06.12.12Alan Harris

Unintended Consequence: The Los Angeles River

Los Angeles RiverEven encased in concrete the Los Angeles River is picturesque at sunset. Can you imagine what it would look like with trees and wildlife?

photo courtesy of victoriabernal

The “Hollywood” Los Angeles River

We’ve all (even the aquaphobes) have seen the dramatic chase scenes on the television or in a movie. You know, the one where the car is driving down an oversized concrete culvert with a trickle of water in the middle. Sometimes the cars splash through the shallow water and other times they accelerate up the paved slope only to flip over. Congratulations you have seen the Los Angeles River.

In the spirit of the summer of water movies here are 5 of the movies which were filmed in the Los Angeles River:

1. Gone in 60 Seconds

2. Terminator 2: Judgment Day

3. To Live and Die in L.A.

4. Grease

5. The Gumball Rally

More movies can be found here

The “Real” Los Angeles River

Believe it or not this is not the natural state of the Los Angeles River. To understand how the river got this way is an interesting story. The fact the river is in this condition is a felonious assault on water and nature.

After horrendous floods hit in the 1930s, the renowned landscape architecture firms Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew Associates proposed over 200 miles of parkways and boulevards in Los Angeles. Located along rivers, and allowing room for their waters to spread, the parkways offered a comprehensive solution to flood threats, park shortages, and traffic congestion. Instead of a soft, GREEN solution, authorities decided to best protect nearby homes they needed to enclose much of the river with concrete and turn it into a flood-control channel.

30 years and 3,000,000 barrels of concrete later the Los Angeles River became a fenced-off no-man’s-land operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The river, once a riparian paradise, became an arterial blemish on the face of the city with unintended consequences.

Unintended Consequence: Can you imagine wasting 76,000,000,000 gallons of water? (By the way that is what a BILLION looks like with all the zeros). That is a lot of water and the amount of water flushed out to the Pacific Ocean every time Los Angeles gets 1” of rainfall! There is enough water in the river to supply the city with HALF of the water it requires. Couple that with the fact most of the water is IMPORTED to the city which require TREMENDOUS amounts of energy you start to wonder if it might be time to undo the crimes of the past, Rock the Boat and do something to correct the sins of the past.

If you liked this post, please share it with a friend, leave a comment, check out my previous posts , follow me on Twitter @h2oMatters and

Follow Me on Pinterest


Posts you may also like

Alan Harris

Alan Harris is a water management pioneer. With roots in landscape architecture, Alan has worked with irrigation throughout his career experimenting with hydrozones and a variety of high efficiency irrigation systems. Now, over thirty years in the landscape industry, Alan continues to stay apprised of the latest technology even in a sales leadership capacity as our Director of Sales Operations for our landscape maintenance division. In addition to his contributions to this blog, Alan keeps his hand in water management as a regular contributor to Lawn & Landscape Magazine and speaker at WaterSmart Innovations Conference.




  1. Tuesday, 9:37 Martha Golea

    Unbelievable. If the crimes of the past are undone, where will Hollywood film all their action movies?! Oh that’s right, in an actual river…
    Great post, Alan. The L.A. River is so dry I’m not even afraid to watch movies about it.

  2. Wednesday, 6:54 Jeavonna Chapman

    I live near in Baltimore. We were already working with the Olmsted firm when our Great Fire of 1904 occurred. They authored our redesign. LA should have taken their advice. Over 100 years later, it is still the best plan available.

  3. Wednesday, 6:34 Alan Harris

    @Martha – with CGI I am not sure Hollywood even requires on location shoots anymore.
    @Jeavonna – I am not familiar with the Olmsted work in Baltimore, but am very familiar with their work in NYC, Chicago and Atlanta. It is amazing what they were able to accomplish without planes, computers, cell phones, blogs or Twitter. I would really like to have a time machine to go back and see how they worked all across the country.

  4. Monday, 12:39 Melanie Winter

    Nice post! One small correction: the Olmsted Plan was produced a decade prior to the flooding of 1938. Had LA chosen to implement it, damage would have been negligible.

    If you want to see the river in its natural state, check out this video: This is in the Sepulveda Basin, where it runs free of concrete for a mile and a half.

    By working from a watershed framework on measures large and small, this is what The River Project is looking to restore along much of the LA River. We believe that through better land use practices, we can maintain public safety while replenishing our local water resources and restoring ecosystem function over time.

  5. Tuesday, 12:39 Jonathan

    I am curious how you got 76,000,000,000 gallons. Are you assuming absolutely no water is retained on land? Are you using the area of the city, the county, or the combination of the LA River and Ballona Creek watersheds? Maybe even the SG River Watershed? Even with those assumptions I am getting more like 4,000,000,000?

  6. Wednesday, 11:18 Bill Zingg

    You just brought back memories of my childhood. I grew up in North Long Beach about a hundre yards from the Los Angeles River Bed, in the 1950’s B.C., “before concrete”! All the kids in the neighborhood were extremely saddened to see the concrete come, destroying our wonderful playground. Other than the rainy season when the channel would fill and be very dangerous, there was always a nice stream to play in full of frogs, polywogs, and other wildlife.
    Little did I know that later in life that water would be the life- blood of my carrer in the irrigation industry. The only benefit of this project at the time was that I was ableto run my Go-Cart from my house to the ocean, carrying a extra can of gas and a canteen of water. I hate to tell my age now, but this was almost sixty years ago!

  7. Thursday, 2:41 Alan Harris

    @Jonathan – I emailed the source and requested more information
    @Bill – thanks for sharing your memories. If you have any pictures from back in the day I would love to be able to see and share them.

  8. Friday, 11:37 Randall Atterbury

    I grew up one block from the San Gabriel River bed in Bellflower. Back in the day (circa 1960) it was a semi-natural river bed that had a year round creek and horse trails running through it. We had many dirt-clod fights in the sandy mounds near the creek; all in fun of course. There was a colony of eagles on Santa Catalina Island that would fly up to the San Gabriel Mountains via the river bed, hunting along the way. On rare occasion we would see them fly by at low altitude. Even to this day, there are Green Sea Turtles that have made a permanent home in the river near Seal Beach where salt and “fresh” water meets. We have seen them while riding our bikes on the SG River Bike Trail to the beach. One good thing that comes from our “glorified gutter” is the bike path that runs from the ocean to the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in Azusa.

  9. Friday, 9:51 Alan Harris

    @Melanie – thanks for sharing the video and the work you do at I am working on a follow up with some of the great projects going on with the LA River, but had to first set the stage for the readers. Let us know if you would like to contribute a post.
    @Randall – thanks for sharing your memories of what once was and what will once again be at some point in the future along the entire length of the river

  10. […] a previous post we reviewed the transformation of the Los Angeles River from a natural, albeit flood prone waterway […]

© 2017 ValleyCrest Landscape Companies