Academic journal article The Geographical Review

THE LOS ANGELES RIVER: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

THE LOS ANGELES RIVER: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth

Article excerpt

By BLAKE GUMPRECHT. x and 369 pp.; maps, diagrs., ills., bibliog., index. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 0801860474.

By most standards, it is a less than ordinary river. It is only about 50 miles long, and its drainage basin is proportionately small. There is usually not very much water in it--you can throw a stone across it at most locations. The fishing is pitiful, and the boating is worse. It is not even generally regarded as pretty. But in the semiarid climate of Southern California, the Los Angeles River provided a reliable water supply for nineteenth-century settlers. The long growing season, the fertile alluvial soils, and the river's water stimulated some of the most productive agricultural development the United States has ever seen. Increasing irrigation demands and a burgeoning population severely taxed the river's flow, ultimately reducing it to a weary trickle except during occasional floods. Explosive population growth crowded the river's course and transformed the waterway first into a nuisance and then into a hazard.

Blake Gumprecht's The Los Angeles River began as his master's thesis in geography at the California State University, Northridge, and was completed during his doctoral studies in geography at the University of Oklahoma. The result is a masterpiece of classical geographical synthesis. He has woven a compelling depiction of the physical geography of the Los Angeles Basin and its settlement history; and he has extended the tapestry to include the battles over water, the engineering of the channel for flood control, and the dreamy attempts to restore some semblance of nature to the river. The narrative is an absorbing account of how the modest river provided the leverage to spur a development explosion: The population of the Los Angeles region doubled more than thirteen times since its first count of about 1,500 residents in 1850.

Gumprecht begins his narrative with a quick look at what the river and its environs were like before European settlement. He provides an excellent summary of the geology, geomorphology, and hydrology of the Los Angeles Basin as they pertain to the river. Maps showing long-forgotten wetlands and changing drainage patterns emphasize the former abundance of water provided by the river. Gumprecht points out the reliance of the Gabrieleno Indians on the river and their propensity to settle close to it. He also provides an overview of the once-abundant native plant and animal life that provided sustenance and materiel for both the Gabrielenos and the early Spanish settlers.

Through the late eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth, Los Angeles was a relatively small agricultural center, with the Rio de Porciuncula (as the river was originally christened) providing water in the otherwise semiarid environment. Grapevines and citrus trees covered large tracts of land adjacent to the river. Irrigation ditches spread the water from the river, and drainage ditches returned water to its course. Chapter 2 chronicles the establishment of El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles in 1781, the subsequent expansion of Spanish settlement, and the rapid growth of agriculture. The latter, in particular, quickly amplified the demands on the already small river. By the end of the 1800s a relatively formalized water supply system included reservoirs and zanjas (conduits). Demand was already outstripping supply. …

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