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DONALD C. TILLMAN WATER RECLAMATION PLANT | The LA River used to go dry as dirt; today it flows year-round, at least a little, because so much of its water comes from unnatural sources. Twenty-six million gallons of recycled water, more than a quarter of the river's dry-season flow, enter from this facility in Van Nuys. A lovely 6.5-acre Japanese garden onsite puts a tranquil spin on sewage.
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POLLYWOG PARK | Technically part of Griffith Park, Pollywog Park was marooned on the north side of the river—and then on the far side of the 134 freeway—when engineers changed the river's course during channelization. The plan calls for transforming a drainage ditch along the freeway into a tributary with native vegetation and a wildlife area.
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VERDUGO WASH | At the north end of Glendale, just after the river takes its turn south, this concrete-lined section will become a wide, soft-bottomed oasis. On the eastern banks, a wildlife refuge and a backwater area will replace a rim of industrial sites.
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LA KRETZ CROSSING | The first major project of the LA River Revitalization Corporation—an entrepreneurial nonprofit the city set up—is a footbridge connecting North Atwater Park with Griffith Park and the river bikeway. Construction on a $10 million, 300-foot-long cable-stayed bridge should start later this year.
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TAYLOR YARD | This former rail yard on 247 acres along 2 miles of riverfront has long been a battleground between developers and activists. In 2007 the state revamped 40 acres into a park; the city is negotiating for another 40. The Army Corps will widen the river here, replacing the concrete walls with natural, sloping banks.
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ARROYO SECO | The river's confluence with the Arroyo Seco is one of the most blighted sections, a wasteland of concrete and trash. A soft-bottomed wetland will replace the now garbage-choked ditch, and designers have proposed a bike path for the terraces.Advertisement
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CORNFIELDS | Corn used to fall off railcars and sprout in the dirt here. In an early victory for river advocates, the state purchased some of the land 14 years ago and created the LA State Historic Park. Plans call for restoring a former stream and marshland, with railroad tracks on a trestle above. Lauren Bon, a local artist and philanthropist, is in talks to build a 72-foot-diameter, $10 million steel water wheel, an homage to one that stood here in the 1850s and was used for irrigation.
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SIXTH STREET VIADUCT | This historic bridge-cum-homeless encampment downtown is a pile of disintegrating concrete just waiting to collapse in an earthquake. Soon it will be replaced by a federally funded $400 million pedestrian and car bridge with access down to the river and new gardens. Artist Glenn Kaino has a commission for an “acoustic bridge,” where people on opposite sides could talk to each other using normal voices.
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GREENWAY 2020 | A centerpiece of river redevelopment, this 51-mile bike path would follow the entire river. Mayor Eric Garcetti's new strategic transportation plan, released in late 2014, included a goal of building the bikeway by 2020. “We are talking about connecting LA in a totally new way,” says Omar Brownson, executive director of the LA River Revitalization Corporation.
On the western side of the San Fernando Valley, behind the bleachers of Canoga Park High School, two concrete drainage ditches merge. Here in parched Southern California, barely a trickle runs through these channels. Most days it’s more like a sheen of greenish moisture, a puddle filtering across clumped leaves and other debris. Yet this forlorn speck of infrastructure marks a literal and figurative watershed for greater Los Angeles. It’s here that two tributaries, the Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek, join to become the Los Angeles River. And that river, a long-neglected wasteland, is about to become an urban oasis: a linear, riparian Central Park.Click here for a zoomable map
First flowing east, the river turns right at Griffith Park and heads south past Glendale and downtown, crosses Lynwood and Compton, and empties into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach. But for much of the waterway’s 51 miles, it is little more than an open storm drain. Once, fed by a groundwater basin in the valley that bubbled up near present-day Encino, the river nourished a lush coastal plain. It was the sole source of drinking water for the young city and for the orchards that lured hordes of settlers. It could also be a total bastard. The meandering, seasonal stream morphed into a roiling deluge during rainstorms. Catastrophic floods in the 1800s leveled buildings, toppled railroad bridges, and swept away residents. California embarked on complex flood control measures. But the river always fought back.
Finally, in the 1930s, the US Army Corps of Engineers stepped in—and brought thousands of workers, tens of millions of dollars, and a whole lot of cement. The Corps straightened, deepened, moved, and otherwise rebuilt the river into a “water freeway,” a channel for transporting treated storm water and wastewater to the sea. Along its now-stark course, trash and broken appliances accumulated. Adjacent neighborhoods turned their backs, distancing themselves with chain-link fences.
In the City of Angels, though, rebirth is axiomatic. By the 1980s, environmentalists began pushing to exhume the waterway. Finally, public opinion became, well, a torrent. Today the river is slated for an overhaul, backed by officials including LA mayor Eric Garcetti and even President Obama. Last spring the Corps agreed to remove concrete along 11 miles of the river. In its place: sloping green terraces and wetlands, cafés, and bike paths. (The city is buying former industrial sites for use as parkland.)
But the river will still be a kind of mirage, a trick of human engineering. The floodplain is a major US city. Almost half the flow during the dry season comes from treatment plants. Much of the rest is urban slobber, runoff from Angelenos washing cars or watering lawns. “It’s hard to understand how artificial the river really is,” says Lewis MacAdams, godfather of the movement and cofounder of Friends of the Los Angeles River.
This isn’t a restoration project. Transforming the river is a grand exercise in modern ecosystem manipulation. What Los Angeles is building is more like a monument to rivers—artificial, in perfect LA style, but constructed on ecological principles. A once-hostile environment will be terraformed into a hub of human activity. “This is the beginning of a golden time for the LA River,” MacAdams says. “You can almost taste it.” Then he reconsiders. “Well, that’s not really the word you’d want to use.”