What the L.A. River is.

From “The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth” by Blake Gumprecht (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 127-9:

“Although 10 to 15 percent of the Los Angeles city water supply is still pumped from beneath the San Fernando Valley, nearly all of the water that now flows in the river is treated sewage, authorized industrial discharges and street runoff. Very little water from the source that originally formed the river ever reaches its channel, except during the rainy season. Sewage treatment plants alone provide nearly half of the dry season flow. The greatest single supplier is the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys, which began operating in 1984 and now provides about a third of the river’s flow. Consequently, the true ‘source’ of the transformed Los Angeles River is not some mountain stream in the Santa Susana or San Gabriel Mountains. Rather, it is the huge concrete treatment tanks that clean the city’s wastewater and discharge it into an outflow channel that empties into the river just upstream from Sepulveda Dam. Smaller amounts of treated wastewater are discharged from a city of Burbank reclamation plant and a combined Los Angeles-Glendale treatment facility located near the outlet of Verdugo Wash. Another 30 percent of the river’s flow, even in summer, comes from the hundreds of storm drains that empty along its banks. Ironically, less than 5 percent of the dry season flow of the river comes from the ground water basin that was its historic source…

“Even so, the Los Angeles River is now a very different river than it was two decades ago because of the large volumes of treated wastewater discharged into its concrete channel. …The added water has boosted the growth of vegetation in three soft-bottom sections of the river and, though the product of urban sewage, it has actually improved water quality by diluting the street runoff and contaminated ground water. This has led to unexpected changes. The cleaner, faster-moving stream has attracted increasing numbers of gnats in the Glendale Narrows, aggravating golfers in Griffith Park and even baseball players at Dodger Stadium. The growing insect populations have also led to a rise in the number of birds living near the river, since they feed off such insects. It has even been suggested that the cleaner, faster-moving water has reduced frog populations across from Elysian Park–an area long known as ‘Frogtown’–because the frogs prefer dirtier, more stagnant water…

“Recent developments have, in effect, created an artificial waterway that has little in common with the intermittent stream that wandered back and forth across the landscape for thousands of years. Although the degradation of the urban rivers is an old and familiar story, the destruction of the Los Angeles River is in many ways unique in North America because of the very different native character of the stream and the ways in which Euro-American settlers, their ideas about rivers shaped by waterways that had deep channels and carried abundant water year-round, reacted to it. Early residents viewed the river as a resource and little else. They took from it all they needed to survive until its channel was drained dry. And then they took some more. Flood control projects are generally blamed for turning the river into an eyesore, but in truth it was the city’s increasing reliance on the river for its water supply that first transformed it from a thing of beauty into an object of ridicule. Water projects so changed the river that, by the time flood control became a necessity, few cared whether it was covered with cement. Concrete channels merely became the coffin for a river that had already been sapped of nearly all its life.”

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