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The Law That Killed the L.A. River

Posted every Monday, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Flood Control Act of 1936 (and 1941)
Year: 1936 (and 1941)
Jurisdiction: Federal
Nominated by: Jenny Price

Today we speak with the environmental writer, LA Observed contributor and Los Angeles River expert and tour guide Jenny Price. She chronicles and catalyzes the promise, murder and potential resurrection of that once grand and now concrete straightjacketed 51- or 52-mile-long reason why our city exists.

Price nominates the 1936 Flood Control Act, and the follow-up 1941 Flood Control Act, as Laws That Shaped L.A.

"These were federal acts that basically provided money for major flood control projects all over the country," Price says of the Great Depression era actions.

Chief among those projects*, and receiving 25% of the total funding from the 1936 bill: channelizing the L.A. River.

And just to make sure we're all on the same page here, what does channelizing (view slideshow), a seemingly innocuous word, mean in civil engineering nomenclature?

"Essentially, they took a central artery of the major watershed that Los Angeles inhabits," Price says, referring to the Army Corps of Engineers who did the deed, "and they paved in and they buried it."

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The City of Angels wasn't, of course, the only place this happened. Read here about South Korea's recent river revival. And in the U.S., according to this Army Corps of Engineers publication, the 1936 Act paid for more than 375 dams and reservoirs nationwide, plus "hundreds of miles" of canals, levees, flood walls and channels.

The above publication's author wrote: "These public works have cost hundreds of billions of dollars, have inundated hundreds of thousands of acres, and destroyed countless free flowing rivers."

Aerial view of the Los Angeles River. Photo by Dick Whittington Studio. Photo courtesy USC Digital Libraries

Price elaborates on what that meant locally: "We took a river and we cut it off from its river basin," she says, "so the river can no longer replenish the soils with nutrients, the beaches with sand and the aquifers with water."

And that's just one series of symptoms from a critically ill watershed. "The consequences are enormous," Price says. "How does paving and burying the central artery of your major watershed screw up your city in really magnificent ways? Channelizing the River is deeply implicated in almost every problem that Los Angeles is notorious for worldwide."

Such a checklist of L.A. woes includes both the social and the ecological, Price says. That list includes but isn't limited to gang violence, obesity, polluted beaches, a lack of parks, a lack of public space, budget issues, sewer issues, and the gap between the rich and poor.

The list even includes, Price says, the common -- and mistaken -- assumption that Los Angeles has the climate of a particularly parched biome.

"We say that the reason we started importing water is that we live in a desert and that L.A. outgrew its water supply," Price says, noting that the city spends $1 billion annually on water from elsewhere.

High unemployment during the Great Depression led to government-sponsored job creation programs and projects, often via the WPA. Here, unrelated to the River, young transients are given work and shelter in Griffith Park. Photo from 1933, from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

"But the real reason that L.A. outgrew its water supply," she says, "is that we live in a semi-arid Mediterranean climate where you have to use your water wisely and L.A. destroyed its water supply by draining it with unbelievably profligate water use, and by treating it as a sewer and a trash dump."

Fans of engineering prowess should at least be heartened to hear Price discuss how well the River has performed since it was guttered.

"The River very efficiently gathers all the thousands of toxins that are on our roads and our lawns, all the pesticides and all the metals that rub off your cars," Price says. "All of our infrastructure is very effectively designed to get all of those toxins as fast as possible into the storm sewers, into the River and out into the Ocean."

Adds Price: "We are literally using our local water supplies to water the Pacific Ocean."

The social woes Price mentions are inter-connected and stem in great part from the region becoming so notoriously park poor -- a problem, like the others she mentioned, by no means entirely the fault of what happened to the River.

Readers should further note that Price doesn't diminish or ignore the pain, tragedy and loss experienced by L.A. residents prior to the Army Corps of Engineers' entombing of the River, a project that took twenty years to complete.

Price knows all about this river - and other rivers' - seasonal cycles and history of flooding - a catalog of which is available online here.

Price knows about the Los Angeles Flood of 1938, which KCET Departures' Justin Cram, Kelly Simpson and Daniel Medina chronicled with photos and text earlier this year.

She also knows that with three major mountain ranges in the region draining into the River, and with the River "falling" in altitude farther in its relatively scant 51 or 52 miles than the Mississippi does along it's 2,000 miles, that when water comes to the L.A. River, it can come with great velocity and force.

"The L.A. River poses one of the greatest flood dangers of any river in a major American city," Price says. "That seems odd because it's not a huge river. But the L.A. River basin is a really big place to build a city; it's a really tiny place for all the drainage that we get."

And Price knows about the various L.A. County efforts prior to the federal legislation to get big money to do big public works projects, and the 1935 Emergency Relief Appropriation Act funding of $14 or so million federal dollars.

(We didn't ask her, but she presumably knows about the 1915 Flood Control Act cited here by FoLAR founder and exquisite raconteur, poet, and performer Lewis MacAdams.)

And finally, speaking of the above, Price is certainly well aware of the role that massive public works projects in providing people work during the Great Depression.

Men laying rebar in the channel, 1938. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

But even with all those caveats, Price -- along with many others who study these issues -- is certain that other options were available to the city, county, and federal governments that would have minimized damage caused by L.A. River flooding while not at the same time causing so many other egregious problems.

Most famously, the 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan that would have linked parks and public spaces and provided for flood plains. The plan was first commissioned by and soon killed by the local Chamber of Commerce.

When it came to the River, Price says that in keeping with Los Angeles tradition, real estate development won out, as there was not much local interest from the powers-that-were in leaving a flood plain around the River - not when housing and commerce was already established up to the banks.

"While it was a public works project abut flood control, it was also a public works project that was about a long history in L.A. of privileging private money over public space."

Price then amends that last comment. "The River is still one of our major public spaces," she says. "They just put 'No Trespassing' signs on it."


HiddenLA Presents L.A River tours by Jenny Price on June 10th and June 16th, 2012. For more information about the tours -- which have different itineraries -- visit this page.

Top Photo: Channelizing the L.A. River. Image courtesy USC Digital Archives *updated To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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