“A Condensed and Systematic Review”: Local Conditions in State Engineer William Hammond Hall’s “Irrigation in Southern California,” 1888, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With the recent announcement that the western American drought condition is the worst in a staggering 1,200 years amid rapidly accelerating and worsening climate change, we face, across the board, a highly uncertain future when it comes to water supply. Some 135 years ago, the challenge was more about what to do with the precious fluid in greater Los Angeles with respect to making the most of what was available, as massive delivery projects like the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Colorado River project, and the California Aqueduct were decades away. Given this, the work of the first State Engineer, William Hammond Hall (1846-1934), was important as a seminal step in water supply management, although his tenure was filled with contested views and controversy.

For a little over a decade, from the late 1870s to the late 1880s, Hall and his assistants, often using his personal funds to supplement what he considered very inadequate appropriations from the legislature, compiled an enormous amount of research on water supply and irrigation in the Golden State. The plan was to have a multi-volume set of reports, the first of which was Irrigation Development, published in 1886 and which was a thorough review of the history, customs, laws, and systems of administration for irrigation in France, Italy and Spain.

Hall then hoped to produce three more parts, on irrigation in southern California as well as for central California, specifically the San Joaquin Valley, and then one to be called Irrigation Questions. He also felt that a study of the Sacramento River Valley and other locales in the north and east of the state was warranted. The engineer noted that the work done on the four planned parts, however, “has not been reasonably well provided for” and added that “the appropriations have been insufficient and uncertain,” concluding that “the institution is crippled,” though it is not clear if he meant the state government or his project.

In any case, his second part, Irrigation in California [Southern], was finally issued in October 1888, but his proposals to have all of the state’s waterways owned, controlled and regulated by the government, while irrigation was to be the responsibility of private districts created much controversy and his growing cadre of opponents and enemies had him dismissed in 1889 and even charged criminally for the misuse of public funds, for which, however, he was acquitted.

While half of his momentous effort went unfinished, his volume on southern California irrigation is valuable for its minute attention to detail about the geography, water supply, rivers and streams, and lands and soils of San Diego (out of which Riverside County was created in 1893,) San Bernardino, and Los Angeles (with Orange County carved out the following year, 1889) counties. This part, multi-part itself, focuses on aspects of the latter, including emphasis on irrigation in the areas where the Workman and Temple family lived in the central and eastern San Gabriel Valley and is notable context for the famed Boom of the Eighties of the era.

In terms of that valley, Hall recorded that it was some 23 miles long and eleven miles wide “with a broad outlet somewhat west of the middle point on its southern side,” which he called the Paso de Bartolo, after the Whittier-area rancho of that name. The San Gabriel Valley was accounted to take in some 560 square miles, of which more than half “are covered by the mountain watersheds of the Sierra Madre [San Gabriel Mountains]” while other hill systems including the “Coast Range” hills, which would entail the Montebello and Puente hill sections, and the San José Hills took up small sections of nearly 60 square miles.

As to “the mesa, benches, plains, washes and bottoms” in the valley, this was about 200 square miles or about 122,500 acres. A small portion of some 8,000 acres comprised rivers and washes with boulders, cobbles, gravel and sand that could not be cultivated with a similar acreage of these materials mixed with soil and usable for farming to some degree. Another 15,000 acres was considered “wet, moist, and semi-moist lands, principally in the bottom of the basin, and not generally requiring irrigation.” The remaining 92,500 acres “are highly cultivable and productive lands, but requiring irrigation, at least for some crops.

In the 315 square miles of mountain watershed territory, the San Gabriel River and its tributaries consumed about 70%, leaving the rest made up of what came from canyons “coming off the mountain face into the valley” on either side of the watercourse and ranging from San Dimas Canyon on the east to Millard Canyon near Pasadena on the west.

Just slightly larger is the San Fernando Valley at 24 miles long and 12 miles wide, with its main outlet at the southeastern corner where the Los Angeles River turned from an easterly direction to a generally southern one. The valley comprised 570 square miles, of which 46 came from the north end of the Cahuenga [Santa Monica] range, 68 from the eastern Santa Susana Mountains as well as the San Fernando Mountains at the north end, 37 from the Verdugo Mountains, including canyons from the Sierra Madre that drained into it as well as from the Arroyo Seco at the east. About 180 square miles were from “the sheds of the Sierra Madre tributary to the large cañons that enter the valley near its upper eastern corner.”

Hall calculated that the San Rafael Hills covered 18 square miles, the Verdugo Hills about eight more than that, and the several arroyos and passes of La Cañada, Verdugo [Glendale] and the Arroyo Seco embraced 17. In all, “the lands of the valley proper and its outlet pass cover about 184,000 square miles or some 117,000 acres. Of this there were “several immense washes of gravels and sands” embracing some 5,000 acres, while another 8,000 or so acres were “very poor quality lands—from excessive admixture of sand, gravel, and bowlders [sic] in their soils. Moist lands not requiring irrigation totaled about 6,000 acres, leaving almost 100,000 acres “of really good lands requiring artificial watering for the production of all crops generally irrigated in the southern counties.”

