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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 361-363
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The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth
The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. By Blake Gumprecht. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Pp. x+369. $39.95.
In the hours following a heavy rainfall, the Los Angeles River can swell from a burbling freshet into a torrent. To witness this is to look on the savage, disinterested face of nature. Conversely, to visit the river on a dry day is to behold the rational ferocity of people. The flora, fauna, meanders, gravel bars, and just about everything else wild have been replaced by a concrete channel. Since the 1980s, a growing multitude has asked how and why the chief river of America's second largest city became just a storm drain. Blake Gumprecht's fine book begins to answer these questions.
Gumprecht develops three themes in his historical geography: how the river changed, how it was changed by people, and how its role in the region changed. He begins by describing the river's wild nature, then sketches its importance for native peoples and its perception by the earliest Europeans. The flow, we learn, was once perennial, persisting even through multiple drought years because of its vast drainage. Nevertheless, seasonal flow varies widely because rain comes primarily in winter months and falls most heavily on the steep mountains adjacent to the developed basin. During a rainstorm, the river's volume can expand by a factor of a thousand or more.
The second chapter takes up the river's role in the selection of the site for the Los Angeles pueblo in 1781 and subsequent efforts to develop diversion dams and channels (zanjas) to irrigate crops and provide domestic water supplies. Here the author argues that the river helped Los Angeles become the region's dominant city but that development degraded the river's appearance to the point where few cared about its final demise. When the first transcontinental railroad arrived in 1876, Los Angeles began to change from an agricultural settlement into a commercial and residential city, and after the second railroad appeared in 1886 the boom was on. Because perennial surface waters were rapidly exhausted by diversions, perforated pipes were sunk deep into the dry riverbed to tap millions more gallons per day. At the same time, the first meters, reservoir linings, and metal conduits were installed to conserve the increasingly precious resource. Notwithstanding these efforts, supplies soon became insufficient and so the [End Page 361] city tapped the Sierra Nevada-fed Owens River, which consequently made it easy for residents to undervalue and forget the Los Angeles River. Decreasingly important and increasingly ugly--and like numerous other urban rivers--it attracted noxious industries.
Next, Gumprecht shifts to the risk presented by the river, its coincident tendency to change course, and the escalating need for a flood-control program. The Los Angeles River overflowed its banks at least twenty-four times after 1770 and changed course repeatedly during these floods, sometimes by 90 degrees. Even when directional changes were minor, a flood could leave the river several miles from its previous channel, a hazard that had to be mitigated technologically. Early uncoordinated and inadequate efforts included breakwaters and low dams. But in Gumprecht's penultimate chapter, we learn how a comprehensive flood control program transformed the river. Following a 12,000-acre flood in 1914, Los Angeles County began a twenty-year program to construct dams in mountain canyons while straightening, deepening, and widening lowland channels. In the mid-1930s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built more dams and began lining the stream with concrete. By 1960 it had become a 51-mile "water freeway."
Gumprecht concludes with a look at today's river and a brief contemplation on its future. In particular we learn about the "friends" the river has gained since the 1980s. While adjacent lands have been greened and made publicly accessible, no concrete lining has ever been removed--quite the contrary. Continuing development in...