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History of the River

Multiple Cultural and Hydrological Narratives

Many histories of the LA River focus on two central narratives: the devastating floods of the 1930s, and the rapid development in the first half of the 20th century that led the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the LA County Flood Control District to channelize and line LA’s main inland waterway. Though the latter was an effort to protect people and property from flooding, the cultural and social narratives of those whose lives have been impacted by the river have not been consistently woven into the river’s infrastructural history. River-related projects and planning have suffered as a result, tending to perpetuate the river solely as single-benefit infrastructure instead of exploring how it might evolve—operationally as well as culturally—if it were better integrated with the communities along its banks.

Indeed, cultural histories, such as those of the Ventureño Chumash, Fernandeño Tataviam, and Gabrielino Tongva for whom the river is sacred, are integral to the story of the LA River and the LA River Master Plan.

Conceiving a more holistic and environmentally just future along the reimagined river begins by looking back. This historical overview is intended to summarize key events that have directly informed the planning and development of the LA River as it is understood today. It is not comprehensive; instead, it identifies significant transformations in the relationships between water, people, and the environment along the LA River and within the LA basin more broadly, from 10 million years ago to the present.

Historic Flooding and River Paths
LA County Map
Before channelization the LA River Basin was a dynamic system of floodplains and wetlands and the LA River would often shift around after major flooding events.
Geosyntec, OLIN, 2018; Based on Blake Gumprecht, The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth, 2001; California State University, Northridge Environmental Geography Lab, Historical Ecology, 2008; Charles Rairdan, "Regional Restoration Goals for Wetland Resources in Greater Los Angeles Drainage Area," 1998.
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