Empty Nest, Concrete River, and LASHP

Sadly, it appears that the LASHP Tweet received over the weekend is correct. Our resident Killdeer and chicks have indeed moved on, leaving not a trace but the two orange cones which were situated on either side of their gravelly nest. While we’re sorry to see them go, it’s still quite exciting to see a variety of birds here in the park and be reminded daily of the tremendous impact a little open space can have in supporting urban wildlife populations. At the same time, it’s sobering to think of the wildlife that has been lost over the years due to urban expansion, and in our particular location, the channelization of the Los Angeles River.

Los Angeles River

Los Angeles River

This is what the river looks like today – 52 miles of concrete, minus a scant few in the soft-bottomed Glendale Narrows where complete channelization was not possible due to a particularly high water table. Yes, Los Angeles was once home to a wild, free-flowing river. It was the river that primarily attracted the Spanish to this location, one of the few where water flowed year-round, as an ideal spot for settlement. The river was the reason that over 45 Tongva/Gabrielino Indian settlements had already been in residence along the its course for over a millennia before the Spanish arrived. The Tongva village of Yang Na, one of the largest settlements, is thought to have been located within a half mile of LASHP.

In 1769 the Portola expedition crossed the Los Angeles River near where the park meets the Broadway Bridge. From the bluff, the Spanish noted flourishing native settlements and the particular beauty of this location near the river, a verdant marshland of dense willow and sycamore. Father Crespi appreciated the fertility of the land, and wrote in his diary that they encountered “a great vineyard of (wild) grapevines and countless rose bushes having a great deal of open blossoms, all of it a very dark friable soil.” A few years later, in 1781, El Pueblo de la Reina de los Angeles was founded by a small group of 46 settlers.

Portola Trail marker at Elysian Park entrance off Broadway

Portola Trail marker at Elysian Park entrance off Broadway

The river was a vital component of the young agricultural village and provided the sole source of irrigation and drinking water for over a century. Water from the Los Angeles River was transported to the growing Pueblo through irrigation ditches, or zanjas. A section of the most significant channel, the Zanja Madre, or “Mother Ditch” was actually uncovered during the construction of the MTA Goldline and this brick covered remnant of the old Pueblo irrigation system is still visible from LASHP. The conveyance of water to El Pueblo was so important, in fact, that a prominent municipal position, that of Zanjero, was created in 1854 to oversee the water supply and maintenance of the zanjas.

Zanja Madre

Zanja Madre

Brick Detail on Zanja Madre

Brick Detail on Zanja Madre

Although the river was vital to the sustenance of the Pueblo, it was also dangerous and prone to violent flooding along its meandering, undefined path. As the population of the region grew and development increased in proximity to the River’s shallow banks, the danger to residents from periodic flooding increased exponentially. Three great floods, in 1914, 1934, and 1938 all hit Los Angeles with catastrophic consequences. Public distrust of the river grew along with the expanding population. Eventually, the seasonal threats of raging flood waters were met head on by the Army Corp of Engineers which began channelizing the river in 1940 making it what it is today, a vessel for the rapid delivery of floodwater to the ocean.

So that is why LASHP no longer has a natural connection to the Los Angeles River and the historic floodplain. And it is why we relish the site of a lone pair of nesting Killdeer, where there were once Condors, and Cuckoos, Owls, and Vireos, deer and antelope roaming the region, along with mountain lions, foxes, coyotes, and even grizzly bears, coming down from the mountains to feast on steelhead trout that once filled the river. Looking at the river as it is today, it’s hard to image that less than a hundred years ago it probably looked much like this.

Santa Ana River -  Riverside County

Santa Ana River - Riverside County

But, concrete channel or no, the Los Angeles River remains an integral component of the past and future of LASHP. During the our planning process, the local community consistently emphasized the paramount importance of re-connecting the park with the Los Angeles River. Even amidst the doom and gloom of an economic meltdown, we’re still looking forward to making that connection and hope to see the northern end of the park return to a natural wetland and supportive wildlife habitat. For now, we’ll keep our eye on the Killdeer.



Filed under History

2 responses to “Empty Nest, Concrete River, and LASHP

  1. Eric

    Excellent info. Thank you so much!

  2. Pingback: News and Events – 17 July 2009 « L.A. Creek Freak

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