Here Comes the Flood: A United States Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper, “Southern California Floods of January, 1916,” 1918

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

So far during the 2019-2020 rainfall season, we’ve had about seven inches of rain in greater Los Angeles and the totals for November and December were about double the so-called normal, as determined by the National Centers for Environmental Information based on averages from about 1980 to 2010 (that average is due to be updated this year).

Sometimes, we get our precipitation earlier in the season than what is usual and this year may well turn out to reflect that.  January and February generally tend to be the wettest months with March usually having more rainfall than December.  So, we’ll see what the rest of the season brings us.


Past posts on this blog have highlighted periods of intense flooding in greater Los Angeles, including the winters of 1913-14 and 1926-27, and also discussed some of the planning that was launched by Los Angeles County in the 1910s in what were the first stages of massive flood control projects that were later taken on by the United States Army’s Corps of Engineers.

Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is an important early paper from the federal government, specifically the United States Geological Survey within the Department of the Interior on “Southern California Floods of January, 1916,” issued in 1918.  Though the report deals mainly with the heavy rainfall and serious destruction wrought in San Diego County, there is some interesting historical information about the Los Angeles area and descriptions of the local watersheds and lesser damage that took place in our region.

The report by Harry D. McGlashan and Fred C. Ebert, noted that “aside from the loss of life, the most serious loss was that resulting from the destruction of the results of the work of generations on well-developed farm lands and their improvements.”  Dams, bridges, railroad lines, and other infrastructure were also heavily affected but, the authors continued, “it requires a long time to efface completely the track of a flood in a fertile, intensively cultivated river valley.”


The compilation of the report was “of value not only in efforts to solve the general problem of flood prevention, but also in planning the complete utilization of the water resources of the region.”  It should be added here that, by 1918, enormous strides had been made in the United States in flood control and water resource management, with obviously much more to be done in these areas.  Locally, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed five years prior, was an enormous boon to development, including the expansion of agriculture, but flood control awaited planning and execution on more than just the smallest of scales.

While speaking mainly of needs in San Diego County, McGlashan and Ebert wrote that, for example, “reservoir sites have not been developed because the expense is apparently not yet warranted,” but concluded that “the value of these sites as reservoirs for flood protection is sufficient to justify the county in assuming part of the cost of construction or assessing it against the properties to be protected.”


Los Angeles County certainly thought this was the case, especially after the massive damage done in the 1914 floods, and actively prepared plans for aggressive flood control measures.  It turned out, however, that the scale of work was beyond what this large and prosperous county could do and the federal government eventually stepped in to assume control.  Even then, it took the “big government” philosophy of the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal bureaucratic state to direct the resources needed for such work.

In any case, this early example of federal research noted that “a fundamental requirement for this study is a knowledge of precipitation and stream flow” preparatory for “the duty of designing and building structures” such as dams, water release stations, and others.


The heaviest rainfall came over a 24-hour span on 26 and 27 January, though a storm system came in about a week and a half prior after passing through the Hawaiian islands.  Rainfall totals were, again, much higher in the San Diego area, including a single-day high on the 27th of over 11 inches at Santa Ysabel and Warner’s Ranch.

In our area, the deluge was much more moderate, with about 3 inches in that one day in Anaheim, three inches in Alhambra on the 27th, about 4.5 inches at “Baldwin Acres” or Baldwin Park, and between two and three inches on the 27th in Compton, Long Beach, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles.


Also provided were charts of rainfall history at San Diego and Los Angeles, the latter dating back to 1877-78, when official totals began in that city.  A post here in 2016 reviewed these statistics through the mid-1930s, but suffice it to say that the mean was about 16 inches, with a low of under five inches taking place in 1897-98 and nearly matched in 1909-10, while the high was over forty inches in 1883-84, when tremendous destruction was wrought over the region.  There was over thirty-three inches in the 1888-89 year and about twenty-four inches in 1908-09, 1913-14, and 1914-15.

The January 1916 storm claimed 28 lives, most in San Diego County and involving a dam failure in the Otay Valley.  Four persons died in Orange County, including two persons in a home swept into the Santa Ana River.  There was $1.5 million in property damage to San Diego area farmland, with a third of that amount ravaged in Los Angeles County and lesser amounts in other counties.


There was also over $1.2 million damage in water supply elements in San Diego County and paltry amounts in Riverside and Orange counties.  As for roads and bridges, San Diego had about $650,000 and Los Angeles about 40% of that amount.  With respect to railroads, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe reported about $1 million in damage on the line between Los Angeles and San Diego, including tracks, trestles and bridges washed out, with the worst of it in northern San Diego County. Southern Pacific estimated about $216,000 in damage, but no specifics were given.  The Los Angeles and Salt Lake had a modest $50,000 in losses in damage to bridges and some washed-out tracks.  The Pacific Electric Railway streetcar system reported about $140,000 in damage, including the loss of bridge at Santa Ana.  San Diego lines experienced major problems, as well.  Telephone and telegraph companies and utilities also reported issues with their systems.

