by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A historically dry winter this season, with only between one and two inches of rain recorded since the first of October, compared to 16 to 18 last year, has brought back the likelihood of the official pronouncement of a drought. In Los Angeles, it has been eight-five years since there was a “zero” in the inches column for rainfall and the official reading is 0.01. Up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where the snowpack provides much of the state’s water, the conditions are “dismal,” with readings at stations varying from 47% to zero of normal.
This has led to a noticeable and unlikely flip-flop in weather conditions in the state and on the east coast compared to what was experienced earlier in the winter. The unseasonably warm temperatures we experienced through most of December has led to colder, yet dry, readings recently. Frost, following hot weather, could wreak havoc on California crops. Yet, back east there are record recordings of the thermometer, with Wednesday numnbers at Washington, D.C. at 82, New York City at 78, and other areas as high as the mid-80s.
The use of “normal” or “average” rainfall is one that has been much discussed over the years, with some climatologists observing that the establishment of benchmarks decades ago came during a period of historically, and abornmal or above-average, precipitation. This has led people to believe that a certain level of rain and snow are normal and average when, in the long view, these terms are misleading. How this ties into climate change is also significant.
That historically aberrant period of wet conditions meant some significant flooding in greater Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which not only meant damage and destruction in the region to lives and property, but also set into motion a massive flood control program. Work was initiated locally, but later became the province of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as many dams, flood control channels (including our natural rivers, creeks, and washes) and other measures were enacted. Huge water storage, diversion and delivery systems were also carried out, starting with the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s opening in 1913 and followed by projects that tapped such sources as the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta in succeeding decades.
Today’s post highlights a quartet of press photographs that help to document the complex and multi-layered issue of how we manage water in our region and state. They are images of flooded areas in greater Los Angeles and all are dated 25 February 1927.
The first image is stated by a caption as being in north Los Angeles. This is a bit of a vague identifier, as it could mean the eastern San Fernando Valley within city limits or in northeast Los Angeles near Highland Park or Eagle Rock. In any case, the view shows three men in the midst of a flooded street with one one of them pulling a rope, another holding part of it, and the third appearing to be where the rope is tied to a manhole cover. If this is correct, they would obviously be trying to open up a drain to take in more water to clear the street. The yards of nearby homes are flooded, too.
The second photograph shows a swollen Los Angeles River with water overflowing its banks as it passed through Universal City and Universal Studios, a portion of which is along the banks between rolling hills. It seems evident that some of the river’s banks collapsed due to the torrents of water generated by the season’s storms.
The third view was taken near the intersection of Sixth and Berendo streets not far west of Westlake (now MacArthur) Park and shows a large circular sinkhole of probably twenty or more feet in diameter in the midst of one of the thoroughfares. There are about two dozen men gathered around the hole and one of them appears to be helping another man out of it. In the background may be several large roadside billboards that would have likely been on one of the corners of the streets.
Finally, closer to the Homestead, is a photo of a group of about a dozen automobiles and other vehicles in an “auto park” (as the brief caption on the reverse termed it) along Valley Boulevard in El Monte. There is a significant volume and depth of water and, in the background, there seems to be a watercourse, which would likely either be the Rio Hondo, or older channel of the San Gabriel River, or the newer course of that river.
The Homestead, in fact, was also inundated with rain and flooding as San José Creek, which formed the south boundary of the 92-acre parcel owned then by Walter P. Temple, overflowed its banks. The agricultural fields adjacent to the creek were overwhelmed with water, but the wisdom of Temple’s grandparents, William and Nicolasa Workman, in establishing their residence on a rise of higher ground manifested itself in situations like these. Temple’s own home, La Casa Nueva, was nearing completion next to the Workman House and avoided damage.
San José Creek, which had water year-round most of the time, was, decades later, transformed into a flood control channel, directing storm water, runoff and sewage down to the San Gabriel River, where a water treatment plant is today near the interchange of the 60 and 605 freeways.
As for our situation over ninety years after these photographs were taken, we’re highly unlike to see flooding of this magnitude. There are some forecasts suggesting a storm about the first of March “that could be a decent rainmaker,” according to an article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times. As the piece concluded, however,
But few are holding out hope that even a March miracle could bring California to the average [again, that word!] annual precipitation level. “Its virtually impossible to end up at average snowpack by April 1,” [National Weather Service meteorologist Scott] Mc Guire said.
Water has always been a particularly precious resource for an often parched and thirsty greater Los Angeles, whether we grapple with floods or other consequences of wet weather, like those shown in these 1927 images, or are mired in drought, as with this year.