“Water Has A Combined Power for Good or Evil”: The Report of J.W. Reagan, Los Angeles County Flood Control District, 2 January 1917

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s print edition Los Angeles Times includes an article by Sammy Roth and previously published in Boiling Point, an e-newsletter headlined “Colorado River reaches its climate tipping point” which notes that climate change caused warmer temperatures along with unsustainable allocations of water have created a situation in which “the river is in trouble.” In the early 20th century, the unslakable thirst for that precious resource in a relentlessly exapanding greater Los Angeles led to using increasingly sophisticated forms of engineering to create massive projects to bring water to the region.

Key among these was the 1913 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a marvel of the era as it tapped water from the Owens Valley in remote Inyo County in eastern California and funneled it south well over 200 miles to the Angel City. At the time, it seemed that there was an almost illimitable supply for the staggering growth that took place in those first decades of the century and the Colorado River project that was planned for much of the 1920s and completed in the next decade augmented supply for areas surrounding Los Angeles. Later, the California Aqueduct, for example, added more to the burgeoning demand, while other thirsty metropolitan areas like Las Vegas and Phoenix led to complex allocation agreements and areas of northern México were increasingly pinched in access to Colorado River water.


The enhanced expectations of what water engineering could do for greater Los Angeles throughout much of the last century have led to increasing concerns of what we are going to do as we’ve reached the end of the first two decades of this one. Roth’s interview with Jeff Kightlinger, the general manager of the massive and powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and who planned to retire as of Friday but is staying on for another year because of the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a fascinating, if sobering, look at the what the future of water delivery from the Colorado is likely to involve.

A point reinforced by Kightlinger is that “of the last 20 years, about 15 have been below normal in California” and that “there is a shrinking pool of water,” leading to renewed, but slow-moving, efforts such as “what would be the largest recycled water facility in the nation” with the Los Angeles County Sanitation District’s water treatment plant in Carson “that’s currently sending 250,000 to 300,000 acre-feet of wastewater out to the ocean every year.” A roughly $4 billion project, however, and which would take up to fifteen years to complete, would “build a recycling plant and use that water as replenishment for the major groundwater basins near L.A.”


A key element of Kightlinger’s comments is the use of “normal” in defining rainfall totals, because, when that term was adopted, our climate was not only different than today, but was very likely anomalous in the larger span of time. In other words, it was during an unusually wet period at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries from which the idea of “normal” rainfall was conceived and adopted. Another significant notion is the sending of water, treated or runoff, to the ocean, rather than capturing and storing it for use. When regional authorities began the creation of a large-scale flood control system, starting in the 1910s, as water supplies were more than plentiful, the result was to develop channelization and other “improvements” to get storm waters and other run off as efficiently and efficiently expedited to the sea.

A crucial document in these early planning stages as a report of John W. Reagan, the chief engineer of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, and which was adopted by the county’s Board of Supervisors on 2 January 1917. The purpose of the document was to make recommendations “upon the control of flood waters in this District by correction of rivers, diversion and care of washes, building of dikes and dams, protecting public highways, private property and Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.” In all, there were over thirty projects listed with an aggregate cost estimate of $4.45 million, with over a quarter of this for protection of the harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach and much smaller major ones for the Los Angeles River, in two sections, the Arroyo Seco and Devil’s Gate Dam above Pasadena, the Pacoima River (Wash), the San Gabriel River, also in two portions, and flood control reservoirs at Pomona and San Dimas. The majority of projects were under $100,000 and mainly addressed issues in creeks and washes.


There were five key elements in Reagan’s work, including a broad description of the proposed work; plans, with profiles, cross-sections and specifications; descriptions of affected areas in terms of rights-of-way, easements and property “proposed to be taken, acquired or injured in carrying out said work;” a map of the project area; and the cost estimate. As for the work proposed, it “resolves itself into four parts,” these being: building large and small dams in the mountains; shoring up the banks of smaller streams and spreading and storing water from them “for beneficial use;” straightening rivers and improving their banks; and protecting harbors and shipping interests.

After summarizing proposed work for a dozen locations involving tall dams, check dams, reservoirs, spreading grounds, course straightening and other elements, Reagan made an extraordinary statement that

In handling the Los Angeles River, the Rio Hondo and the San Gabriel River, it is realized that the water has a combined power for good or evil. We shall build training works so that this power of the river, for good, may be utilized in governing and straightening the present tortuous channel.

This assignation of moral qualities to water is striking from an engineer, whose job it was to use science and technology to solve the problems of flood control and he then went into the technical details of pilings, wire fencing, brush and rock fill, and other components. Notably, Reagan added that “in all instances the growth of willows and all trees with a good, deep, firm root system will be encouraged along the banks and behind and in and among this bank protection.” Later policy was to change so that channels were concretized or banks were otherwise denuded of vegetation, though there are increasing calls for having a more natural form to local watercourses.


