Of chenopods and corn: agriculture along the Los Angeles River, both then and now

July 27, 2016 § 5 Comments

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In the very early days of agriculture in the Los Angeles basin,  the seasonal flooding of the Los Angeles River was intimately connected with the possibility of agriculture. Farmers welcomed flood-deposited silt. It made stuff grow. The agriculture of then grew out of the river of then.

The agriculture of now also deserves to be discussed in the context of the LA River, though  it may require some serious visionary thinking to draw out the possibilities of this connection. Some have suggested the idea of community gardens along the river. Maybe in the near future. But let’s not forget that in the river as it currently stands, there are already all sorts of useful or edible plants that grow profusely without labor, chemicals, or other inputs. What can we learn from those plants?

Last of all, how can we put together the past and present to envision ways in which sustainable local food production might intersect with the Los Angeles River of the future?

At L.A. River Expeditions‘ Sepulveda Basin tour this past Sunday, kayak guide Gary Golding talked about useful wild plants currently found along the LA river channel, such as cattails, castor bean, wild mustards… Some of these plants are exotics and some are natives. Some are edible, and others are used medicinally. But what they all have in common is that they grow profusely and unapologetically, without the help of chemicals, irrigation, or the human hand, in any place suitable to their needs. This includes right in the Los Angeles River channel, where they thrive beneath a lush canopy of native willows. So why not learn what they are and learn how to use them?

Gary talked a long time about cattails. Parts of the plant can be processed into flour. Other parts can be eaten like celery. The pollen can be used in several different ways, and is considered to have healthful properties. This is just a brief capsule of one of the many plants he talked about.

My own talk started with the agriculture of then. Believe it or not, in the early days of (European) settlement in the basin, the soil in many valley areas of Los Angeles used to retain enough moisture to allow for farming without irrigation— this is called dry farming. Ludwig Louis Salvator wrote in 1876 of the “tablelands” of Los Angeles, that properly prepared soil could produce “nine good annual harvests out of ten, without irrigation, of castor oil beans, Indian corn, barley, alfalfa, potatoes, and various kinds of vegetables.”

At that time, the LA Basin was only sparsely developed. In that big open basin, plant roots and plant litter facilitated the soaking of water into the ground. Imagine about 50% of all rainfall ending up stored in the ground (California Water & Land Use Partnership), moving slowly downward through soil with the help of gravity, where it eventually joins the water table. In those days, rain moving slowly underground would have eventually re-emerged into one of the many streams, marshes, ponds, or wetlands in the LA River basin.

Though flooding did occur during the rainy season, it was different from the sudden devastating flooding of the early-mid 1900s– the flood stories we often hear about tend to be mostly from this specific period in history. This pop mythology about the river focusses on the kind of flooding that worsened in severity after houses and roads had already replaced the vegetation that had helped the ground behave like a sponge; the kind of devastating flooding that eventually prompted the channelization of the river into a thick bed of concrete… That kind of destructive flooding was still unknown. In the earliest days, rather, flooding was to be respected, but it also included the happy possibility that the river would deposit rich silt over the land, sometimes in layers several feet deep. Farmers loved this silt. The oral histories collected by Reagan in 1914 include many in which farmers praise the flood-deposited silt.

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. (Proctor, from Reagan)

These stories might sound fantastical, but in his book on the Los Angeles River, Blake Gumprecht credits river-deposited soils as the reason Los Angeles County was “the most productive agricultural county in the United States until the 1950s.”

Contrast that to our current situation (call it the well-drained city), where 61% of the non-mountainous portions of the city of Los Angeles is covered by impervious surfaces, the hard surfaces like paving and roofs that prevent water from soaking into the ground (McPherson et al, 2008). Water moves very quickly over those hard surfaces, and is funneled into an elaborate network of stormdrains that transports captured rainfall as efficiently as possible into the ocean, rather than allowing it to soak into the ground where it might be replenishing aquifers, streams, and rivers.

On undeveloped land (this depends on slope, soil, vegetation cover, and other factors), one might expect 10% of rainfall to become surface runoff. In urbanized areas, about 55% of rain falling on the ground can become runoff that ends up in storm drains (California Water & Land Use Partnership). It is ironic that the finely networked stormdrain system that culminates in the  Los Angeles River flood control channel really functions to dispose of the water that otherwise would be creating our streams. (This is why any river restoration that focusses only on the main channel without touching the network of tributaries higher up in the watershed might look good, but is essentially an end-of-pipe solution– it will not have a large impact on the river’s hydrology– it will certainly not help the river capture more water.) With precipitation disposed of so efficiently, the landscape of the Los Angeles basin is now so well-drained that the idea of growing vegetable crops without artificial irrigation, even in the ‘table lands,’ might seem fantastical.

