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The Los Angeles River is currently at a higher capacity, but it is simply fulfilling its intended purpose.
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The Los Angeles River is currently at a higher capacity, but it is simply fulfilling its intended purpose.


When newspapers from different parts of the world wanted to represent the recent heavy rainstorms in California, they all used the same image: a photograph of the murky and turbulent waters of the Los Angeles River, appearing as though they were about to completely engulf the nearby trees.

Images and footage of the river were prominently featured on the front pages of popular news sources like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. On Monday, the term “LA River” was a trending topic on X.com (formerly known as Twitter), with many eye-catching videos capturing the rapidly increasing water levels.

However, as many residents of Los Angeles are aware, when there is significant rainfall, the appearance of the LA River is typically just like this. The trees that appear to be submerged in the water? Many of them are actually willows and cottonwoods, types of plants that rely on floodwater to disperse their seeds, according to Jon Christensen from the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles.

According to Christensen, as long as the river stays within its banks and does not flood the nearby neighborhoods, this is the current functioning of the LA River.

That’s not to say that the flooding isn’t a real concern, especially after record levels of rain, or back-to-back storms.

Jessica Henson, a landscape architect and planner with ten years of experience working on projects near the river, noted that some sections of the river appeared to be reaching their maximum capacity and were on the verge of overflowing onto their banks.

When I spoke with Henson on Monday afternoon, she mentioned that the maximum amount of rain from the storm had already passed and that the majority of the river’s measuring devices were beginning to show decreasing levels. This indicated that the potential for severe flooding was also diminishing. In other sections of the 51-mile waterway, the water was only reaching about one third of its total capacity or less.

Mark Hanna, a water resource engineer with 20 years of experience working on LA River projects, reported that there was significant video footage capturing the Studio City neighborhood where the water level near the bank was high. However, he clarified that this particular section of the river has controlled water levels and the release of water was carefully managed to ensure the river could handle it.

According to Henson, the recent storms in California have resulted in significant catastrophes in Los Angeles. These include mudslides that have caused harm to residences and required people to evacuate. However, Henson noted that the Los Angeles River is currently functioning effectively and successfully protecting many individuals.

Many people are surprised to discover that Los Angeles actually has a river. During periods of drought, the river can become very small, and it is best known for its appearance in the chase scene from Terminator 2, where the riverbed is mostly made up of concrete that has been heated by the sun.

Prior to the 1930s, the LA River was untamed and unpredictable, often flooding and altering its path throughout the area. As Los Angeles expanded into a large city, driven by the success of Hollywood and real estate investments, it was deemed necessary to contain the river’s movements and prevent flooding. According to Christensen, a significant moment in this decision was the “wettest day ever recorded” in Los Angeles on March 2, 1938, when heavy rainfall caused severe flooding that resulted in over 100 fatalities and an estimated $1 billion in damages by today’s standards.

The aftermath of the notable flood included a prolonged attempt to manage the LA River by containing it within its current, peculiar concrete path. This often gives the appearance of a regulated “flood channel” rather than a genuine natural river.

The proposed “solution” to the flooding of the LA River continues to be a source of controversy and is not visually appealing. Even on its most favorable days, the LA River resembles a post-apocalyptic environment.

The river has effectively served as a flood control channel by quickly directing extra water into the Pacific Ocean this week. However, there are concerns among city planners and scientists that the river may be pushed to its limits by more intense storms.

clear sky over river that is far below sides of concrete channel

Display the image in full screen.

According to Dena O’Dell, a representative from the US Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles’ flood control system is capable of managing numerous atmospheric rivers, as long as there is some distance between them. However, if these rivers occur consecutively without any gaps, the system may face a challenge.

Christensen and Henson identified multiple sections of the river with reduced water capacity that may struggle to handle heavy storms. One such area is Frogtown, also known as Elysian Valley, a neighborhood in the process of gentrification near downtown Los Angeles. The river in this area contains numerous trees and plants, causing water to move at a slower pace. The nickname “Frogtown” originated from the abundance of toads that used to occupy the streets. Despite being prone to flooding, houses in this section of the river are currently being sold for $1 million or higher.

There is also a potential danger in the northern areas of the river in the San Fernando Valley, where certain sections were designed over 100 years ago to handle flooding that occurs once every 50 years, according to Henson. He stated, “In places like Woodland Hills, we are currently experiencing 10 inches of rain, which is close to the limit of the system.” However, experts believe that the water levels are decreasing and the cycle of recovery after a flood will continue.

Christensen commented that the trees appear to be unaffected. Despite being covered in debris, there is hope for a clean-up in the warmer months.

Source: theguardian.com