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Everything You Always Wanted To Know About The L.A. River, All On One Site

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Did you know that 25 percent of California's population lives within 30 miles of the L.A. River? Or that the L.A. River watershed has the potential to reclaim 28.6 billion gallons of groundwater a year through capture and infiltration, which would result in a 14 percent reduction in our regional water import needs? What about the fact that26 percent of all L.A. County Metro stops are within a mile of the L.A. River?

These are just a few of the great many nuggets of information available in the "L.A. River Index," a website launched earlier this month by River LA(née LA River Corp née Los Angeles River Revitalization Corp), Gehry Partners, OLIN, and Geosyntec. The index, which is beautifully designed, centralizes the decades of data relative to the river’s past, present and future, pulling from myriad master plans, civic reports and many a study, almost all of which had previously existed in isolation.

Part of what makes river revitalization so complicated is the sheer number of jurisdictions and agencies that touch its banks. The channelized L.A. River as we know it today was created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and it still technically falls under their management purview, but it also runs through 17 different cities (that's 17 different mayors with an opinion!), the County of L.A., and the reach of myriad agencies, including the Bureau of Engineering and Bureau of Sanitation.

As Eli Kaufman of River LA told us, "So many people have say say so over the river that it’s hard to get anything done."

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Far more cities than just L.A. intersect and neighbor the river. This map shows the adjacent and neighboring cities. (Map courtesy of River LA)
And that's just the jurisdiction aspect. The revitalization campaign itself is equally fractious, with two main camps. River LA, which began in 2007 as a nonprofit started by the city to spur river-adjacent development, represents Team Gehry, and an arguably more commercialized future version of the river.

On the other side of the banks are activist and pioneer Lewis MacAdams and his organization Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR), which he describes as his "40-year artwork to bring the river back to life," and all those who have walked alongside him, fighting for an equitable river. MacAdams and company have been crusading river heroes for decades, long before most Angelenos even knew El Río de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula had a history—or future—beyond its concrete channel.

And now, as the Army Corps of Engineers gets closer to finally making good on their billion-dollar plans for the river, the gulf between the two groups is more apparent than ever, and many are worried, as our friends at Curbed LA wrote in March, that "those dedicated advocates and organizers, along with the low-income people who have long lived along the river, are being pushed aside for more monied interests." As Curbed continued:

The shift is literalized in the river's master plan: originally prepared in 2007 with input from locals, river-lovers, and prolific local landscape designer Mia Lehrer, the project was secretly turned over sometime in the past year and a half or so to flashy starchitect Frank Gehry, who's never been involved in this kind of work, in LA or anywhere else. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti was plain about it, saying Gehry would "elevate this so the civic elite of L.A. realizes this is not a hobby of the activists but one of the grand projects of our time." But in an excellent overview of the river's past, present, and potential future at The Nation, Richard Kreitner has found that Gehry is just the beginning in the gentrification of the LA River rehab.

There's clearly a lot to parse here, and thousands upon thousands of words have already been written about the complicated history and future of our dear river. But, for now, back to the index at hand. There is plenty to fear about a top-down Gehry future for the river, but I, for one, would like to see this index as a good sign. It was clear while speaking with Kaufman, River LA's communications director, that he had a deep respect for the decades of work that had preceded their tenure, and a strong desire for the index to serve as a workable public resource. He also talked about pushing to bring in the voice of the people, and continually populating their index with new data and insights for the community.

"It's very much a living document," Kaufman said.

"The number one thing," he said, "is that we found it very difficult to decipher all the different current uses of the river channel and that also informed our challenge in thinking about what was possible...Our first instinct was literally to gather all the different master plans [and documents]," he explained, and to create not just a gathering place for the information, but also a common language for deciphering it.

"One of the ideal hopes for the index is that it becomes a place where people can start to see the common threads along the 51 miles and recognize a river that doesnt see boundaries, or jurisdiction," Kaufman added. It's also promising that a detailed "Public Health and Social Equity" section figures prominently among the nine categories used to sort information in the index.

What the index is notably lacking, especially if it's geared toward public use, is any guidance on how to actually use the river (i.e. where to visit, activities, etc.). For that, we highly a highly recommend a visit to Play The LA River's fantastic Project 51 guide to the river and, of course, the FoLAR site.

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The future is still to be seen, but for now the index does offer a true wealth of information and insights, likely of interest to both friends and foes of the Gehry plan.

Watch Frank Gehry discuss the LA River Index:

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