About that Dominguez Stench

November 5, 2021 § 19 Comments

I’ve really been trying to resist the urge to talk about the Dominguez Channel’s horrible stench. Driving through it when I was down visiting family recently, I understood that nothing I can say will make it better. It is absolutely noxious. I can’t imagine being stuck in that.

But long-ago angelenos of the past can.

Historically the slough that is today’s Dominguez Channel was a broad flat wetland. It had another name, a racist slur, and we’ve written about that before.

George Bixby described the very marshy landscape of the lower San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers, Compton Creek and Dominguez Channel Slough areas, as it existed before American occupation:

“I once had a Mexican vaquero whose father had lived there all his life who said that all the valley between Los Cerritos, Dominguez and San Pedro was one tangle of marsh willows, larch, blackberry vines, and other tangled undergrowth which was impenetrable. There was only one or two trails across the valley, and they were not safe for two reasons: on account of the undergrowth and bogs, and there were bears in the tangled jungle.” – G.H. Bixby, 1914

(By the way, he meant grizzly bears…I know, right??!!)

Groundwater was high in this area, replenished by frequent flooding. Groundwater pumping and leveeing and culverting of waterways resulted in a shrunken perimeter of the wetland that would fatten up again with rains. And parts of the LA area that is today’s Gardena, Torrance, West Athens, Compton, parts of Hawthorne and Lawndale, Carson etc was this slough, or converted to farmland around it. The Gardena Willows, Madrona Marsh, “Devil’s Dip” at Chester Washington Golf Course, and a wetland inside a mobile home park are what remains of the over 1,200 acres of wetland (in 1900). Oh, and it’s probably been destroyed by now, but also a seasonal wetland in Torrance… Alondra Park sits on land that was part of the wetland, but nothing about it (as far as I know) is ecologically related. Victoria Regional Park/Golf Course in Carson were also part of it – a soft bottom reach of Dominguez Channel is what remains – but that site also has toxic cleanups in its midst. More about that later. Nice parks, though.

Wetlands are beautiful, but sometimes stinky, things. They have slow-to-not moving water and decomposing vegetation. As that veg sits there, over the years, it can create “swamp gases” as it breaks down. But even that isn’t what made the stench at the former slough memorable to people, who, in 1914, clearly recalled the Great Yuck of the 1890s. Humanity played a role in creating it: Apparently carp were a popular fish to stock in ponds back in the day. And humans being what we are, people weren’t thinking about consequences, so when it rained, the fish just washed into the wetland. After large rains in 1889 expanded the girth of the slough, the fish population expanded with it. And shoulders shrugged.

Then the drying started.

“the people imported a lot of carp about 1878-79 and everybody that had a lake or pond got some carp and stocked them up and in 1889 was overflowed and their ponds washed out and the fish were carried down to…(the) Slough and when (the) Slough began drying up some years later the fish commenced dying and made such a stench the supervisors had to hire men to clean them up and burn and bury them. – J.J. Morton, 1914

“…One noticed a dreadful stench coming from the direction of the…slough and it was found that the slough was drying up and leaving tons and tons of dead carp fish rotting in the mud. People went there and hauled away wagon loads of the fish for fertilizer and other purposes. Finally it became so bad that people began to leave Long Beach, and an appeal was made to Supervisors for relief. Trenches were dug and a great amount of the fish were buried – A.C. Cook, 1914

James P Reagan, County Flood Control Engineer, collected multiple accounts of this event in his document Early Floods in Los Angeles County (1914). (Creekfreak likes to quote this document. Here’s a few places…) Yet this wasn’t the only non-industrial stinky gross wetland horror story in LA’s recorded history. As we all know too well, LA’s rainfall patterns tend to be all-or-nothing. And LA used to be ranching country. So again with wetlands expanding and contracting:

In 1863-64 there was an awful drought and there were thousands of head of cattle and horse died. Going to Wilmington you had to tie something over your nose on account of the stench along the San Gabriel and Slough. You could walk for miles on dead cattle. The whole slough and river down below Bixby Hill was full of them. There were fifty men skinning cattle and there were boat loads of hides stacked up. There was no rain at all that season and feed was so short that the cattle got so weak when they would go down to the river and slough for water they would get in and mire down and were too weak to get out. -John Guess, 1914

This happened throughout the Ballona country, as well as the the Dominguez and lower San Gabriel areas. Hard to imagine, eh? (Not if you’re in Carson.)

Long story short: I don’t really have a point, except: ew.

Well, actually –

When I read that County Public Works was saying that the stench on Dominguez Channel was “natural”, part of me wanted to rear up and defend poor little Dominguez. There’s not much about it that is natural anymore. I’m sure that part of what is happening is because of the drought, and decay of whatever is on the bottom of the channel. Arguably “natural” in an otherwise wholly unnatural system. But it took “tons and tons” of dead carp in a 1200+ acre wetland, to create the level of sick that drove the residents of Long Beach away. So how many dead things would have to be in the Dominguez Channel right now to create the level of sick that is sickening Carson (and Gardena, where I smelled it)? Is there evidence of those dead things? Who knows if there are other factors, like industry, as some residents have wondered.

I don’t think it’s far from anyone’s mind that this is a community of color that is primarily impacted by this stench. And if you’re a thinking person, you have probably also made a mental note of all the heavy industry within spitting distance of many residents in the greater Dominguez watershed. If you pay attention to the news, the stories, for example of industrially contaminated soil in these areas that periodically pop up in the news are rather plentiful: for example, here, here, here…stop already you cry! But there’s so much more to show you – just take a whirl through the Department of Toxic Substance Control’s Envirostor.

