How Long is the Los Angeles River?

September 29, 2008 § 2 Comments

How Long is the Los Angeles River? : A Rashomon-like Tale of Engineers, Librarians, Geographers and Poets

Creek freak, in record-setting verbosity, takes on the burning question of our day: just how long is the Los Angeles River? And while we’re at it: why is that important? and why isn’t that important? Quick, select “Mark as Read” and move on.

The Los Angeles River becomes the Los Angeles River proper in Canoga Park, at the confluence of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek. From there it travels east through the San Fernando Valley, makes a right turn around Griffith Park, passes downtown Los Angeles, then heads south emptying into the San Pedro Bay in Long Beach. It’s not that long a trip. I’ve done it by bike in a day.

Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR), where I used to work, pretty much always states that the Los Angeles River is 52 miles long, for example here: “[Taylor Yard] represents the single greatest opportunity for riverfront restoration along the entire 52 miles of the Los Angeles River.” The 52 mile figure gets repeated throughout the non-profit community, including on the websites for The River Project and The City Project (where I currently do contract work.) It also makes its way into the L.A. Times (1997) and the Daily News (2008.)

On the other hand, the county of Los Angeles pretty much always states that the Los Angeles River is 51 miles long, for example here: “Today, the Los Angeles River is lined on 77 km (47.9 miles) of its 82 km (51 miles) length”. This 51 mile figure gets repeated by most governmental agencies, including the city of Los Angeles, the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, and the regional Water Board. It also makes its way into the L.A. Times (2008) and the Daily News (2000 – not available free on-line.)

So… what’s the big deal? It’s only a mile, right? Well, often the struggle to revitalize the Los Angeles River is a struggle to give it respect, even if only semanitcally for now. There were legendary shouting matches between FoLAR founder Lewis MacAdams calling it a “river” and County Public Works calling it a “flood control channel.” If we call it a river, then we can perceive it as one, and will treat it as one. I seem to recall, a long time ago, someone at FoLAR (maybe Lewis, maybe not – I don’t remember) told me the following: Historically the river was 52 miles long. When it was concreted from the 1930′s through the late 1950′s, it was straightened. In straightening, it ended up a mile shorter. As a political and tactical decision, FoLAR continued to call it a 52 mile river because the greater length gave it a greater stature, greater importance. I repeated this anecdote often. On tours I would tell folks that it’s really a 52 mile river, it’s just that it’s trapped in a 51 mile concrete straightjacket.

The blog was going to end somewhere around there, but, in doing his due diligence, the Creek Freak decided to try to verify quickly that 52 mile number by poking around some historical sources. Creek Freak’s own and the blogosphere’s generally impeccable credibility would be at state if I post something on the net that some sharp researcher could prove wrong too easily. I figured it would be a quick bike ride to my wonderful library and a search or two in the historical L.A. Times database (which I’ve used before) and I’d be done in less than 20 minutes, and I’d have incontrovertible proof of how right we river advocates are.

Turns out that it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Even the computer search had its uncertainties. Do I search on 52 or fifty-two? Mile or miles? Los Angeles River or L.A. River or LA River? How about the hypen/s in 52-miles or 52-miles-long? Would the search program smart enough to find those variations or do I have to match them verbatim? Well, I think I tried all the permutations, and I could not find any pre-concrete-era pre-FoLAR-era references to a 52 mile Los Angeles River. I checked with a couple librarians, some books, and nothing turned up. It’s not there (if any of you find it, please let me know, though!) I did find a lot of much more interesting stuff though. Here are some of them chronologically:

November 1939: Scientific American, in a 2-page article River Rebuilt to Curb Floods, states “Most important of the streams, insofar as their rampages may affect concentrated population, is the Los Angeles River. This stream, 70 miles in length, may be bone dry in summer, then carry water at a rate of 90,000 cubic feet per second… during a winter flood.” Wow! 70 miles in a peer-reviewed scientific journal! Who knew? This number might correspond to the length of the river before channelization, but I’m guessing that this number perhaps came from including one of the tributaries, maybe Arroyo Calabasas? That’s the oldest reference I found that stated a length for the river – and the longest mileage-wise.

July 12 1956: The Los Angeles Times, in an article L.A. River Project Due for Completion in 1957, states “Flood-control work on the entire length of the Los Angeles River, a distance of 49.1 miles, will be completed by December, 1957, Col. Arthur H. Frye Jr., district engineer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said yesterday.” Ouch, doesn’t 49.1 miles sound rather dinky? It’s more-or-less like the number mentioned on the county’s website above, with a shorter paved distance than total length. I’m guessing that means that they’re not counting one of the soft-bottom areas (either the ~3-mile estuary or the ~2-mile Sepulveda Basin). Perhaps the overall length got mixed up with the completely-paved length somewhere between Col. Frye and the author.

March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times

March 2 1958 Los Angeles Times

March 2 1958: The Los Angeles Times, in an article Timesmen Explore Los Angeles River, states “Last week, after 23 years and $101,100,000, the Army Corps of Engineers completed its project of concreting the bottom and sides of 50.9-mile-long Los Angeles River” The article goes on to describe the Timesmen’s trip, in a 5-person rubber boat, down the length of the river. Other than leaving out the word “the” (shouldn’t it be “…of the 50.9-mile-long?) and that not all the bottom was paved, that extra decimal place makes this entry sounds really precise, really exact. It’s probably right, and the 51 crowd is just rounding it to the nearest mile.