—–

What about the agriculture of now? As I spoke, some kayakers pointed out a field of corn planted right in Sepulveda Basin, near our trip’s starting point.

I had to investigate. Rows of corn were planted neatly,  but the stalks were wan and thin. The plants on the edge of the field were dried. Maybe irrigation had just recently ceased. I was surprised to see that the plant that gave the field a dark green color from a distance was actually a species that appeared to have volunteered. This plant, growing far more prolifically than the intended crop, appeared to be some sort of chenopod.  « Read the rest of this entry »

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 § 9 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.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Jan 3, 1868: Trouble at the waterworks

January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Twenty-one years before Joe’s Christmas story post  took place, in which Mulholland frantically worked for four days to protect the water system, the floods of 1867-68 indeed took apart a key component of LA’s water supply system. Old timers describe the rainfall leading up to the event in consistent terms with the LA County Hydrology Manual’s Capital Storm. And while our recent Pineapple Express fits the pattern, it did not provide the required rainfall intensity to fully test our drainage system, or even come close to this historical flood event.

Back in 1867, a small dam diverted flows out of the LA River for feeding the zanja system. This dam was called La Toma. W.H. Lander describes it for us in a 1914 interview (all historical material from James Reagan’s Early Floods in Los Angeles County, 1914):

“Right where the S.P. freight station sets used to be a slough and he has caught fish and turtles there but he thinks that water used to be caused by the ditch from the Old La Toma which was a lake, they had a dam across the river about where the Buena Vista St., bridge was and formed quite a lake to get the water into the ditches, and used to go swimming there when he was a boy. (W.H. Lander, interviewed by R.A. Borthick)

The rains resulted in loss of the dam:

Los Angeles News, January 3, 1868

Loss of City Dam

This dam which furnished the city with water, and had been repaired at an expense of some three thousand dollars, was entirely swept away, and until it is repaired, will necessitate the renewal of the water cart system, which a few years ago was our only source of supply. « Read the rest of this entry »

Of nexus and navigability

August 4, 2008 § 5 Comments

Is the Los Angeles River navigable? The recent kayaking adventure, documented here at LA Creekfreak and elsewhere, demonstrated that it is. The Army Corps’ definition of navigability, however, may relate more narrowly to navigation for interstate commerce. Perhaps if people fly in from out of state, spend some money on kayak rentals, sunscreen and snacks, we’ll fit the definition.

Until then, however, we’re stuck with technicalese to protect the River. As the Army Corps has noted, the officially non-navigable reaches of the River remain protected due to their “significant nexus(link leads to ACOE ppt download on the topic) with the Navigable Water body reaches. Several Supreme Court justices ago, all that was needed to extend Clean Water Act protections to our southwestern rivers was evidence that a waterway was a tributary to a Navigable Water. Now it’s not so clear. I have heard conflicting things about tributaries and their status. A past, present, or potential future “significant nexus” needs to be demonstrated – basically someone has to prove that the degradation of a waterway would impact the water quality of the Navigable Water, and now each tributary to the LA River will need this level of investigation before it attains federal regulatory oversight (which does not guarantee physical protection, a topic for another day).

The River, like so many southwestern rivers and streams, had a great deal of variability to it. Some reaches may have been more like washes, where flows infiltrated into the groundwater; other reaches had perennial water flow. And if you go back a few hundred years, the lowest reach of the river was more like a broad wetland and forest floodplain that soaked up runoff like a sponge, with surface waters rarely reaching the ocean. These waterways were incredibly dynamic, shifting course when log jams or sediment would build up, forcing a new direction for the water to spread. Our mistake is in defining the river exclusively as the channel where we see water. Rivers function to transport water and sediment, dissipate energy, facilitate biological and chemical processes, and support habitat. In all rivers these functions depend upon not only the river’s channel but also its floodplain, and to some degree, its relationship to groundwater. A river is also the sum of its tributaries. The role of tributaries, the floodplain and groundwater may be even more pronounced in our southwestern rivers and streams, and our evaluation of the LA River should be inclusive of these relationships, not as the significant nexus, but as part and parcel of the River itself. This would be consistent with the Clean Water Act preamble, which states a purpose to restore and maintain “the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”.

For many, we would feel a greater level of security knowing the River, in either its current or historic configuration, simply met the criteria of Navigability. Historical data I’ve reviewed provides interesting, if hardly voluminous, evidence of boating (& swimming, not really a regulatory criteria but fun info). Despite the widespread characterization of the LA River as “a river by courtesy at times” that, like its tributaries, “sink(s) into the sand in places…and seep(s) along beneath the surface for miles, to appear again,” (Charles Holder, 1906) the river and its mountain tributaries were popular destinations for fishermen of steelhead trout. Ludwig Louis Salvator*, in his enthusiastic travelogue, Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies, even references the use of boats to capture these fish:

“…fine brook-trout and salmon-trout are also caught. The latter are usually taken with what are called gill-nets…The net does not touch bottom since the fish swim fairly near the surface, but is stretched diagonally across the stream or a section of it and floats with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile while the fishermen follow behind in a boat.”

