by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As a parched greater Los Angeles enters its sixth consecutive year of drought and forecasts for a La Niña-dominated winter predict another dry and warm winter (click here for a Los Angeles Times article from five days ago), we are reminded of the historic significance of our situation.
Articles routinely point to the fact that official rainfall records were not kept until 1877, though there were certainly unofficial tallies in preceding years. For example, it has been often stated that the terrible drought of 1862-1864 brought only about 4 inches of rain each season.
Of course, at that time greater Los Angeles relied entirely on natural sources of water for its domestic, industrial and agricultural needs and this remained the case until the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913.
It is interesting then to study a rainfall chart issued in 1937 by Security-First National Bank of Los Angeles and which presented detailed information on regional precipitation totals for the previous sixty years. The information wasn’t just by fiscal (that is, July to June) year, but broke down the figures by month.
What is fascinating to see are the extremely wet and the bone-dry years and then correlate these to flood years which then emphasized the desire for regional flood control measures or to the havoc punishing droughts wreaked on the area. This is true for the wider region as well as for members of the Temple family when they owned the Homestead in different phases (1877-1899 and 1917-1932).
The first official winter tally of 1877-78 showed over 21 inches of rain and there were some heavy floods during that period. A greater amount of precipitation and flooding took place in 1883-84, when over 38 inches were recorded–this remains the highest total to date. In 1889-90 another heavy rainfall year brought some 35 inches to the region. This was followed a few years later, when 26 inches were tallied for 1892-93.
For the next twenty years, however, rainfall totals were significantly lower. For five of the seven years between 1893 and 1900, levels were under 10 inches. This coincided with a national depression that erupted in 1893 and for farmers like John H. Temple, who owned the Homestead from 1888 to 1899 and enjoyed higher rainfall for those first few years, that period was devastating. How much drought conditions and failed crops played a role in Temple’s loss of the Homestead due to foreclosure on loans he took out is not certain, but it had to have some part to play.
From 1899 to 1917, the Homestead was owned by three successive “non-family” members and, from 1902 to 1909, there was remarkable degree of consistency in rainfall totals, with five of those seven years tallying between 19 and 20 inches. Then, came two major flood years, though the rainfall totals actually came nowhere near the heavy years of 1883-84 and 1889-90.
In 1913-14, the region experienced about 24 inches of rain and in 1915-16 a tad under 20 inches. It wasn’t the entire year’s accumulation, though, that was the story. Rather, it was the extreme amounts of rain that fell in specific periods, especially for a region that had many more people than twenty to twenty-five years previous. In January 1914, for example, 10 inches of rain fell and all within a few days, followed by a 7-inch tally the next month. Then, in January 1916 about 70% of the total precipitation for the year came, totaling over 13 inches. For perspective, there were 17 previous years dating back to 1877 that had total rainfalls less than that one month alone.
At the end of 1917, Walter P. Temple and his wife Laura Gonzalez bought the Homestead and the family maintained ownership for almost 15 years. The year 1918-19 was the driest in fifteen years, but the ranch had been leased and the Temples didn’t take control of the property until 1919.
For the next thirteen years, during which the Homestead was a walnut ranch, rainfall was generally quite a bit less than in preceding years. The winter of 1921-22 saw the greatest levels, though the year ended at just under 2o inches. There were significant periods of flooding locally in two successive years, those of 1925-26 and 1926-27.
In the first of those years, it was a rare April deluge that brought 7 1/2 inches to the area–flooding most often took place in the first weeks of a calendar year. Then, in February 1927, 9 inches of rain fell and the Homestead was awash in floodwaters from San José Creek, which formed the southern boundary of the Homestead. Not surprisingly, this creek is now a flood control channel funneling runoff from the San Gabriel Mountains near Mt. Baldy into the San Gabriel River and then to the ocean.
In the five remaining years, from 1927 to 1932, of the Temples’ ownership of the Homestead, totals of rain were under the sixty-year average on the chart, but only one was below 10 inches and that year, 1927-28, followed the two heavier years and was barely in single digits.
The problem for Walter Temple, though, wasn’t dry weather, it was the drying up of his finances. Having borrowed money from California Bank in 1926 to finance the completion of his lavish La Casa Nueva and his business endeavors in oil and real estate, his drought was of a different kind. By summer 1932, all options were played out and the bank foreclosed. Two years prior, the family vacated the ranch and leased it to a boys’ military academy trying to raise enough capital to save the property.
Looking at contemporary conditions and then comparing them to the past can be illuminating and instructive in many ways. It has been said that the concept of “normal” rainfall developed from 1877 onwards is a false sense of “normal” because of unusually wet weather conditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that do not reflect the longer view over time.
Then, there’s the matter of climate change and its impacts on what some climate scientists refer to as our “mega drought” or even the worst in a millenium (click here for a 2015 National Geographic article on this).
Whatever the future holds for us, in this example, the study of the past should be a necessary and essential part, both in terms of analyzing rainfall patterns as well as how we use land and water. This chart is one tool for seeing where we were over an extended period of time in the late 1800s and early 1900s and then comparing that with our current situation.