Early Floods in Los Angeles: Interview 147, J. E. Proctor, Long Beach: “It was not necessary to fertilize the land…”

July 16, 2016 § 1 Comment

One of the best creek freak documents around is a series of interviews made by Los Angeles County Flood Control Engineer James Reagan, around 1914. The interviews give a vivid picture of the Los Angeles basin of more than 100 years ago. We will be posting other interviews from this document in the following months.

He has been in this section of the country for more than forty years, and has witnessed some big floods. They have never done the damage that the flood last winter did, for the reason that everything is different. In the early days, and up to within the last four years, the country was covered more or less with willows, brush fences, and in some places, lakes, marshes and other small growth. In those days the water would spread out all over the country, and the velocity was very much slower, it did no damage, and in many ways did good.

It was not necessary to fertilize the land, as they are now doing. They raised 100 bushels of corn to the acre, but not now. In those days a crop of corn and California pumpkins were raised on the same land. Those pumpkins would grow so thick that it was difficult to walkaround and step between them, while it was an easy matter to go all over the place and never step on the ground, stepping on the pumpkins. The largest I ever saw weighed 214 pounds, and on our place we raised one that weighed 206 pounds.

So in this way the floods did a great deal of good. Each flood left a deposit of silt on the land that made the rich yields of those days. I am afraid the people will miss those floods, although in the last flood the land was washed very badly. That washing comes from the land being cleared off and having a freer run than before. There were no railroad embankments in those days either to hold the water either, where it is now held up, and the volume contracted into a smaller space at the openings under the railroad. And too, a flood would break out and a strong current would cut across the country carrying things before it, and in the wake perhaps putting a channel that ruined the land. Therefore part of the flood carried the big amount of silt, but the deposits were left by the last part of the flood.

On our place we have no fear of the flood that first comes, that does no damage, but it is the tail end of the flood that causes the damage. A place is started below us, and should a flood come again as last winter it will probably cut back and ruin our place. As it is we could do nothing with it this year; we could not rent it for anything.

Many peculiar things were noted in the flood of last winter. We had a chicken yard about 50 feet square, made of woven wire chicken fencing. On the inside of this fence, when the flood had gone down we found a deposit of sand and silt inside the yard about three feet deep. And another at a lower corner of the fence, a single strange of barb wire about 100 feet long, got loose except at one end, where it was held. Along this single strand of barb wire as it lay down stream had gathered a sand bar just back of the wire, or just below it, about 18 inches high.

These two things show what small obstructions can do. It gives us an idea of how little it takes to gather the silt, to form an obstruction that will soon turn the stream in some other direction.

So for a protection to the land I believe that a mat of willow roots and boughs would be more effective than anything else outside of a solid concrete wall and flood conduit for the water to travel in.

A channel 500 or 600 feet wide would probably carry the flood of last winter, but some of the others I could not say. The only objection to a wide channel is that when the tail end of the flood is running off it is liable to start zigzagging across the channel and then it is liable to cut the embankment. As long as the channel is clear and straight and enough water to partially fill the channel, everything would go all right, but the small stream that will not fill the channel will do a great deal of damage.

It is easy to get the willows to grow, they will grow anyway. The best way is to get branches as long as possible, lay them with the buts upstream, and then partially cover the with sand. They should be placed at the bottom of the embankment in the river bed, and then they will get plenty of moisture.

Mere sand banks will not do. They will melt down like sugar. But something should be done, but not any great expensive works until they work out the most effective methods of handling the water. I have worked in water all my life, and have seen some funny capers by it….

The second half of the interview, perhaps to be transcribed at a later date, describes the different qualities of well water at different strata.

 

 

 

 

Early Floods in Los Angeles: Interview 140, William Mulholland: “It is no difficulty to do things when the work is carried on in harmony with Nature….”

July 15, 2016 § 4 Comments

One of the best creek freak documents around is a series of interviews made by Los Angeles County Flood Control Engineer James Reagan, around 1914. The interviews give a vivid picture of the Los Angeles basin of more than 100 years ago. We will be posting other interviews from this document in the following months.

The following is a transcription of Mulholland’s interview by F. Z. Lee, on October 2, 1914.

As Mr. Mulholland said, he has never had anything to do with the river other than in connection with the water works, where their supply came from for many years.