Unfortunately, Salvator does not identify specifically where this boating occurred, speaking only of mountain streams. It seems reasonable to speculate that boats following nets “with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile” would need to be on a relatively flat reach of a stream, i.e. the Los Angeles River in one of its perennial reaches, such as at elPotrero de los Felizes Los Pescaditos,“a favorite fishing place on the east side of the river opposite Griffith Park”. Speculation, however, isn’t the basis for regulation.

But boating was also known to occur within the lower Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers’ floodplains. More quotes from James P. Reagan’s 1914 oral histories:

Mr. J. H. Orr, Compton, R. F. D. 1, 101 Home at Compton.

Mr. Orr has lived in this neighborhood for twenty-six years. In 1889 he says the whole country was flooded and to give an idea of how much water there was, he with some others rowed in a boat from Downey almost to Compton, that is to the S. P. R. R. track, tied their boat and walked across to Compton, bought their provisions and returned in the same way. The water was all over the country for six weeks and nothing could be done…

Mr. Lafayette Saunders, 2303 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach

…I have seen this valley solid across here between these mesas (Los Cerritos and Dominguez Hill) and nearly four feet deep. I rode in a row boat with two other from Long Beach to Wilmington and returned for provisions, and the water was from a foot of(sic) so to three and one-half feet deep.”

Here the boating is seasonal in character and really a response to the natural flood regime, in that lower LA River basin that had one time been like a sponge. Obviously this was not pleasure boating! Reagan also indicated that the Los Angeles River in the Glendale Narrows reach was good swimming:

Mr. Randall H. Hewitt, 529 Merchants Trust Bldg.

The year 1876 was a dry year and no water flowed below what was called the “Toma” in those days, above the Downey St. Bridge, which is now North Broadway, where the boys used to go swimming….

(the Toma was a dam that diverted water into the zanja irrigation system)

Joe Bernal, Room 53, Temple Block:

Mr. Bernal was seen at his office today at noon. He was born and raised in Los Angeles… In his boyhood days he used to go swimming in the Los Angeles river when it flowed down Alameda Street. (Reagan)

While hardly likely to convince the Corps that the LA River meets their definition of navigability, these historical anecdotes hint at humanity’s relationship to the river’s more complex structure.

Not just the river, all the streams and wetlands of the LA area, really, have already suffered death by a thousand cuts through the draining, channelization and culverting of over 90% of them. The “significant nexus” test here just adds several additional tons of paperwork and bureaucracy under which to bury our remaining waterways.

 

*Special thanks to Brian Braa, landscape architect, friend, and Seeking Streams cohort, whose research genius found this author & document.

 

 

Throwing the waters, a real throw-down near El Monte

August 4, 2008 § 3 Comments

 

Lexington Wash/Rio Hondo, and the San Gabriel River bed, between Bassett and El Monte.

Scene of the fight: Lexington Wash/Rio Hondo, and the San Gabriel River bed, between Bassett and El Monte. Source: USGS circa 1900

You’ve all probably heard the Mark Twainism, “Whiskey is for drinkin’, water is for fightin’.” Here’s a tale that brings the phrase to life.  “Turning” or “throwing” the waters, i.e. the digging of ditches, placement of dams, or other methods to redirect river flows out of one’s property – and onto someone else’s – was apparently not unheard of. In 1867-68, the San Gabriel River took over the Lexington Wash (which joined, or was part of, the Rio Hondo), with serious consequences for some.  From the James P. Reagan interviews of 1914, in which George H. Peck sets the stage:

“…(t)he place is still known as the Old Peck place.  It was a mistake to have bought the land on the river, but we did not know it at the time.

In 1868 our troubles began with the river.  We lost about 150 acres that year, and each succeeding flood took its quota of spoils until there was barely 150 acres left of the original 480 acres which my father bought.

Lexington Wash was commonly known in those days as Lick Skillet Wash.  In those days and even now the river bed was higher than the land on each side.  When the floods came down it was no difficulty to direct the water to either side of the river bed.  The water would flow readily either way if left alone it would usually split and go in each direction.  However, it was not left alone.  

In our case, the water began washing away our land and we wanted to protect our place and get rid of the water.  Many times I have gone up the river, taking a few Indians with me to move a few boulders about and get the water going the way we wanted it to.  By placing a double row of boulders across the stream it would raise the river water level enough to throw the water over the other way.  

