By Martin Reyes

Reset. Restore. Renew. Several river projects intend to bring the Los Angeles River back to its former natural glory, while creating a new promise for the future.

The Los Angeles River is getting a new lease on life: In early July, a $1.3 billion river restoration proposal was approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) Civil Works Review Board. The plan will restore an 11-mile section of concrete-encased river between Griffith Park and Downtown Los Angeles, as described in a feasibility report from 2013. The approval bolsters decades-long efforts made by government and nonprofit agencies to revitalize and renew the river.

Following a catastrophic flood in 1938, government agencies began constructing concrete channels along the Los Angeles River and major tributaries throughout Los Angeles County to mitigate flood risks. Although heavy rain events in 1969 and 2005 demonstrated the sufficient hydraulic capabilities of the channels, the encasing of the river resulted in a largely underused and ignored corridor running through the middle of one of the largest metros in the world.

Efforts to address the neglected river began in the 1990s with the development of the county's Los Angeles River Master Plan and the city's Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. These both laid out the framework for projects along the entire 51-mile river corridor from Canoga Park to Long Beach. The Corps project focuses on a segment adjacent to the Glendale Narrows at the middle of the river to reintroduce riparian strand and freshwater marsh habitat to the area.

Rendering of a new riverfront community park in Canoga Park along the Los Angeles River according to the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. Source: Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan

Rendering of a new riverfront community park in Canoga Park along the Los Angeles River according to the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan.
Source: Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan

Just to the east of the Corps work area, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is in its design phase for the Headworks Reservoir replacement project. The Headworks project will create riparian wetlands with open space areas, hiking trails, equestrian facilities, and bikeways on 43 acres south of the river.

The city and the county have also implemented several miles of similar greenway projects along the western half of the river in the San Fernando Valley. The Valleyheart Greenway, constructed by the nonprofit River Project in partnership with local government, is a quarter-mile linear park and walkway located along the south side of the river between Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Radford Avenue in Studio City. The project engaged nearby residents in the design process; students from a local elementary school helped design the 14-foot steel toad that greets visitors at the entrance to the greenway.

A steel toad gate was designed by elementary school students for the entrance to the Valleyheart Greenway linear park. Source: KCET

A steel toad gate was designed by elementary school students for the entrance to the Valleyheart Greenway linear park.
Source: KCET

Several other greenway projects along the western half of the river, including the $11.5 million Headwaters Project in Canoga Park and the $7 million West Valley Bikeway, help to draw more and more constituents to a forgotten part of Los Angeles.

Private developments also play a crucial role in enhancing the Los Angeles River corridor. NBC Universal, in conjunction with the $1 billion expansion of their facilities at Universal Studios and their Evolution Plan, has provided the county with $13.5 million for the planning, design, and construction of bikeway facilities from Lankershim to Barham boulevards along the banks of the river.

Collectively, these projects and future efforts will transform the Los Angeles River from a barren flood control channel to a gathering place for Angelenos. Future generations will be able to experience the river as a major city landmark rather than an eyesore. Park-poor communities will be able to enjoy the river not only as a place for recreation, but also as an alternative means of transportation. Water resources will be more sustainable as more open space and low-impact development features are built.

The river may never achieve the glory it had before the concrete, but Los Angeles is moving in the right direction. Pushing forward, city planners and engineers will be able to use the river revitalization as a case study in urban development and the anthropological impacts made on the natural environment. The river restoration efforts now underway are precisely the kind of projects that Blueprint Earth plans to foster in its work.

Martin Reyes is a civil engineer in training for the County of Los Angeles and a Blueprint Earth volunteer.

Martin Reyes is a civil engineer in training for the County of Los Angeles and a Blueprint Earth volunteer.

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