There seems nothing strange or mysterious about handling the floods of the river if the lesson from nature was followed. It is no difficulty to do things when the work is carried on in harmony with Nature, but when man begins to obstruct the laws of Nature and to work against them, then there is great difficulty.

We had no trouble with the Los Angeles River until 1877-78. Up to that time the channel of the river was clear of willows and other growth that would cause the water to change about from one side of the river to the other. When the floods came they spread over the gravel beds of the river and ran along smoothly without obstruction. There were some willows along the banks of the streams but none out in the channel. The channels remained the same all the time.

Our trouble began as I say in 1877-78. The valley was grazed out to sheep and the sheep kept the willows back. There was nothing but grass in the channel when the floods came, and the waters flowed smoothly away.

Then when the sheep were moved away the willows grew up and formed obstructions which caused the water to cut into the banks and to wash away the farms.

Pure, clean earth is far more friable than banks of willows, for the willows give the water a footing, leverage which it uses to cut with. A bank of willows will wash away in a short time.

It is so with many obstructions in the river It creates a whirl and the water churns and bores, boils against obstruction, making great holes. That was the case with the piling and piers in the river, where roots and other drift was found buried deep at the foot of the piling. The water at its highest flood carried away the gravel and sand and as the velocity of the water slackened and the drift was caught underneath the debris as it began to fill in only at those places. If it were not so, out pipe line would be carried out entirely, were it that the entire center of the channel moved down stream during floods.

Occasionally a pipe would be broken but that was where the foundations of the piers were undermined and the entire structure let in. But the entire bed of the river does not move downstream.

To build dams for reservoirs in the mountains to hold the water back would be too expensive for the amount of good it would do. The pitch of the country is too steep to create any reservoirs of any size. They would be more wedges and not large enough to do any great good. The highest water that has ever been here and the highest water marks that old people who have lived here forty to fifty years and who have personally shown me, where the water came to, has had a run-off of 50,000 second feet. A very careful measurement was taken of the stream where the North Broadway concrete bridge now is. The present channel of the Los Angeles river is ample to carry away the water.

No man, no engineer, could invent or contrive such a wonderful system of water supply as this west coast has. There is no place in the world that I know of, which has the great amount of artesian or well water as this section of the country. It is called a semi-arid country and has only an average annual rainfall of fourteen or fifteen inches of rain. No one would think of trying to raise anything with that amount of water. This coast has had great upheavals and subsidences. Not in a folding and grinding sense of the strata, but a practical vertical lift and fall. There is a perfect coast line along the Palos Verdes hills. And the great deposits of gravel and sand, a porous material, has made a great reservoir of the coastal plains.

The varieties of water are due to this very change that has taken place– the reddish colored water at Long Beach comes from some part of the plain that was at one time a swamp. The [xx] waters coming from just such causes and the alkali waters from further-back in the mountains.

So it is this great bed of gravel, 600 feet or more deep, catches the water instead of allowing it to all run off into the sea.

Nature was wise in her plans for the delivery of the water from the high altitudes to the sea. When the waters reached the lower plains they began to wind back and forth, making the river longer and longer, and thus lessening the gradient of the river bed. The current of the stream being slower on the inside of the curve than on the outside, kept dropping its sediment and filling in, while on the outside of the curve the stream was cutting away, thus making the windings greater and greater.

Now, if a channel was cut straight through, it would cut out a great channel, there and leave the banks high above the water they need so badly.

Reagan, J.W. (1915). Early Floods in Los Angeles County: Notes by James P. Reagan. Los Angeles County Flood Control Engineer.

Resources for armchair creek freaks

May 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

Rattlesnake Island, 1896, USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer

Rattlesnake Island, 1896, USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer

When this blog first started, those of us interested in what our neighborhoods used to look like in the far past had to trek to libraries and archives all over town to find old maps, then figure out a way to photograph or scan the most useful. To understand how these maps related to the contemporary landscape, I used to superimpose scans of old maps over contemporary ones by using Adobe software- a slow, cumbersome, and inaccurate process!

Since then, there has been an explosion in the quality and quantity of map resources online. Best of all, some have already been georeferenced (digitally located in physical space), which means that anyone can very casually compare any neighborhood now to what it was 100 years ago by using a slider.

