I recently attended the American Bar Association's 35th Annual Water Law Conference in Los Angeles. On opening day, we toured parts of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Project. As often happens when I visit other cities, I am reminded of how incredibly lucky we Oregonians are to have so many beautiful rivers—even those that run right through our towns and cities. Try to picture the Willamette in Portland as just a trickle of water running in the bottom of a cement canyon—that's the LA River, and what a sad-looking river it is.
A hundred years ago, both the Los Angeles River and the Willamette River flowed in braided channels through wide, vegetated floodplains—home to Native Americans sustained by the local fish and wildlife. Trappers, traders, and missionaries, followed by waves of European settlers, filled the floodplains with homes and industries. When the rivers regularly delivered devastating floods, flood protection became a priority. In LA, the Corps of Engineers—always up to the task of river control—came to the rescue, channelizing and encasing the river in concrete all the way through LA to carry high flows and protect the surrounding areas from flooding.
Here at home, the Corps built several flood control dams upstream, while other "river improvement projects" happened in Portland. The Port of Portland, formed in 1891, was originally tasked with dredging and maintaining a 25-foot-deep shipping channel in the Willamette and Columbia. After destructive floods in the developing "downtown," the City built the west-side seawall in the late '20s. The Port and private developers filled and developed much of the floodplain, further hemming in the river. But Portland never completely turned its back on the Willamette, as LA seems to have done with its river. Today's Willamette is not the river of a century ago, but it is still much more of a real river than the LA River. Throughout the City, there are still lots of places where people and wildlife can get close to—and even in—the river.
The purpose of the LA river tour was to show us the very early phases of a decades-long, multi-agency, multi-billion-dollar plan to take out some of the concrete, make the Los Angeles River a little bit of a river again, and invite the city's residents back to its banks. Portland has a River Plan, too, that aims to improve the river ecosystem, increase public access, and support the working harbor. But we have a lot more to work with than LA and the work is not nearly as daunting or expensive. The poor Los Angeles River will never look like the Willamette—albeit an unfair comparison, since the 187-mile-long Willamette carries in excess of 60,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) through downtown Portland at this time of year, whereas the 51-mile-long Los Angeles River was probably running at less than 100 cfs on the day of our tour.
All the same, Portland is lucky to have the Willamette flowing through our city—just one of the ways that Portland is not like Los Angeles.