Here’s a teaser:

So, these are communities that are deeply screwed.

That level of zoominess yields the same response in most of the LA Basin, to be fair. But when you scroll over to the IE or Ventura, it will display at that scale (=less screwed?). So, here’s a zoomed-in screenshot of part of the historical area of the Dominguez Slough:

Still screwed.

The Mapping Inequality project (screenshot below) showing how the New Deal government redlined the country offers additional insight. The slough still existed (offensive name intact), and the land around it was still being farmed, with housing – much of it described as oil workers and farm hands – in the “hazardous” (to lenders) redlined communities around it. Hawthorne where I grew up is just off the image, also “hazardous”, mainly due, apparently, to the presence of “Mexicans, Japanese, & Italians”.

Ironically(?), redlined ol Hawthorne was, before my time, a sundown town (as were many LA communities) and I recall how like the John Birch Society so many of our white neighbors sounded. And redlined Torrance was, in my youth, a pretty racist place. Which is a roundabout way to say, you can poke holes in correlations in the South Bay, between wetlands and industrial development and redlining and systemic racism. But, having lived there, I think the overall trend holds. And that, beyond the gross-out factor of stenches past and present, is what races to the fore of my mind as I follow the ongoing saga there.

Truths universally ignored: wetlands and floodplains are not great places to build. Yet instead of seeing them as ecological and hydrological resources, we see them as “wastes” and then treat them as such. Then we said that scapegoated peoples couldn’t live in the nice places, and left them to make homes on these “marginal” lands. Government helped to make so-called waste land usable, and industry – which wouldn’t be welcome in the “nice” places – sets up shop. You know this, I know this, people at whatever city hall you visit know this. But it happens anyway…

And as far as environmental racism and watersheds goes, it’s is an iceberg of an issue and we’re just looking at the tip. Oh, and: that iceberg is melting. Let’s talk about floodplains and race.


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§ 19 Responses to About that Dominguez Stench

  • Eleanor Pelcyger says:

    Reek Freak, how I love thee.

    Eleanor Pelcyger


  • Jack Hodges says:

    So interesting. Miss you!

  • Mike Letteriello says:

    Jessica Hall! Glad you visited! Was wondering about your whereabouts and interests these days. Good, long article on the Dominguez history and current mess. I used to “play” as a kid in Redondo Beach in a place we called “Alondra Swamp” that ran across and under Redondo Beach Blvd. near El Camino College in Torrance. Tadpoles, nonnative crawdads, fish in a natural gully that was all dirt and wetlands plants. (Now all concreted of course.) I realized later that it might have been connected with the Dominguez Slough. (Send email if you like when you’re in town.-Thx.)

  • Lynne says:

    Dominguez suffers from a lack of throughput. It originates fairly near the Hyperion water Treatment facility. Simple answer: re-engineer the storm drainage tunnel that (probably) runs under Imperial Highway to run from Hyperion to the beginning of the Channel (near Imperial and Doty ) and run all or part of Hyperion’s output into the Channel to keep it flowing — the way the LA River flows year-round with water from the Tillman facility in the Valley.

  • Hi Jessica! Please contact me. csovalle at gmail

  • When the stench first began I could smell it from my house. It was awful. But then I went to Carson City Hall on business. I rode my bike there (sole means of transport these days) and necessarily I rode over the channel. Ugh. Early on I was certain it was a hydrogen sulfide spill from the refineries, when the mayor of Carson said it was a leaking pipe it came as no surprise. Then… turns out no one could find the pipe. Later various agencies including County Public Works blamed it on decomposing organic matter at the bottom of the channel. I know, from working on various contaminated sites, that hydrogen sulfide can only come from organic matter in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic I think is the term). This sounded suspect to me because even standing water absorbs oxygen, and I know the water in the channel has some flow, particularly since there had been some light rain. When I rode my bike over the channel it became clear why… in addition to regular detritus there was a pale white substance with a sheen over the water. Even a tiny amount of oil will prevent oxygen from being absorbed into the water, and here we are. Organic matter sitting at the bottom decomposing in the absence of oxygen, hence hydrogen sulfide. There are dozens of permits for dumping stuff into the channel, five of those from refineries. I’m certain that it’s not mountain spring water they’re putting in there.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Thanks for the detailed account, Carlos! I’ve been wondering if waterkeeper or anyone else has gotten out there too take samples.

      • Carlos Ovalle says:

        Good question. Last time I spoke with them (last week) we were too into the weeds on discussing issues on a project where we’re co-litigants. I’ll reach out to them now.

      • Jessica Hall says:

        I should add: when I drove through the stench, in Gardena which is apparently not where it is the worst, my windows were up, inside air was on – and it was overwhelming. Anyone who thinks the solution is just staying inside is clearly not living in it.

  • Jim Donovan says:

    I have a friend of Chinese ancestry, who sought out Chinatowns while exploring historic communities and ghost towns in California. He told me that they were typically removed from town, down low, in or near the wetlands. Presumably, it was one place where the white settlers would let them be. It’s nice to see and read your work again, Jessica.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Hi Jim! Thanks for dropping by and the anecdote. Sadly not surprising, but helpful to share and get more people aware.

  • Michael Saucy says:

    Awesome write up.

  • Chad So says:

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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