Here are some of my favorite places to look for old maps of Los Angeles:

USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer   (click on the area of the US that you want to view, then choose a USGS map from the timeline to view)

William Hammond Hall’s irrigation maps at the David Rumsey Map Collection (some of the LA area maps have been georeferenced, but if you have the interest, anyone can contribute by georeferencing new ones….such as the one of San Bernardino pictured below)

Ballona Historical Ecology (Ballona Creek only)

Here is a modest effort of my own from way back, a synthesis of William Hammond Hall’s sketch of the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco with elevation data of the same area created in ArcGIS, then shared through the old Google Maps interface. It was a disappointment that the shared map was not readable with a phone due to the quirky layout of the old Google Maps interface… but when I have time maybe I’ll start playing with some of the new map-customization tools online…

I am fascinated by the messiness of the historical landscape before it was flattened and filled, with water confined to neatly linear paths. There are so many notations mapmakers used to depict the ways water manifested in the historical landscape. William Hammond Hall’s maps go beyond mere notation, into the realm of artistic representation. In contrast, USGS maps of contemporary Los Angeles use a limited and inflexible set of icons to depict water: blue lines for waterways (thin or thick, solid or dashed), and blue amoebas for lakes. Does the simplicity of these icons reflect what we’ve done to our surface water; or has what we’ve done to our surface water reflect our simplistic cultural idea about how a water body is supposed to look like and behave?

Let us know of other good resources you know, or any wish-list map projects to consider in the comments section…. there is another great map viewer in development that visualizes percolation, alluvial geology, water quality, and other topics, whose link I’ll post very soon…

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San Bernardino and Vicinity Irrigation Data, 1880, William Hammond Hall, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

 

El Niño Doesn’t Correspond to L.A. River Flooding, La Niña Does

February 29, 2016 § 1 Comment

The interview as it appeared in Friends of the L.A. River's Current News nearly 20 years ago

The interview as it appeared in Friends of the L.A. River’s Current News nearly 20 years ago. Click to enlarge.

Something came up in a recent discussion I was having about current spate of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers make-work projects to degrade the L.A. River in the name of El Niño. If you haven’t seen it, the cutting vegetation and installing dirt-fill barriers along the edges of parts of the river, resulting in nutty bike path detours.

What makes me sad is that the L.A. River generally hasn’t flooded during El Niño years, but instead mostly during La Niña years.

I know this from an excellent interview that FoLAR bird expert Dan Cooper did with climatology professor Richard Minnich back in 1998. I ran excerpts from this in 2010 – a drier La Niña year with some big storms. Below is the whole article.

Talkin’ El Niño
An interview with Dr. Richard Minnich of University of California Riverside, by Dan Cooper

Richard Minnich is a professor of biogeography and climatology in the Department of Earth Sciences at UC Riverside. He has been studying weather patterns and landscape ecology in Southern California and Baja for the past two decades, and recently spoke with FoLAR’s Technical Advisory Board chair, Dan Cooper, in Riverside on March 6, 1998

Dan: Dr. Minnich, let’s begin with the basics – what causes flooding in L.A.?

Rich: Two components are involved, long-term and short-term causes. In the long-term, the ground has to get completely saturated by rain; water hitting dry ground won’t do a thing. Now, in the short term, it’s the hourly rates throughout the day that are important. These rates are what cause catastrophic flooding like we had in 1938.

Dan: What kind of rain are we talking about?

Rich: Ballpark rates, maybe 20 inches in a day in the Transverse Ranges (incl. the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mtns.).

Dan: Twenty inches in one day? That’s typically what we get in a year.

Rich: In January ’43, it rained 20″ in the mountains, but it was on dry ground so nothing happened. Now downing the coastal plain where everyone lives, all that concrete has led to the potential for flash flood conditions – the water has nowhere to go but into the channels. But even without concrete, major floods are possible – the floods in ’38 occurred before the whole plain was concrete and the rivers were completely channelized.

Dan: So 1938 must have been a big El Niño year…

Rich: Pretty neutral, actually. Neither El Niño nor La Niña conditions were recorded that year. Another neutral year was the winter of 1966-67 – the Transverse Range got 30 inches in December of ’66. The Transverse Range got 30 inches in December of ’66.

