“Freed From the Menace to Life, Property and Commercial Welfare”: Reports of the Board of Engineers on Flood Control to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, July 1915, Part Five

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Continuing and completing the detailed discussion of the important early study, from July 1915, of how to address flood control in Los Angeles County, we look primarily at the report of James W. Reagan, one of the quintet comprising the Board of Engineers appointed by the Board of Supervisors to make comprehensive recommendations on the subject.

Before getting to that, there is an interesting section on “Notes on Flood Flows of Streams” by Joseph B. Lippincott, a key member of the team that developed the Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed two years earlier and whose report was highlighted in an earlier part of this post. Lippincott wrote that his portion of the report was an update on flood flow data provided in June 1914 following the intense flooding of the prior February.

The Los Angeles River looking north toward the North Main Street bridge, 4 May 1914.

Notably, there were two measurement areas utilized at that time that were replaced by others for the current report, including along the San Gabriel River at Whittier Boulevard, which was literally a stone’s throw from the historic adobe house of ex-governor Pío Pico, the last chief executive of Mexican-era California and which is now the Pío Pico State Historic Park.

The other deleted locale was “on the Rio Hondo at Mission Boulevard,” this latter thoroughfare being San Gabriel Boulevard and being another stone’s throw from the Basye Adobe, where the family of Walter P. Temple and Laura Gonzalez, who purchased the Homestead in late 1917, resided and were waiting for a lease of their propety to Standard Oil Company of California, now Chevron, to lead to test wells—ultimately, a flood of oil was unearthed at the lease propelling the Temples to significant wealth.

Santa Anita Wash, 500 feet north of Foothill Boulevard in present-day Arcadia, 11 May 1914.

It isn’t so much the statistical detail, important as this was for the planning process, that is striking for the non-specialist, but the twenty-one photos of the Los Angeles River, the San Gabriel River, the Río Hondo, Arroyo Seco, Big Tujunga Creek, Pacoima Creek, Eaton Wash,, Santa Anita Wash, the Little and Big Dalton washes, San Dimas Wash, and Ballona Creek.

Many of these photos were taken in mountain and canyon locations which have not changed that appreciably in the century and a little more so since, but other locales are in more urban and suburban sections where there has been a great deal of transformation. This is true for views of the rivers and washes in the valleys and plains below the San Gabriel Mountains, In any case, some of these are shared here because of their inherent interest in showing the regional landscape in the mid-1910s.

Lippincott then followed with a preliminary report on acquiring the Arroyo Seco flood channel and its potential as a parkway. Befitting its name, the course was “dry throughout the greater portion of the year,” though “subject to violent and sudden floods,” such as that of early 1914, of which there are a couple of posts from this blog, including a brief one highlighting a pamphlet on the inundation issued by Reagan.

Ballona Creek, 500 feet below a bridge on “Higuera or Valley Road,” likely Obama Boulevard on the Los Angeles side and Higuera Street on the Culver City side, 17 November 1914.

The report also discussed the recommendation of a dam and reservoir at Devil’s Gate, where the arroyo emerged from the San Gabriels and into Pasadena before turning to a “Proposed Treatment” element, in which it was noted that the cities of Los Angeles and Pasadena had been interested in turning the watercourse into public property “with the view of removing flood obstructions and utilizing it as a parkway as well as an official water channel.”

Lippincott reviewed efforts in the previous few years along these lines, including protests of those living in the Los Angeles city portion (Highland Park and nearby communities) who would have been subject to an assessment for that purpose. Instead, those residents felt that “the cost of acquiring this parkway should be borne by the entire community” but “the project has been practically abandoned.”

Consequently, what the Board of Engineers of Flood Control suggested was that the purchase of the Arroyo be conducted “by a bond issue spread over the greater part of the County of Los Angeles,” though “most of the taxation resulting from this bond issue will fall on the municipalities of Pasadena, South Pasadena and Los Angeles.” Therefore, “it is just that these municipalities should receive direct benefit by the control of the floods of the Arroyo Seco.”

The famous Colorado Street bridge spanning the Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, 30 April 1914.

