22 Dec Just Subtract Water: The Los Angeles River and a Robert Moses with the Soul of a Jane Jacobs
By Joseph Giovanni
Originally published by Los Angeles Review of Books
December 18, 2015
CHINATOWN, THE MOVIE, made abundantly clear that the history of Los Angeles hinged on the history of water — the lack of it and the getting of it. Or, as LA’s legendary water superintendent William Mulholland once (dryly) observed about channeling water from the Owens Valley: “If you don’t get the water, you won’t need it.”
Today Los Angeles is again thirsty. A record drought threatens our yards, our showers and way of life, and the LA River — including its watershed — finds itself plunged in an intensified water crisis long in coming. The problem and opportunity of just what to do with the river and its watershed represents a question of historic dimension and epic scale for the Southland, and as with any issue of such scope, there are many collateral questions, not least social engineering. The river divides the east and west sides of town as it links the Valley to Long Beach, and redesigning the 51-mile river can stitch east and west together while linking north and south in a mending process with deep cultural and social benefits.
In a region defined and divided by mountains and 10-lane freeways, the river is perhaps the only unifying transect that can connect so many diverse neighborhoods and jurisdictions. Like Wilshire Boulevard, though more than three times as long, a reinvented river could act as both an urban spine and civic plaza, organizing and linking the communities it crosses.
Los Angeles’s entire urban and suburban drainage infrastructure is engineered to capture and send storm water into the river swiftly, and then on to the Pacific. One goal now on the table, almost as counterintuitive as reversing the flow of a river, is to limit the amount of water streaming into the storm channels in the first place. Better to subtract the water from the infrastructure in order to let it seep into the aquifer and recharge the water table, reducing the need for importing water. Over the next 20 years, proposed storm water capture programs can reduce the water the city buys by 10 percent to 20 percent, and the annual bill on the imported water by upwards of a hundred million dollars.
When the Army Corps of Engineers designed the river channel after the devastating flood of 1938, it deepened the river and lined the flume with smooth planes of concrete to hasten the flow and prevent flooding. Another upside to limiting the amount of water that reaches the river, besides recharging the aquifer, is that throttling down the volume, avoiding the great gushes, frees up river-bottom real estate for possible public and recreational space: the flood-control channel takes on civic potential. Ecologically, less volume also allows a slower rate of flow, and more time for water to percolate into the soil and participate in natural cycles. For cities downriver, and ultimately the ocean, limiting stormflow reduces pollution.
We already have a starter reinterpretation of the Army Corps of Engineers’s river in the verdant, soft-bottomed 11-mile Glendale Narrows between the 134 and the 110, where rock substrata push groundwater up through a soft, unpaved bottom, forming the pools and wetland of a “gaining” river. River activists convinced the Army Corps of Engineers to stop mowing down vegetation, even though friction from vegetation retards flow. The Tongva Indians lived for millennia along this stretch and would find today’s habitat in the channel familiar. Double-crested cormorants and exotic, long-limbed egrets are among the 100 visiting bird species that would keep Audubon busy.
Restricting the volume of H2O is one way to spring the monolithic channel from its concrete girdle, but other reinterpretations of the Glendale Narrows are emerging that are competing with the idea of blanketing the river with “nature.”
Despite the inviting views of the Narrows glimpsed from the Los Feliz Boulevard bridge or the bike path along the river’s shoulder, you can’t easily get into the river there. The uncomplicated way to access the channel itself is to head over to the Sixth Street Bridge, park, and sneak down (illegally) through the long tunnel directly under the bridge (better do it soon because in January demolition of the bridge starts, to make room for the new Sixth Street Bridge, designed by Michael Maltzan).
There you find another reality — not the lush, painterly Constable or Gainsborough of the Narrows but a scene of striking monumentality and minimalism. The tunnel opens onto the reason the LA River works as a pipeline: shaped at about the time the Pasadena Freeway was also engineered for speed and volume, the channel is literally streamlined for the 25 mph currents that course through the channel during a heavy inundation: no jogs in the embankments; nothing but occasional weeds growing through the armor; bridge supports shaped like prows to cut the flowing water. Compared to the lush banks upriver, the scene is dystopian, earning the dark movies that have gravitated here for tough, tense, sexy urban sets: To Live and Die in L.A., Grease, Grand Theft Auto, Terminator 2, The Italian Job.
But if you squint past the graffiti, tufts of weeds, and tipped-over shopping carts, a more structured and grander architectural reality emerges. You just have to flip a mental switch. The sun-bleached landscape of concrete with the flat river bottom is pharaonic, with embankments sloping at angles that recall ancient pyramids, and their scale. The space between the embankments, about the width of a football field, is amphitheatrical: the amplitude provokes awe. In the middle of this monumentality, the low-flow channel actually carrying water — a steady stream of treated wastewater — is only about 15 to 20 feet wide and a couple of feet deep, but the flat concrete riverbed has set the stage for many movies based in a popular American culture and subculture of drag racing, graffiti, T-shirts, Brylcreem, and John Travolta.