See the LA River at a fragile crossroads

Photographer Pablo Unzueta explores an urban river at peril and in constant flux.


This photo essay was originally published by Circle of Blue as part of their Water & Climate Fellowship program.

A dead pigeon, its neck twisted, lies on the slanted pavement. In the distance, a lone man makes his way across a slippery concrete riverbed that’s coated in algae. Occasionally, a piece of trash floats by, while a pair of Canadian geese pick casually through the garbage. The riverbed is guarded on both sides by steep hard slopes.

This is the tail end of the Los Angeles River, a waterway at risk.

From its source in the Santa Susana Mountains to its union with the sea at Long Beach, the river snakes through 17 different cities in just 51 miles. It might be a short journey, but there are perils along the way.

The LA River Master Plan, whose goal is to improve the river’s profile over the next 25 years, was approved by Los Angeles County officials in May. The plan seeks to renovate areas near riverside communities that have historically been impacted by racial, environmental and institutional injustices. These communities are home to some of Southern California’s most marginalized populations, and they tend to be more severely affected by climate change than their more affluent neighbors.

Environmentalists, however, have voiced concern over parts of the Master Plan. In addition to reservations about how its water-recycling goals will be implemented, they object to expanding the traditional concrete “hardscapes.” Since the late 1930s, nearly 3.5 million barrels of concrete have transformed the river into an industrialized flood-control channel. The Master Plan would use yet more concrete near communities that are already seriously impacted by industrial pollution and climate-related issues, such as extreme heat and lack of rain.

The Los Angeles River — originally called the Porciúncula River — flows 51 miles before merging with the Pacific Ocean at Long Beach, California. Roberto, a longtime resident and local fisherman, points at the river after an afternoon of fishing. He migrated from Mexico nearly 30 years ago and has lived underneath a bridge for three years, next to the river.

For four months in the spring and summer of 2022, I documented the LA River and the Angelenos who use it — the people and landscapes caught in the complex, widening story of climate change.

The men and women who allowed me to document their lives along the river illustrate the universal relationship we humans have with water, at a time when our access to this essential. resource is at a critical crossroads.

This is the current state of one of LA’s symbolic treasures, an enduring source of life for a unique region's environment, culture and people.

Where the LA River and the Pacific Ocean meet, the Golden Shore Marine Reserve lies against the backdrop of the ports. The biological reserve was originally located at the mouth of the river but was later re-established in a more isolated area. Despite the litter that continually makes its way into the reserve, it remains a haven for wildlife and one of the most important marine preservation areas in the coastal LA region.

An unidentified person crosses an overpass above the LA River in West Long Beach (top left). Train tracks cross the Los Angeles River in South Gate, an industrial community in Los Angeles County (top right). The Willow Street overpass in West Long Beach (bottom right). According to the nonprofit group American Rivers, the Los Angeles River is 95% concrete; it’s often seen less as a natural river than as an artificial, industrialized flood-control channel. Cargo containers in East Compton (bottom left).

Roberto gazes out into the distance near his home underneath a bridge by the LA River. Roberto enjoys catching common carp, or "sewer salmon,” the term some use for any fish able to survive in the river’s polluted and muddy waters.

Roberto sets out to fish for some dinner. Urban fishing is commonly practiced along the Los Angeles River, despite its high levels of pollution and contaminated fish.

Roberto cracks open a wild-caught oyster from the Pacific Ocean. He says he uses the oyster meat for his bait, which also features a makeshift bobber.

Roberto’s silhouette is seen on a painting of the Pacific Ocean. Roberto painted this on the wall of the bridge where he lives, near the LA River. “I don’t know what it is, but the water can make you feel sadness, or it can make you think about your life,” Roberto said. The entire painting is centered around water and the relationship that human beings have with it, he explained.

“It’s beautiful here,” Ricardo told me, regarding the Los Angeles River. Ricardo lives in a nearby encampment and often makes his way down the slanted concrete into the water to look for coins and other useful items. The LA River is one of the main arteries that connect to the heart of LA, home to nearly 4 million people. According to the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board, there are over 21 different pollutants found in the river’s water.

Michael Ruiz, a shift superintendent at the Department of Public Works, Bureau of Sanitation, against the backdrop of the aeration tanks at the Donald C. Tillman Reclamation Plant. The plant provides 27 million gallons of reclaimed water a day to the LA River alone. Approximately 60% of wastewater comes from residents, while 40% comes from industrial sources (top left). At the Donald C. Tillman Reclamation Plant, a mechanical rake begins to separate solid material, such as toilet paper and plastics, from sewage water (top right). A Bureau of Sanitation staffer holds water samples from the LA River inside a laboratory at the Donald C. Tillman Reclamation Plant. The water is tested twice a week for the presence of E. coli bacteria under the federal Clean Water Act” (bottom right). Wastewater filtration nearing the end of the process, where it is mixed with chlorine for disinfection (bottom left).
A lone figure walks along the LA River. Some of the trash that litters the riverbed enters it through the sewage system and will eventually end up in the Pacific Ocean. The southern part of the river is its most industrialized and polluted section.

Tilly Hinton, 42, founder and curator of Los Angeles River X, a digital storytelling project, stands for a portrait on the concrete next to the LA River. “About 3.5 million barrels of concrete got poured into this river from 1938 and the late ’50s,” Hinton said. “What endangers the river is that we don’t respect its importance.”

A lone cyclist rides along the concrete near the Los Angeles River.

Roberto walks along the edge of the Los Angeles River.

The Los Angeles River sparkles in the afternoon light.

Los Angeles-based photographer Pablo Unzueta is a Spanish-speaking first generation Chilean-American photojournalist focused on the themes of inequality, displacement, and environmental justice. He is the recipient of Circle of Blue’s inaugural Water & Climate Fellowship.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.