One unusual situation comprised the “detritus cone” of the San Gabriel River, a phenomenon over the millenia in which granite rock and other material were washed down from the mountains and piled up at the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon and for several miles south, after which the water suddenly gushed out to the surface (Father Juan Crespí of the Portolá Expedition of 1769 wrote in his journal that summer that the water was as if it was boiling when it arose from its underground course through this cone.) Reagan’s plan called for “a channel 300 or 400 feet wide and about four feet deep” to be carved through the cone, with excavated material “placed in levees on either side of the stream . . . and the levees to act as a spreading ground for the waters, that they may be absorbed into underground storage for beneficial use.”

At the harbor area, a dike was to be built to divert waters from the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers to a location “generally speaking, between the Long Beach Harbor and the residential portion of the City of Long Beach” and this course to have levees with “sufficient highway bridges . . . provided across the channel.” This brought up the question of property acquisition so that “the first step was to secure rights-of-way for official channels” and Reagan was proud to note “I have not only been securing this right-of-way for you, but have secured it without a cent of cost to the Los Angeles County Flood Control District.”


Otherwise, he observed that, on 15 January 1916, “it was tentatively agreed that data and an estimate for protective improvements to the amount of $3,600,000 should be prepared for submission to the voters of the District for a bond issue.” But, the engineer went on, “many land owners, bankers, civic and commercial organizations have represented that realty values and securities have been so depreciated on account of damage by flood waters, that necessary steps should be taken to correct the same even though it takes a larger amount.” The reference here to is a period of flooding that took place in the region in the last part of that month and a United States Geological Survey paper addressing those floods was featured here previously.

The report than went into detail concerning the thirty-plus proposed projects and the recommended improvements entailed in each. In a section discussing the major watercourses and the portion covering the San Gabriel Valley, Reagan wrote that “many people have come into my office and stated that the amount of water flowing in the various channels of the County is continuously on the increase, and asked me to give them an explanation of the fact” and added that “the majority of them are of the opinion that the increased runoff in their particular locality is caused by the diversion of waters by thir neighbors higher up.”


The engineer replied that, while “unfortunately in some instances this is the case,” it was mostly a matter of more runoff “due to perfectly natural causes” including “the increase of impervious surface due to the construction of roads and buildings, and the increased runoff due to the cultivation of the fields” though whether this was “natural” is another question. As more streets were being paved with “oiled macadam” this caused more “immediate, precipitous runoff” and, “the former native vegetatoin, which was a retarding or mulcing agent has been removed and in most cases the land carefully graded down [for development]. . . until there is practically no retention of the rain water upon the area.” Reagan added “I have letters from many old settlers of the San Gabriel Valley who say that one inch of rain at the present time produces more runoff than three inches did thirt years ago, and I am quite convinced that their statement is not only conservative now, but that the storm runoff has not yet reached its maximum.”

Moreover, “the improper cultivation of the foothill slopes,” which replaced natural vegetation and lacking a winter crop to hold the soil, produced much detritus that clogged roadside ditches and small water courses. At the harbors, engineers employed by the cities as well as federal colleagues, “assure me that the greater part of the silt which is deposited . . . comes from only a few miles inland” and a study found that such debris “has been found to consist very largely of silt similar to that found from five to ten miles back from the ocean front and not to be made up of the silts that are washed down from mountain slopes.”


As he concluded this discussion, Reagan noted the variance between the amount of their lands “owners have desired the storm waters to pass through” and what “Nature demonstrates she must have for storms during flood times” with the difference being a demonstration of “the futility of man trying to resist Nature” so that, when floods come irregularly, “they are no respecters of man’s idea of small channels.” The engineer hastened to add that this

shouid not be taken as a criticism, but as an appeal for a better understanding of some misunderstood conditions, and for pulling together and helping to bear each others’ burdens.

Included with the report is a large map showing the “General Location of Channels and Works for Flood Regulation” and it really illustrates the emphasis placed on the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo systems because of the immense flow of water coming out of the San Gabriel Mountains through those two courses and the various washes and creeks tributary to them, while there is much less comparatively with the Los Angeles River. A few creeks in the northeast part of the county feeding from the San Gabriels; some projects along the Santa Clara River, including where the St. Francis Dam was built and then failed a little over a decate later, and in the modern Santa Clarita area; Ballona Creek; and some washes coming out of the Santa Monica Mountains above Hollywood and nearby areas are also represented. A legend of plates for various project locations indicates that these were in a separate plate book filed on the same date.


This document is a vital early one for flood control planning in Los Angeles County. Much of what was proposed was completed, if not as originally envisioned or even by the county, as the federal government, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on responsibility for much of the future work done in the region for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the financial capability of the local agency to carry out projects became increasingly untenable, especially as the Great Depression and World War II years hit local governments hard, but a dramatically expanded federal government could take on more public works projects such as flood control.

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