Of course, it brought opposition for people on the other side did not want the water either.  It finally became serious, and when a man wanted his work to stand it was necessary to stay with it, armed with a double-barrelled shot gun…

Mr W. R. Dodson complains of his bad neighbors:  

In 1889 he had a house washed away and quite a piece of ground.  The house stood just above where the bridge is now.  He says the principal cause of the big water in 1889 in the west of El Monte branch of the San Gabriel river was on account of the people on the east or Bassett side of the San Gabriel turning the water over into the west branch. 

He says sometime in about 1890 himself and others built a rock dam about half a mile above the Peck place, to keep the water over in the old or east channel of the San Gabriel.  The dam was some 300 or 400 feet long, and about two to two and one-half feet high.  He himself paid about 50 men for 2 or 3 days work, and he claims parties from down Downey way — the Scott people and Jim Durffy – came up and turned the water back into the west branch, and helped the water to tear down their dam.  He claims their dam stopped the water from coming down the west side, and would have continued to do so if the other parties had left the water alone. 

He says another time he had about twenty men working up there and 3 or 4 from the other side came to turn it back.  Says he had a shot gun with him, and told his men to go ahead, and the other parties to beat it, and they beat it.

He says there has been more or less fighting and turning of water for the last thirty years; the people of the east side turning the water to the west side, and the people of the west side building dams and trying to keep it from coming that way.

He says they had more water in the Rio Hondo at El Monte in 1914 than every before.  Says Davis, the rock quarry man, was mostly to blame; took all the rocks out of the stream and on this side of the Santa Fe for about a mile, and that naturally made the water run to the westerly, or El Monte side.  

Mr. Walter P. Temple recalled the events:

..(t)here were efforts by various parties to turn the river back to its old channel but there were other parties who wished it to continue to the westward and who would undo or help to undo the work of the first parties.  It became serious for a time and force was used in the way of shot guns to maintain the levee built…

Mr. Victor Manzanares chimed in:

…(t)here used to be some trouble between the Americans who then were trying to turn the river either to the east or the west. Sometimes some men would go up above El Monte where the river divided, and put a dike or bank across the river to turn all of the river to the east or back to the original bed. Other men would find it out and go up there and tear their work down and turn the water down the west side, which would come down and join the Rio Hondo. There was some bad feeling about turning this water from branch of the river to the other and some times it was necessary to guard the work with a gun to get it to stay there.  I know three men who were sent up there at night to break one of these levees…

And Mr. Jose Silva:

I never knew much about the changing of the San Gabriel river to the west of El Monte.  We have always known the San Gabriel to pass over to the Bassett side and think that is where a river has always been and where it belongs, although there are a good many people who think that it should go over west of El Monte, and who will object to all of the water being cut off and turned to the Bassett side.  

…I have heard that many of the old time Americans have put small levees of sacks and sand to turn the water from one side to the other according to where they wanted the water to go.  Mr. Peck used to turn the water to the west while Mr. Dodson wanted the water to go through the east side.  There was some strong words about it and sometimes a man would have to stay on his work with a shotgun to insure its staying there.  I have heard that Mr. Durfee was interested too, but I do not know any of the men who did the work…When the water was running it was easy to turn the river either way and a man with a pick or shovel could easily turn the water…”

Here’s Mr. Durffy’s side of the story:

Mr. Durffy says that about 1889 the water from San Gabriel Canyon broke out of the old bed just below the Santa Fe tracks, where the steel bridge is, and went westerly toward Duarte, and then down on the westerly side of El Monte.  The Santa Fe and some of the people down at El Monte decided to turn it back into the old channel one Sunday, and he, and others interested did not say what the names of the others were, did not get wind of it until Saturday afternoon, and he came to town to get an injunction, but County offices were all closed up and he could not get an injunction out.  The Santa Fe (b?)ought out quite a bunch of men and quite a number came up from El Monte early Sunday morning and commenced building a dam to turn the water back into the easterly branch, or where it had run before it broke out.  He and some others that were interested in keeping the waters over on the westerly side as it had gone over there from natural causes, and it was the lowest side, found by experimenting with a shovel, and as the other side has all the disadvantage of a direct drop from 2 to 2 ½ feet, that one man with a shovel was worth more than 50 men on the other side building up, and they decided they did not need an injunction.  He says part of the water has gone there ever since. 

He says he does not know anything about the rock dam Mr. Dodson built about half a mile above the Peck place, and claimed that some people from Downey and the Scott people and himself helped the water tear down.  He thinks Mr. Dodson is mistaken; and anyway the dam he built could not have amounted to much in keeping the water from going over El Monte way, as it was too far south to help much; that most of the water went over on the west side before it got down that far.

We know the river was a difficult neighbor – I’m not so sure about some of these people either!

 

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