A very interesting historical section concerned a “Comparison of Flood of 1916 With Previous Floods in Southern California” and here the recording of material dates to a drought in 1770, the year after the founding of Mission San Diego.  Droughts were listed for 1791, in which it was said there was “no rain for whole year;” 1826-1828, when Jonathan Temple settled in Los Angeles; 1840-41 as “dryest year ever known;” 1856-57 “dryest in 20 years;” 1862-63; the years of 1869-71; and 1897-1900 and 1910-1913 more recently.


With floods, the identified years in this list were 1811; 1815; 1825 (“great floor changed course of Santa Ana River” and, it should be added, the Los Angeles River); 1841-42 (“wettest year ever known” and the winter after the Workman family came to Los Angeles), 1849-50 (“one of the wettest and most floody winters”), parts of 1850-1856; and 1883-84 (“wettest winter known”).  Notably, 1861-62, which has been described as “Noah’s Flood” because of almost 40 consecutive days of rain from Christmas Eve through late January and estimates of up to 50 inches during the season, which omitted.  The list merely says that 1857-62 were years of “medium rainfalls.”

There is, however, a statement from James M. Guinn, a Los Angeles resident and educator who also compiled much regional history and who said that an 1822 flood “covered the lowlands and rose to a greater height than ever before” (this was when the Los Angeles Plaza was washed out and relocated); 1851-52 was a “severe flood year in southern California” with 46 inches in two months in the San Joaquin Valley, as measured by a doctor who later lived in Los Angeles; and 1862, when the Santa Ana River was four feet in depth and flooded three miles to the Coyote Hills, where Fullerton and La Habra are today.  He said it rained thirty straight days from Christmas eve onward.


While most of the report concerns descriptions of watershed systems and reports of precipitation during January 1916 in San Diego, including photographs of damaged areas, there are a few pages at the end of the report for the greater Los Angeles area.  The Santa Ana River Basin’s general features notes the 100-mile long river’s course from the San Bernardino Mountains east of Highland and to the coast through central Orange County.  It was stated “there is continuous surface flow from mountain to sea only during winter floods.”

The San Gabriel River watershed is described as a basin of fifty miles in length and 700 square miles of drainage area, with a third of that in the San Gabriel, then known as the Sierra Madre, Mountains, where the headwaters emanate from the west slope of Mount Baldy (San Antonio) and other peaks, including Islip at the back of San Gabriel Canyon.


The report mentions the “wide wash of sand, gravel, and boulders” below the mouth of that canyon, where for decades sand and gravel companies have feasted off the deposits and the narrow passage at “The Narrows,” or Whittier Narrows.  The river is described as 65 or 70 miles in length.  The measuring station is near Azusa at the canyon mouth with records dating back to 1894 for gauging flow, depth, discharge and other conditions.

Finally, the Los Angeles River basin is described with the formation of the river from Tujunga, Pacoima and smaller creeks coming from the San Gabriels northeast of the city and the water usually vanished amid sand and gravel areas, except during heavy flood years, until it hit bedrock formations and came to the surface.

The Arroyo Seco, originating in the mountains above Pasadena and Altadena, joins the river and a measurement station was situated there near the pigeon farm wiped out in the flood of 1914, though records only went back to 1910.  A series of specific measurements of flood flow was also provided from an area near the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, into each of which about half the flow from the river emptied.


This federal report, again, is an early example, of documentation of the effects on regional flooding that helped build a portfolio of information used for planning of flood mitigation efforts in subsequent decades.  The system developed was really built to take flood waters and runoff directly to the ocean and, when the region was still largely rural and agricultural and chemicals, pesticides and other pollutants were minimal and imported water more than abundant, it succeeded as planned.

After World War II, however, as massive population growth and suburban development took place and as the use of all manner of industrial and commercial materials (refuse as well as the aforementioned chemicals, pesticides and so on) skyrocketed, the discharge system proved increasingly problematic for the health of the ocean along our coastal regions.


Moreover, our water supply, despite more siphoning from the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta, has become more precarious and the effects of climate change will continue to exacerbate the problem.  There is increasing pressure to rethink our aging flood control system to not only repair and retrofit dams, storage areas and the like, but to remove some of these to allow the return of the river systems and to have more groundwater recharging basins for retaining water storage.

All of this, of course, is complicated, challenging and costly, though reports like this help provide historical perspective as we work to confront the issues involved with flood control and water storage for our thirsty urban metropolitan area.

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