April 1 1958: The Los Angeles Times, in an article Army Engineers’ Field Has Constant Growth, states “The paving of the 50-mile-long Los Angeles River – longest channel of this type ever constructed – was an Army Engineer project.” The fifty mile figure gets quoted in about a dozen articles in the times. I take it as a rounded to the closest multiple of ten estimate.

August 1990: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, in an article Mark Twain!, states “I decided to explore the waterway – all 55 miles of it – while it was still neither park nor freeway, to find out what L.A.’s only river was all about.” I’m not sure where 55 came from – maybe the proposed freeway at the time was 55 miles long? Maybe the author rounded up to the nearest nickel?

20 April 1994 Los Angeles Times

April 20 1994 Los Angeles Times

April 20 1994, the Los Angeles Times, in an article River Rescue, states “Its 58 miles are paved with 3 million barrels of concrete.” I can’t really explain this one either, but it’s got a great youthful photo (in color in the original) of FoLAR’s first executive director Martin Schlageter.

I decided to check books. In 1975, Anthony F. Turhollow, in A History of the Los Angeles District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1898-1965 (with positively creek-freak-like verbosity and enthusiasm) states (p.146): “One river, the Los Angeles, about 50 miles long, with a source 1,000 feet above sea level is not only at the same elevation as the mighty Mississippi River but also has the same amount of drop in its relatively short length as the Mississippi in its entire course.” In 1999, Gumprecht states (p.1): “Chain link fence and barbed wire line the river’s fifty-one-mile course.” He does mention (p. 228,232) a UCLA researcher who found that as a result of the channelization project the length of the river between between Tujunga Wash and Glendale Boulevard was 28% shorter, going from historically 11.3 miles down to a concreted 8.1 miles . In 2001, Patt Morrison, in Rio L.A., (in her great poetic way) states (p. 21) “For most of its fifty-one miles, it is as unmarked, and as unremarked upon, as a pauper’s grave.” The back cover of that Linton guy‘s 2005 book says 51 miles.

As I spent time searching for that elusive confirmation of the 52 mile source, I began to become more and more comfortable with a good fuzzy approximation like “about 50 miles.” It’s very defensible, impossible to prove wrong. I began to geek out on various ideas. Perhaps I could come up with some kind of graph that would show how the river’s cited length changes over time. Maybe I could map it out precisely using old aerials or USGS maps. I could use Gmap Pedometer or (gasp) go out to the field and try to use a bike odometer to measure the current channel’s length. Through all this research and speculation, I began to think in a deeper way about the length of the river.

The start of the river at the Bell/Calabasas confluence in Canoga Park is fairly arbitrary. Why not call it the Los Angeles River proper at the confluence of Bell Creek and Chatsworth Creek, located about a mile upstream, and quite equally concrete and anonymous? Why was the current upper river channel designated and not the Tujunga Wash? I’ve heard that many years the Tujunga Wash would contribute more water to the lower river than the upper river did. Gumprecht states (p.136): “The Los Angeles River had seldom been visible west of Encino before flood control, even during heavy runoff.” A lot of the river’s water is underground in the Valley and elsewhere, so it’s arbitrary to just base a river’s starting point on where there’s surface flow.

The river system is a fractal: branches folding into branches, a gradient of gradually increasing orders of magnitude as we move downstream. It’s mostly arbitrary where we say that it starts. It’s mostly arbitrary what we call it at a given point: river versus creek, stream, wash, arroyo, gully. The naming is likely an artifact that has to do with what time of the year the Spanish came through and named things. After all, the Spaniards called Arroyo Seco (dry creek) what the Tongva called Hahamongna (flowing waters fruitful valley.)

The mouth of the river is similarly arbitrary. Gumprecht states (p.19) “Such attempts to locate the mouth of the river precisely are exercises in foolishness.” This is a river that some years emptied into the San Pedro Bay and some years swung right out to the Santa Monica Bay and some years swung left out Alamitos Bay. SCCWRP’s Historical ecology and landscape change of the San Gabriel River and floodplain report describes the mouth of the San Gabriel River (historically indistinguishable from the mouth of the L.A. River) as “a complex matrix of wetlands, riparian habitat, and uplands that varied on an interannual basis depending on climatic patterns.” Further it describes their tidal fringe as a “series of sand dunes, sand spits and barrier beaches… alternately impounded and open to the ocean… Following storms, these areas could be impounded for several kilometers upstream.”

The Los Angeles River frequently moved around across its broad alluvial plains. It meandered its way among many low points in a broad braided channel. It was, as most natural systems are, very dynamic. So it’s really hubris that we humans, whether advocates or flood control engineers, pick a single number and expect it to apply as a constant for a river that changes over time.

Any static quantification we do (think average rain year, hundred-year-flood, bank-full width, total maximum daily load) is an approximation – or, perhaps more accurately, a water mark indicating just a point in time. Nature scoffs at these, proving us wrong year after year. It’s important that we do these measurements, that we try to understand the river… but none of us should perceive her in any state as constant, as unchanging. We should learn what we can, but we should expect changes and hopefully surprises, too. This gives me optimism for the future of our river.

So… precisely how long is the Los Angeles River? At this point, I’d go with about 50 miles.

(Creak freak thanks three librarians: Glen Creason, Michael Oppenheim and my mother Marge Linton. Thank you, too, dear reader for getting this far – I promise my next blog will be shorter and won’t be about the length of the San Gabriel River.)

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