The idea was to improve the watercourse from the junction with the Los Angeles River by a parkway up to Devil’s Gate and to provide for a flood channel of at least 300 foot width. The parkway would sometimes be on the west bank and at other locales on the east of the Arroyo, while from the Colorado Street bridge “the road continues from this point in the river bed to Devil’s Gate, where it will connect with the present boulevard [Foothill] from La Canada to Pasadena” before ascending to the east bluff of the watercourse to the canyon’s mouth “where it will eventually connect with the proposed mountain road to the crest of the range.”

There was also to be a driveway on one side “with space to be devoted to tree planting, and on the other side for afoot path or trail with space for tree planting.” Otherwise, “allowance for a storm water channel of 150 feet is made.” For context, Lippincott observed that the creation in 1892 of the forest reserve in the San Gabriels was for water conservation and outdoor activities led a tangent in which “it is now seriously proposed to construct a well built mountain highway and automobile road up the Arroyo Seco to the crest of he Sierra Madre [an earlier name for the San Gabriel range.] Also mentioned was “a crest highway” that would traverse “first on the valley and then on the desert side of the range, through to the Cajon Pass,” with this, if constructed, being “one of the celebrated roads of the world.”

If the plan for the Arroyo Seco was adopted, Lippincott concluded, it “would be to produce one of the most valuable and beautiful public reservations in America,” but, if it was not, he warned, “then the Arroyo will degenerate into an unsightly gravel put around the borders of which will cluster the slums of the city.” The cost for just the floor regulation portion of the plan was under $1.2 million, with about half the money for right-of-way acquisition, under 40% for the building of levees and the rip rap siding and the remainder for the Devil’s Gate regulating dam.

Reagan’s report was “upon [the] extent of area and location of menaced lands” by floods within the county, as he was chair of the “Committee Upon Flooded and Menaced Areas.” There was also “an Analysis and Resultant Opinions of the writer, of other classes and sections of the general study of Flood Control and proposed corrective works.” He sated that “the total menaced area . . . appears to be 336 square miles or 215,300 acres” and, while this was “but a minor portion of the total assessed valuation of Los Angeles County,” he added that “it should not be forgotten that this area is the real beauty and attraction of Southern California, and which draws the traveler and the homeseeker to Los Angeles County.”

Reagan then rather confusingly stated that the Board was to operate so that “each member of it should look upon the Board when in session . . . and that he in return would look to the Board to aid him in outlining his work, as well as the Board to expect from him advice as to his work . . . [and] that each member should consider himself under the direction of the four other Directors.” He followed by claiming that he “perhaps, has given the work more actual personal attention than the others” and noted that he was including letters of protest filed by the owners of the Palos Verdes area and referred to other correspondence including issues with water and the drilling of wells near the harbor.

The reason for this, though not directly stated initially, was that Reagan had an alternative to the plan offered by Charles Leeds and discussed in yesterday’s post regarding the agreed-upon need to divert the Los Angeles River away from the harbor and the southeast with outfall at Alamitos Bay where Long Beach and Seal Beach now meet at the terminus of the San Gabriel River. Reagan stated that there were two ideas, “one with excessive length and curvature” including the diverting 14-foot high dam, and a canal “upon a very low gradient” and also “having a wide change (80%) in its gradients.

The other was his: which was a 1/2 mile shorter and “with a minimum gradient or fall of nearly three times greater than that of the first, and with one but slight curve in its length, requiring no diversion dam and only a shallow cutting through the Clearwater Divide,” this in the vicinity of modern Paramount. In his “Comparison of Routes,” Reagan argued for his plan because the superior gradient; the shorter route; it meeting objections of the chair of the Board of Army Engineers, expresed in August 1914, about the filling with silt above the proposed dam offered by Leeds; it answering another Army engineer about diverting the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers further north than the Dominguez Hill locale; it met the concerns of residents who “have seen the flood waters of these two rivers pass over the Clearwater Ridge by this route to Alamitos Bay; it was less expensive to build and maintain; it would go through less fertile land; and “because this route contains all the factors required for the successful diversion and maintenance of these two rivers from the two harbors [Los Angeles and Long Beach].”

