The Los Angeles River and the Los Angeles Harbor

Los Angeles is running out of water, and time. Are leaders willing to act?

The Los Angeles River, which feeds into Los Angeles Harbor, is one of the most valuable water resources in the United States. It is one of the largest rivers in the country, as measured by size, and is one of the most important drinking water supplies. The river has been under threat ever since the first serious flooding of 1954. That year, the river reached its lowest level of 15.5 feet on the average of 30 years before; it reached an all-time high of 42 feet in 1955.

In the early 1990s, the river’s flow was reduced to a single-digit level on an average of 13 days per year. Although the situation has improved since Hurricane Katrina in 2005—the river reached 10.9 feet on the average of 14 days per year—most areas still rely on a combination of water reservoirs and desalination plants to supply water. The total amount of water that the city produces each year is estimated to be less than 1 billion gallons. Some water can be produced, but most goes toward the city’s water demands.

The river’s low flow and dwindling resources, however, are not the result of natural factors. Instead, they are the result of what the city’s leaders have failed to do—however briefly they may have been willing to do it.

In 1954, President Eisenhower—the year of the river’s peak—had the city build 11 large dams to help control the river’s fluctuating flow. The city had already acquired the largest and most powerful dam in the world—the Hoover Dam in Nevada. The dam was built to generate electricity, but it provided other benefits. With the dam, the city became the first in the world to store water from the River and to use it to sustain the city’s growth. The city saved the water for other uses, including irrigation, flood control, and city water supply.

During Eisenhower’s presidency, the city’s leaders also began to divert water from the river and use it for municipal purposes. In 1959, they built reservoirs to control floods and reduce the city’s annual outflow. In the 1960s, they built many smaller reservoirs to store drinking water for domestic use and to provide more reliable water supply to the city

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