The third major area was dented as “The Coast Plain” and lying between the Pacific and the southern and southwestern ends of the San Bernardino, San Fernando and San Gabriel watersheds “as marked by the crest lines of the coast and Cahuenga ranges” and covering an area of some 1,472 square miles. Of this, 472 were within the watersheds and slopes of those ranges and 189 were within “the coastwise mesa, rolling and rough hills, and their inclosed small valleys and plains at the southeast end.” At Palos Verdes, there were 19 square miles, leaving “the coast plain proper, with its adjacent bench-lands, lower mesas, low outstanding rolling hills, etc.” with some 721 square miles.

It should be noted that much of the plain included what became, just the next year, Orange County, so that Hall observed that, of the “coastwise mesa,” there were nearly 20,000 acres “chiefly of the San Juan Capistrano and Alisos [Aliso Viejo]” area, with 38,400 acres covered “higher plains and mesas suitable for irrigation if water-supply were afforded.” The rest was considered to be “of much less adaptability to such use” and which “gradually merge into mountainous hills.”

With respect to some 721 square miles, of about 461,000 acres, some 9,400 acres “are occupied by high outstanding plains or remains of old mesas near the southern limit of the region,” again, this sounds like the southern part of Orange County. About 26,500 acres were defined “by the tops and slopes of the low rolling hill belt which extends . . . lengthwise through the region.” Somewhat shy of 9,000 acres were “bordering the coast of Santa Monica bay from Ballona flats to the Palos Verdes.”

Then, there were 9,400 acres within the Wilmington area of what is now adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles; close to 6,000 acres of salt marsh, such as at Ballona; not quite 4,000 acres considered “fresh-water tule swamps;” near 2,000 acres of cienega swamps; close to 3,000 acres of very moist land near swaps, marshes and river beds; over 6,000 of river beds and washes; 1,200 of “beach-blown drift sands;” nearly 48,000 of alkali lands; and some 68,000 of moist and semi-moist lands not needed irrigation “nor well suited to cultivation by it.” This left about 270,000 acres “composed of cultivable lands, of plain, delta, mesa, and bench-land character, generally requiring irrigation, and for the most part well suited for it.” Of this, 16,500 comprised the parts of the City of Los Angeles not on hills and adjacent towns, while a larger area than that “has been divided up and dedicated as town sites.”

In terms of rainfall and its distribution, Hall recorded that there was much higher levels of precipitation “on the slopes of, and on the plains and bench-lands at the base of the ridges, on the side next the direction from which the storm clouds are brought.” As one example, “we encounter the base of the Sierra Madre at Azusa, and immediately the average precipitation, for several miles out on the plain . . . is raised to about twenty-two inches per year” and that such areas generally experienced 50-100% more rain “that in the valley, ten miles distant and only five hundred to seven hundred feet lower [in elevation].”

He added that more precipitation occurred at mountain and hills passes and points, with another local example being “the pass between the San José hills and the base of the Sierra Madre” where “a very materially greater rainfall prevails than at the base of the mountains east or west of it; yet the San José hills are on a very low range.” Similarly, there was the section “in the cañada between the Verdugo hills and the base of the Sierra Madre, [where] a heavy average rainfall is found.”

For those areas deemed most cultivable and irrigable, “the San Fernando valley and the coast plain are materially the driest sections,” while “the bench-lands and mesas, at the bases of the Cahuenga and the Sierra Madre, receive much the greatest rainfall.” It is striking to note that “San Gabriel Valley, as a whole, probably receives 50 per cent greater rainfall than does the San Fernando, and 80 to 90 per cent more than does the valley of San Bernardino.” The reason was simple, as the San Gabriel Valley did not have a tall range in front, but the San Gabriel Mountains looms large behind, while the other two valleys had higher ranges in front to limit precipitation levels in each.

It is also noteworthy that Hall recorded that “not any of the streams of Los Angeles county flow through the sea perennialy” and that “all of them that come from the mountains lose their waters in the gravels within a few miles of their cañon mouths, during fully eight to ten months (including the irrigation months) of almost every year.” He added that only a few streams “even bring their waters outside the cañon mouths, for six months of almost every year.” These were drawn into the rock and gravel and, in one locale, “reappear in the springs and cienegas which produce the Los Angeles river,” while in the San Gabriel Valley, “the lower San Gabriel river . . . comes to the surface at the outlet of San Gabriel valley” are becoming submerged in the gravel and rock at the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon.

Hall also noted that the Santa Ana River came out the canyons of the San Bernardino Mountains and “is available for the coast plain.” So, he concluded “there are two classes of streams serving irrigation in this region,” including ones that “have their independent mountains drainage areas” and sink into gravel and rock after emerging through deep canyon, and those emerging at the outlets of the main sections of the interior valleys. These were the Los Angeles, emerging through the outlet at the southeast corner of the San Fernando Valley; the San Gabriel, divided into the Old (Río Hondo) and New (today’s San Gabriel), through the Whittier Narrows; and the Santa Ana, coming through its namesake canyon from the San Bernardino Valley to the coast plain.

Following this first introductory part, we’ll return tomorrow with a look at regional rivers and streams as well as soils before, in the third and subsequent parts, moving into irrigation works and projects.

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