His arguments for rejecting Leeds’ plan included the fact that the proposed dam would lead to a settling basin because of sharp grades; that its height was insufficient “to divert floods of such magnitude as usually cover the entire valley; the canal was obtrusive and labor-heavy; the cost for the dam and canal were uncessary; “because scarcely any one who has resided in the lower country and seen the great floods of the past thirty years has any confidence in the success of the route or its principles of diversion;” excessive silting would result and would “very soon fill and overtop the dam, releasing all its stored silts at one time toward the harbors;” and, if such a disaster was to occur, there would be no effrt to rebuild the dam or diversion canal, aside from lawsuits filed against the county over the loss of life and property.

His critiques of the other reports included his approval of the plans for the San Fernando division, while for the Mountain section, he referred to concerns of regional farmers about the storage capacity of dams and the likelihood of floods overspilling these, as well as the question of rock and debris filling them. Having such expensive dams, Reagan added, “is matter upon which the public has some pretty sound ideas,” though one wonders if the engineer was using “the public” as a cover for his own views. For Mount Reservoir, he questioned whether the 124-foor high proposed dam, saying he “is not convinced of its practicability to such a height, or of sufficient water to fill it to that height.”

When it came to reviewing the nearly three dozen storage sites called for on the Los Angeles River and its drainage, Reagan wrote “the writer advised at that time that the entire Board should go thoroughly into the investigation of every storage possibility and its practicability, rather than to permit the whole burden of this study to fall upon one man.” He also criticized work with an experimental reservoir dam in Clearwater Canyon and the simultaneous project with a check dam in adjacent Haines Canyon, both near Tujunga, wondering why only one of these wasn’t being pursued instead of them both at unnecessary cost.

Elsewhere, he wrote of Haines Canyon improvement recommendations an invokes a feminized nature suggesting, “she does not accomplish this aggrading [slopes in the canyon] with warning to man, nor does she show ny respect for his ready-made channels for her.” A parenthetical comparison noted that the coastal section south of Los Angeles and Whittier Narrows had a property value of some $21 million and added that it “is a productive section . . . while a considerable portion of the land adjacent to the north of Haines Canyon is yet unsettled.” Clearly, Reagan was less than enthused with the plan for dealing with this remote area and he submitted a letter from Philip Begue, a La Crescenta resident of over thirty years, who advised the reforestation was the first necessary step and that Haines Canyon check dams were insufficient, beyond the fact that the wood used was “not of a lasting quality.”

Reagan also criticized a proposal for Verdugo Wash, a tributary of the Los Angeles River running through Glendale, with the plan to build a 100-foot wide channel with a series of cascades through terraced plains to reduce flood flow, but he asked what was to happen with the significant amount of gravel and sand “which now and for ages has been dsriven down by a number of small canyons and dumped in large quantities in time of floods” into the wash. Instead, he suggesting changing the gradient and alignment and shoring up the sides to preent erosion, while, with regard to anthromorphized nature, “allowing her to distribute or deposit it [detritus] by Nature’s own formulas.” Finally, he promoted his idea as costing just a quarter of the committee’s plan.

Note the proposed diversion routes for the Los Angeles River by Charles Leeds and James Reagan, as well as the courses of the Río Hondo and San Gabriel River (and a proposed short diversion of the latter where the word “Cerritos” for Rancho Los Cerritos is located.

There were other disagreements, with his suggestion of something “cruder and more massive” for the Big Tujunga spreading ground in terms of cutting trenches across the wash via steam shovel and which could be done each year at low cost and his advocating for San Gabriel Canyon spreading grounds to cover five times (4000 instead of 800 acres) more area for more absorption and better disposition of debris carried down from the canyon. He also preferred spending more money in the spreading grounds than with check dams throughout the canyon.

With respect to whether to have one or two channels to carry water from the canyon to the ocean, Reagan noted that the Río Hondo route was the most natural one, while the influence of man, through irrigation ditches, led to the “new” San Gabriel channel being created in 1867. Key was “to protect the little city of El Monte from danger of washing away” as well as affecting the agricultural lands around it, while similar concerns existed for the residents of Rivera (now Pico Rivera) and Artesia further south.

