Tarzan paddled along its willowed banks in movies of the 1930s. The Moderne arches of its 6th Street bridge provided a gritty backdrop for the race scene in Grease. Terminators raced through its concreted channels in Terminator 2. Ever since Hollywood found its home here in Los Angeles back at the turn of the 20th century, the Los Angeles River has played a supporting role in movies, commercials and music videos. Unfortunately, over the last century, its original starring role as a life-giving natural resource has been almost forgotten.

Named Neustra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula in 1769 by Father Juan Crespi of the Spanish Portola expedition, the river certainly had an original name befitting a Hollywood star. Father Crespi was the first to write about the Los Angeles River and its surrounding valley, describing it as a “beautiful wide river” running through a “very lush green valley.” As the expedition explored the area, they would have walked along fertile riverbanks where California Lilacs, Arrow Willows and California Sycamore trees flourished, egrets, mule deer, and raccoons roamed and steelhead trout swam through clear water.

This picturesque image of the 51-mile long Los Angeles River is vastly different than the reality of today. While the concreting of 400 miles of the river and its tributaries in the 1930s and 1940’s may have been viewed as necessary for flood control purposes, it dramatically changed the future of this waterway and its surrounding 834 square-mile watershed, unintentionally creating a channel where today urban runoff and pollution from city streets flow untreated to the ocean. Because of this, many people in the Southland don’t even realize that Los Angeles has a river, viewing its graffiti-laden walls as blight instead of the natural resource it is.

Together with community groups such as the Friends of the LA River (FoLAR), TreePeople and the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, the City of Los Angeles is working to change the public’s perception of the river. The 2005 Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, along with planned and constructed Proposition O-funded water quality improvement projects throughout the watershed, features forward-thinking initiatives that will recharge groundwater supplies, improve water quality and create parks for residents and habitat for wildlife, ultimately renewing the river that gave Los Angeles life centuries ago.

One of the LA River projects highlighted in this fall issue of LA Stormwater is the Riverdale Avenue Green Street Pilot Project, an undertaking that will positively impact how streets are constructed here in Los Angeles for generations to come. Constructed using California Coastal Conservancy grant funds, the Riverdale Avenue Green Street creates a new standard for sustainable street construction requiring future roads to include structural stormwater best management practices in their design.

Throughout Hollywood’s history, stars have experienced comebacks, re-emerging with new roles and popularity. The Los Angeles River will return one day to center stage in its original role as a life-giving and sustaining natural resource for our region. As this slowly happens, the City and its partners will proudly come alongside the river, providing support and encouragement as Neustra Señora de los Angeles de la Porciúncula takes the spotlight.

Until then, if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the Los Angeles River whispering, “I’ll be back.”