Dan: So El Niños don’t coincide with flooding in the L.A. Basin?

Rich: The three spectacular El Niños we’ve seen this century have been 1940-1, 1982-3, and again in the past season [1997-8]. Not one of them caused extensive flooding in the basin.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Joe’s Family Photoshoot on the L.A. River

February 18, 2015 § 1 Comment

Joe, Carrie, and Maeve at the L.A. River. Photo by Matt Grashaw

Joe, Carrie, and Maeve at the L.A. River. Photo by Matt Grashaw

Apologies for not posting anything here for a long time… then posting this puff-piece. I post daily over at Streetsblog L.A. these days, and just haven’t made the time to write a lot about the L.A. River, lately. Just to let folks know that my family and I are still around, and still enjoying the L.A. River, I am posting today with a couple of family photos taken on a family photoshoot yesterday. The photographer is Matt Grashaw who we highly recommend.

Joe and one-and-a-half year-old daughter Maeve.

Creek Freak Joe and one-and-a-half year-old daughter Maeve.

I think that the river looks pretty photogenic. The site is Bette Davis Picnic Area – the north end of Griffith Park, next to the recently-opened Glendale Narrows River Walk. See you down by the river.

Creek Freak Real Estate / 627 N. Avenue 48/ North Branch of the Arroyo Seco

November 1, 2014 § 4 Comments

Recently we have been having fun with creek freak real estate leads sent to us by Louisa Van Leer. From now on I will post the leads as they come, hoping other creek freaks in the community might be want to jump on creek side property, or pool efforts to make some stream-side amazingness happen.

This 10,000 ft2 lot on the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco is part of a steep hillside dotted with native walnuts. The slope leads down to the former stream bed right behind Aldama Elementary. The route of the North Branch can be viewed on this Google map.

The property and the adjacent undeveloped lot happen to make a lush backdrop for the concrete yard of Aldama Elementary. While millions are being spent on schoolyard greening projects elsewhere, one could imagine Aldama students might one day simply walk out an open gate into an extension of its schoolyard to access hands-on science and ecology fun in a native walnut grove. This greenery is already there.

Looking around, we found some mysterious notes, a tree which might possibly be making pecans, and numerous balls of all sorts. Poking one’s head into a culvert opening at the end of the lot, one can hear, deep underground in a pipe, the echos of the waters of the North Branch flowing toward Sycamore Grove Park and the Arroyo Seco.

 

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Please tell me these pipe sections are not meant for an underground stream…..

October 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

photo

When I passed this truck on the 210 freeway this afternoon, I wondered what watershed these huge pipe sections were destined for. I thought about all the rain gardens, bioswales, wetlands, stream restorations, urban parks, and urban biodiversity that could be created if we had spent the $$$ used for the digging of trenches and laying of such massive pipes on something that actually benefited the everyday quality of life of urban residents, that replenished local groundwater supplies so we can reduce our dependence on imported water, while nurturing native riparian and wetland biota, while improving the quality of water in our bays, while providing non-electronic entertainment for all the kids that live in parts of the city that otherwise have no easy access to parks, while still providing flood control benefits.

I wondered why we still invest in stormwater infrastructure that perpetuates a cycle of dependence on more infrastructure. Just like it has been shown that building more and wider freeways and roads results in stronger dependence on cars; adding more impermeable surfaces in a watershed (buildings, asphalt parking lots, roads) results in the need for increasingly extremist drainage infrastructure, like super gargantuan pipes…

Tell me these pipes are meant for something other than to convey one of our urban underground streams toward the ocean in a way that prevents their use by native biota, and which prevents us nature-starved city people from experiencing the physiological and public health and microclimate benefits that urban greenery provides. Tell me that these pipes are being transported because urban streams all over are being daylighted, and that using bigger and bigger pipes to convey a precious resource like water toward the ocean is recognized as a quaint part of our historical past. Tell me underground pipes are being replaced by wetlands, infiltration zones, and streams, and that the reuse of  pipe sections that used to convey urban streams is now choice material for architecture for the homeless, where the thick concrete walls of pipes are perfect as thermal mass that creates passive climate control… or that these pipes are being reused as wildlife crossings under freeways….   or that sci-arc students are making them into the new modular architecture? pod hotels?  something…..

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