The engineer opined that “the proper place for the principal official channel is by way of the Original River Channel until the Whittier Narrows are reached” and then allowing for diversion weirs or gates below this to control the flow to one or the other of the rivers. He suggested widening the new river by up to 35 feet and construct levees to increase the carrying capacity as much as four times, providing, of course, ample water to those in the sections below the Narrows, while heavy flow could be redirected to the Río Hondo, as needed. In any case,

the size and carrying capacity of a great artificial canal which will be expectged to safely and at the smallest cost take care of larger floods than any known up to the present time, is the actual object of the whole undertaking of flood control in this County.

While there was a lack of reliable data on rainfall, stream flow or run-off levels, but there were anecdotal accounts of period “when floods have been known to extend in continuous width from the twon of Compton to Artesia, and even to Westminster in Orange County” and “men are said to have gone by boat from Compton to Downey and from Norwalk to Compon, etc.” He added that “we have statements from carefully observing citizens of this County saying that a rainfall nowadays of one inch produces more run-off than a rainfall of three inches formerly did upon the same lands, when the country was in its virgin state” because of so much development in the preceding thirty or so years, since the Boom of the 1880s.

This 1892 map suggested a reservoir in present-day Vernon where industrial growth emerged by the 1920s instead.

In the “Final Analysis,” Reagan stipulated the wisdom of broad, comprehensive planning for conservation, retarding flood flow, reforestation, spreading, channel improvement, diverting the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, and protection of the harbors. Again, that latter was paramount because “it can be safely asserted tha no inconsiderable part of the growth of Los Angeles City and County has been, and will continue to be in ever increasing proportion, due to the continued improvement of the Harbor District.”

After all, he noted, more than 60% of the county’s taxable property was in the City of Los Angeles and it was “reasonable and just that the city’s interest at the harbor should receive first consideration and protection.” Protecting the harbor district “would yield more than enough revenue to meet the maturing principal and interest on the proposed bond issue” to raise funds for flood control projects. Moreover, it was stated that the assessed value for the area in the coastal district, outside the harbor area, would double to over $40 million with proper flood control works completed. There was also the consideration of increased taxes on increased valuations and commercial and industrial growth.

Photos of February 1914 flood damage at Artesia.

Meanwhile, he warned, “should we experience another great storm under such conditions we would have left little to show for our efforts and expenditures save wreckage to serve as a monument to our folly.” Reagan could not conclude without observing that “continual daily service has been given by him to the county that the search for proper remedies for our flood problems might be complete.” This included more than 25,000 miles of travel by car “as well as very much work beyond the ordinary working hours.”

In addition to including his preliminary report from 3 June 1914 on damage from that winter’s floods, there are nearly fifty photos of the deluge, followed by the Palos Verdes protest letters about the Dominguez diversion plan, a log water wells (oil wells would be soon drilled, as well) in the South Bay, letters from well drillers, more material buttressing Reagan’s points, and pages of hydraulic tables for open channel water flow.

Scenes of inundated areas of Glendale and Compton from the deluge.

The winter of 1915-16 brought more serious flooding and an enhanced urgency to address the issue of control. Reagan was appointed, despite his disagreements with his fellow board members, chief engineer of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, a position he held for over a decade as projects, including dams, spreading grounds, channel improvements and other works were undertaken with bond funds passed by voters.

Yet, there was a growing understanding that the level of control needed was well beyond the resources of the county and Reagan’s work was increasingly questioned, leading to his leaving his post in 1927. In subsequent decades, the federal government, through the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, took on greater responsibility for flood control work in the region. What was definitely not done was the diversion of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers, while large and expensive dams in the mountains were built (including the scandal-plagued San Gabriel), while the check dam system was applied in many circumstances.

Images of inundations along the Río Hondo.

The best account of the history of flood control in our region is Jared Orsi’s 2004 book, Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and Urban Ecology in Los Angeles, which examines the origins of flood control planning and the many issues that occurred in the early 20th century and still often confront us today.

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