangerously after a heavy storm, 2011:

Although its original banks have been bridled by a shield of concrete, the river continues to serve as a valuable natural resource to the communities of Los Angeles. It rewards visitors throughout the year with recreational and sightseeing opportunities, wildlife viewings, and a calming atmosphere. Explore everything the river has to offer with Departures' L.A. River Field Guides. Use the guide to explore parks along the river, historic bridges, horseback riding, and the best places for bird watching, bicycling, walking, and fishing.

Severe in its power, grand its length, and graceful in its fluvial contours, the Los Angeles River should and will continue to be a vital destination in Southern California for all current and future generations of Angelinos.

About the Author

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and enjoy exploring Los Angeles and learning about its origins.
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