Now a neglected part of our city’s landscape, the Los Angeles River once defined life in the area. Long before there was a California or even a United States, the Gabrieleño Indians had a community of over 45 villages dotting the San Fernando Valley and present day Glendale, and the River was their foundation, providing water and a diverse selection… of food. In 1769, Spain’s Gaspar de Portola “discovered” the river during his explorations, dubbing it El Río de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula - the Porciuncula River. Later that would shortened to merely reflect the name of the city growing around it, the waterway that once defined the region becoming its subordinate.
The river was originally alluvial, meaning its banks and bed were formed from loose sediments and rock that allowed it to change its path depending on water flow and season. Up until the early 1800’s, the river actually flowed into the Pacific near Marina Del Ray, but a particularly severe flash flood in 1825 diverted the river all the way to Long Beach, where it has remained since.
The Los Angeles River was the LA Basin’s main source of drinking water until the Los Angeles Aqueduct opened in 1913, water from the Owens River being pumped over the Sierra Nevada mountain range and into the city. Although the river was fairly dry for most of the year, winter rains often brought with them dramatic and unpredictable flash floods well into the 1930s. After a devastating flood in 1938, Angelenos began to demand flood control measures, leading to the creation of an ambitious project to both encase the riverbed in concrete to prevent it from changing course, and to regulate flow by building the Sepulveda Dam. The Army Corps of Engineers would spend the next 30 years essentially turning the river into a man-made storm drain.
Now, work on the Los Angeles River has moved from flood control to conservation, as advocacy groups and individuals take on the task of preserving and restoring the river and its wildlife. The Sepulveda Basin has become known not just for its dam, but for its recreational space and ecological diversity. The Los Angeles River itself is increasingly the site of artistic, social, and educational activity, once becoming a lifeline linking a growing and diverse population.