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Natural History: Basin Formation, River Hydrology, and Native Species

Written histories of the LA River typically begin when the LA basin was still an ocean, up to 10 million years ago.

With seismic uplift, the ocean receded, leaving the Santa Susana, Santa Monica, and San Gabriel mountain ranges in its place. The LA River traversed the lowest passages. In the following millennia, the continued erosion of soils from these mountains created massive alluvial plains, into which vast quantities of snowmelt and runoff from the mountains were stored, creating the groundwater basins that would become an essential resource of future ecosystems and human societies.1Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 12. The steep mountains surrounding the LA River create a very “flashy” river system, meaning that as precipitation falls, the amount of water in streams and channels swells far beyond the amount of water in dry conditions. These streams and channels bring water to the LA River, which drops almost 800 feet in elevation over its 51-mile course. Although the LA River today looks very different than it did prior to development, the tendency for flash flooding always existed due to these geophysical characteristics.

LA County DEM (Digital Elevation Model)
LA County Map
LA County DEM (Digital Elevation Model). The LA River drops 780 feet in just 51 miles.
U.S. Geological Survey, 2013; USGS NED 1 arc-second 2013.

In the earliest accounts, the river flowed above ground—either through the Elysian Valley, where shallow bedrock forced groundwater toward the surface, providing a year-round base flow, or in other locations that, during rains, fed a continuous flow draining into the ocean. Where bedrock lay much deeper and soils were most conducive to drainage, such as the rockier, more porous soils that erode from the San Gabriel Mountains, above-ground flow was more ephemeral. Below the surface, the river guided runoff from the mountains to the basin, where the water then percolated into aquifers. When they did appear, visible channels in these areas were often shallow and poorly defined; only during extreme rain events would streams materialize above saturated topsoils.2Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 16. Periodically, massive floods converted the wide, flat floodplains of the lower LA River into raging torrents.3Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 12. The 1916 soil map of LA County shows floodplain soils across a vast territory of the Los Angeles plain, indicating the extent of this flooding historically, even before the urban sprawl of the 20th century.4United States Geological Survey. Los Angeles County Soils Map. 1916.

The river system frequently migrated. Some years, south of present-day Downtown LA, the main channel headed west and entered Santa Monica Bay through what is now Ballona Creek. Other years, the river stretched towards the ocean between present-day Downtown LA and Long Beach as a broad floodplain of intermittent streams, with dense trees and wetlands.5Rairdan, Charles. “Regional Restoration Goals for Wetland Resources in the Greater Los Angeles Drainage Area: A Landscape-Level Comparison of Recent Historic and Current Conditions using Geographical Information Systems.” Dissertation. UCLA, 1998. Early Spanish settlers noted that it could be difficult to discern the location of the mouth of the river. In this area, the river was “a small gentle stream flowing through a broad, sandy bed most of the year and a large, turbulent, unpredictable river for a few days every winter.”6Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 12.

LA County Base Geology
LA County Map
The LA River geology is alluvium and can be over 20,000 feet deep in places.
California Geologic Map Data, USGS, 2005.

The general course of the LA River as it is known today, starting in the San Fernando Valley and discharging into the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach, emerged in 1825 when a massive flood cut a channel across the existing plain of wetlands and forests.7Crandell, John. “The L.A. River’s ‘Natural’ History: Until 1825, the Los Angeles Basin was vastly different from the current desert. What was the area’s environment in the distant past?” Los Angeles Times (August 14, 1994).

Before development, the LA basin was likely characterized by a mix of coastal sage scrub, valley grasslands, swaths of Southern California oak, and seasonal wetlands.8The historic ecology of the LA River is not well studied of documented. The most conclusive mapping, while likely imperfect, is referenced here: Kuechler, A.W. Natural Vegetation of California [map]. 1977. 1:1,000,000. “David Rumsey Map Collection”. Accessed October 14, 2019. These habitats hosted abundant wildlife such as deer, antelope, coyotes, gray foxes, mountain lions, grizzly bears, steelhead, countless birds and rodents, turtles, gophers, badgers, shrews, moles, cuckoos, owls, vireos, woodpeckers, and Pacific lamprey.9Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 25. To better understand the historical ecology of the LA basin, studies are now underway at the University of Southern California and other institutions, where researchers are assembling a more holistic interpretation of written diaries, images, and other early narratives that describe the native plant communities, wetlands, and riparian areas of the river. Similar studies have been completed for adjacent watersheds such as Ballona Creek and the San Gabriel River.10Dark, Shawna, Eric D. Stein, Danielle Bram, Joel Osuna, Joseph Monteferante, Travis Longcore, Robin Grossinger, and Erin Beller. Historic Ecology of the Ballona Creek Watershed. Accessed October 14, 2019. 11Stein, Eric D., Shawna Dark, Travis Longcore, Nicholas Hall, Michael Beland, Robin Grossinger, Jason Casanova, and Martha Sutula. Historical Ecology and Landscape Change of the San Gabriel River and Floodplain. Accessed October 14, 2019.

Historic Soils
The prevalence of particular Chino, Hanford, Oakley, and Tujunga soils in this 1916 United States Geological Survey map indicate the historical breadth of the LA River’s floodplain.
Historic Vegetation
Though historical ecological maps are lacking, plant communities along the LA River corridor likely included Southern coast live oak riparian forest, Coast live oak woodland, Southern cottonwood-willow riparian forest, Perennial freshwater emergent wetland, California walnut woodland, Valley oak woodland, Southern sycamore riparian woodland and Alluvial fan sage scrub though not mapped in detail historically, were likely common plant communities found along the LA River corridor.
Source: OLIN, 2019. Based on Kuchler, Natural Vegetation of California, 1977.
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