Los Angeles River getting a makeover, thanks to Frank Gehry

Much of the Los Angeles River does looks more like an oversized open-air sewer than a mighty waterway
Much of the Los Angeles River does looks more... 04:19

The El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean remain among the strongest on record, government forecasters say.

Much of the rain that it brings to Southern California this winter will end up in the Los Angeles River, a 51-mile stretch that goes all the way to Long Beach, where the water is simply lost to the sea.

Much of the L.A. River does look more like an oversized open-air sewer than a mighty waterway.

But that could change with a massive reinvention and a world-famous visionary, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said restoring the L.A. river is a "top priority."

L.A. turned to an architect famous for beauti... 00:57

"I think a lot of people didn't realize we had a river," Garcetti said. "People settled here because this was a beautiful land. I want to return that in the midst of a great urban center."

After record flooding in the 1930's, the Army Corps of Engineers locked most of the L.A. River in a concrete straightjacket, transforming it into a flood control channel that sends water out to sea. In a typical storm, it's estimated about half of the rainfall - some 10 billion gallons - is flushed into the ocean.

But now, in the midst of a deepening drought, finding a way to retain that water is vital.

In a move that created a bit of controversy, the city turned to Frank Gehry, an architect famous for beautiful and brash buildings, to help devise a solution.

"Just, they asked me. And I'm a sucker," Gehry said laughing. "It's a big deal and I thought I could help."

Gehry is a sheet metal success story. His buildings -- including the Bilbao Museum in Spain and Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles - seemingly bend to the will of his imagination. His work is being celebrated at the L.A. County Museum of Art and his life story told in a new biography titled, "Building Art."

Gehry and his team have been quietly working for free, employing the high-tech tools they use to design buildings to create a first-of-its-kind, in-depth imaging of the river.

Paul Goldberger, author of "Building Art: The... 02:06

"It has to be a water project first. And then it can be a beautification," Gehry said. "Once we know the rules, then we can play by them. I could imagine an incredible park system. It would really change L.A."

More than one quarter of Los Angelenos live within a mile of the river. Many are hoping to see much of it returned to its wild roots, including George Wolfe, who was nearly arrested in 2008 when he led a group of kayakers down all 51 miles of the river. It had been of limits for more than 70 years.

"I had to draw a line in the sand, I'd say let's remove concrete, sure," said Wolfe, founder of L.A. River Expeditions. "Personally, I think we've had enough of it since it was channelized, and it would be nice to have something a bit more reminiscent of how the river has always been."

But both Gehry and Mayor Garcetti said not to expect all the concrete to disappear. They want a river that's functional, but not so "hard" to love.

"Luckily we live in a time where the technology exists, where we can keep this a safe place from the flooding and bring back the banks," said Garcetti. "And what other city in the world has that kind of opportunity smack dab in the middle."