By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“At about the 20th of February, rains began and continued without interruption for about 30 days,” a beet farmer named L.W. Head said to his interviewer in the late summer of 1914. “It was believed that the sun was not seen during this time. The [floods] carried away the Nadeau vineyards, the sheds, warehouses and everything else movable.”
Head’s report is contained in a collection of oral histories assembled in 1914 by James Reagan, a flood-control engineer for the county at the time. In them, local residents who survived the 19th century’s deluges tell of monthlong rains that sent great boulders tumbling down the San Gabriel River, of the Los Angeles River changing course several times along its route, and of large tracts of land in the south part of the county turned into useless swamps. But residents also recalled the crushing droughts of 1862 to 1864, when “thousands and thousands of cattle and horses starved to death for food and water,” according to a farmer identified as C.W. Caseboom. “Around [the] springs the cattle crowded to get water. If a weak one got down, it was tramped to death by the others in their effort to get at the water . . . in digging wells I have found bones six or eight feet down in the mud that have been worked in by the countless number of animals that have tramped over them.”
Caseboom saw those wells dry up in his lifetime, and like many of the farmers interviewed, he suspected there were better ways to deal with floodwaters than run them off to the ocean. “Now it seems that the engineers should, instead of conducting the water to the sea where its value is completely lost,” said L.W. Head, “conserve the floodwaters and make them useful in irrigating the vast amount of land that only needs water to make every foot of it productive and valuable. That would mean millions to the county. It will cost millions of dollars to build channels and confine the flood to them. Why not then use this vast amount of money to hold the water and thus make it do double duty by controlling the floodwaters for irrigation purposes?”
In some cases this happened: Twenty dams have been built in Los Angeles County to contain floodwaters and recharge local aquifers, including the Hansen Dam and the Sepulveda Basin Dam, both finished in 1941. But even with all floodwater captured and every stream restored, there would never be enough natural water to sustain the new Los Angeles. As the population grew, Southern California’s cities began importing water from wherever they could find it, from the Colorado River, from Northern California and, most notoriously, from the once-fertile Owens Valley. And with the land’s natural water sources ruled out as a water supply, there was no good reason to protect them at all.
So barring any catastrophic event that would destroy the roads and uproot the springs — a massive global-warming-induced flood or an 8.0 earthquake along some undiscovered Silver Lake fault — Sacatela Creek will not be daylighted in our lifetimes. But Hall plots the future as if anything were possible; she has even drawn an outline for a daylighted Sacatela Creek along Myra Avenue, with cafés and shops in sight of the resurrected little stream.
“This housing development you see here, it’s on a 100-year floodplain,” she says. “The first floor is above the 100-year flood height.
“If I were the planning diva of Los Angeles,” Hall continues, “I’d put a halt on any building within that 100-year floodplain. I’d pull out the asphalt, and restore them as floodplain and detention areas, and if there were creeks buried there, I’d dig up the creek.”
“Ten or 12 years ago, if you’d asked me, I would’ve had a pretty firm belief that stream or river restoration in L.A. County contained an awful lot of unanswered questions,” says the writer D.J. Waldie, who has served as the city of Lakewood’s public-information officer since 1978. Twelve years ago, Waldie objected to a plan to restore the Los Angeles River on the grounds that it would lead to more downstream flooding — there’s a reason his city bears the name Lakewood.
“In the intervening time,” he says, “some of those questions have been answered, and my view is more complicated now.” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has raised the levees in the lower Los Angeles River to reduce the risk of flooding, and “now,” he continues, “it’s a question of what degree of landscape or nature restoration will fit into the pattern of certain communities.”
Waldie points to the restoration of the Upper Arroyo Seco in Pasadena as an example of stream restoration in a complicated landscape. “You have an existing flood-control channel, some restoration of a streambed, and the possibility in the long run of making that landscape look and feel more like it did 200 years ago. Do you restore the existing flood-control channel or jackhammer out the concrete and give that landscape back to nature? Those are the two poles I wrestle with.”
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city