April 5, 2012
In many respects, it’s unsurprising to learn that the passive disdain with which most modern Angelinos regard the Los Angeles River was not an overnight development. The contemptuous nature of our relationship with the river dates back more than a century, and no matter what we would like to believe today, “[the river] was never the center of local life as some modern-day environmentalists have supposed” (Gumprecht 123). For instance, what little does appear about the L.A. River in the historical record generally takes the form of complaints about the various ways in which the river aggrieved local residents, namely by overflowing its banks. Infinitely more common than mentions of the river itself, however, are descriptions of the Southern California region’s bountiful croplands and high standard of living, both of which the L.A. River directly enabled.
Examining the reasons behind Los Angeles’ longstanding neglect of its eponymous river brings to light some concerning trends as to how we interact with the natural world. Interestingly, the L.A. River did play a fundamental role in establishing the city in its present location, but not in the usual way that a river fosters municipal expansion. Los Angeles began as a railroad town, more or less, precisely because the river devalued the surround area: Because the river was so prone to flooding, land on either side of the banks was deemed low-grade, and unfit for residential or other commercial purposes. Judged unsuitable for most other uses, the land lining the river became railroad. Particularly near the station, the newly lain railway incited the development of some of the city’s first industrial buildings, where “[w]arehouses, lumber yards, blacksmith shops, foundries, and wagon factories began to displace the vineyards and orchards” (Gumprecht 125).
Obviously, by initiating the city’s transition away from agriculture, instead positioning it as a center of industry, the L.A. River had a vital role in shaping present day Los Angeles. But one possible explanation for the chronic disregard shown by Angelinos toward the L.A. River could be that it doesn’t offer the utilities conventionally supplied by a river: Its flow was too meager and too inconsistent to ever make the waterborne transport of goods a viable consideration; by the time industry had become sufficiently widespread so as to make hydroelectric power necessary, too much of the surface water had been drained to make turning a turbine practical; and the feeble trickle of water in the channel was — thankfully — judged inadequate to dilute sewage, let alone wash effluents downstream (Gumprecht 125). For settlers relocating from other parts of the country, accustomed as they were to different, more robust varieties of rivers, the L.A. River scarcely constituted a proper river at all.
Given its meager surface flow and accordingly limited conventional uses, it makes sense why the L.A. River would be afforded less respect — reverence, even — than a river like the Colorado, that carved the Grand Canyon, or the “Mighty Mississippi,” which is so much a part of the local identity as to take on an almost mythic quality. But the L.A. River is no less important to the watershed it drains than the Colorado or Mississippi are to theirs. Just because it might be less superficially imposing does not diminish the absolutely crucial ecosystem services it provides.
In many respects, early Angelinos’ neglect of the L.A. River parallels certain actions of contemporary environmental non-governmental organizations. When designing campaigns to mobilize action against deforestation, overfishing, climate change and other environmental ills that lead to species loss and extinction, NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund have been criticized for disproportionately emphasizing the plights of so-called “charismatic megafauna” —whales and polar bears, for instance — while overlooking keystone species that may be more important but less photogenic. Such organizations rightly acknowledge that “if that’s what interests people then that’s how we start the conversation about conservation” (Tesar), but when discussing water resources, that rationale doesn’t hold water quite as well (pun initially unintended, but later gleefully embraced).
Time after time, Americans have demonstrated a characteristic inability to value things that might not appear valuable. Our history of neglect and abuse of the L.A. River unfortunately fits this trend to a T, but with increased education about its less-than-obvious importance, the river will hopefully gain the respect it deserves from the region it serves.
This post was authored by Louis Lucero II ’12 who is majoring in Environmental Studies with a double minor in English and Screenwriting.
Gumprecht, Blake. “Who Killed the Los Angeles River?” Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles. Eds. William Deverell and Greg Hise. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. 115-134.
Tesar, Clive. “Tracking megafauna in Iceland.” Thin Ice blog. WWF, 27 June 2011. Web. <http://blogs.panda.org/arctic2/2011/06/27/tracking-megafauna-in-iceland/>.