The Water Agency Project

Leslie Dinkin, MLA/MHC '23

  • FA.21
  • Level: graduate
  • Discipline: Landscape Architecture
  • Instructor: Jessica Henson

In October 2021, the Governor’s office announced that “California is experiencing its worst drought since the late 1800s.” Yet, Southern California, and particularly, the Los Angeles River, is armored for a flood. Sensibly— because on the other hand, flood experts say that a 500-year-flood event, which would wreak havoc to our otherwise dry landscape, “is not only possible, but that it’s happened before.” UCLA Climate Scientist Daniel Swain predicts that this type of storm would cause 1.5 million Californians to evacuate, up to a trillion dollars in damages and worst of all, substantial loss of life.

Using the Los Angeles River as a case study, the Water Agency Project seeks to find balance in this incredible dichotomy plaguing Los Angeles County through design. Managing water in Southern California in the 21st century requires nuance. Thus, this project imagines what is possible if we prioritized the grid-locked river using a multi-perspective approach that considers both the ecology and community while also assessing flood and drought risk.

Since the 1930s, the Los Angeles River has been victim to a single solutionist mindset. Following the devastating flood of 1938, the Army Corps of Engineers set out to solve one problem, and that problem was flooding. The river as a river did not matter anymore. It did not matter that a rich riparian ecosystem that hosted a wide variety of species bordered the river. It did not matter that periodically the flooding that the Army Corp of Engineers set out to fight provided surrounding areas with rich sedimentary deposits supporting an abundance of agriculture and biodiversity throughout Los Angeles. And it certainly did not matter that some people in fact loved the river. In the 20 years that followed the 1938 flood, every single part of the river was altered, and we can see the impacts of our 20th century infrastructural choices today. People living along the river corridor are among the most vulnerable to heat despite living next to a water source. Because of the 710 freeway, these people are also exposed to some of the worst air quality in the city. Notably, the same corridor has some of the highest park needs in the county.

The Water Agency Project wants to break this cycle. Unfortunately, a naturalized river would need to be seven times as wide and would displace over 100,000 residents. Instead, the Water Agency Project suggests rerouting the 710 through the Alameda Corridor, doubling the size of the river bed and allowing for a semi-naturalized, semi-urban river. We moved rivers for freeways; we can move freeways for rivers. The design for a new Los Angeles River includes low flow braided channels, terraced banks, detention ponds, riparian woodlands and park space, multi-use trails, dry meadows, locked-in affordable housing and green streets connecting neighborhoods to the river.

Through this hybrid approach, it is possible to undo the environmental and cultural damage committed through concretizing our river— and to envision similar revolutions for other water-defensive infrastructure.