An Artesian Belt in San Gabriel: Part II

January 6, 2010 § 9 Comments

This 1904 map shows a slender stream forming in the upper end of San Marino Canyon. Vegetation is labelled as "oaks" and "brush thicket". This item reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

This is part two of a posting that describes the Artesian Belt in San Gabriel from West to East. For the introduction to this section, click here.

Grading and Draining: the transformation of the Shorb Ranch

The property we know as the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, was once part of the famed ranch of J. De Barth Shorb, named San Marino. We are fortunate that relatively detailed documentation of the property has been preserved, giving us an intimate view of shifts in land use during the intervening century. « Read the rest of this entry »


For Your Viewing Pleasure: Turtles, Ballona Bikes, Dorothy Green and more!

October 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Here are some on-line videos that all us creek freaks might enjoy:

>Los Angeles Times account of Aquarium of the Pacific’s healing and release of an injured San Gabriel River sea turtle (Great video – with fascinating x-rays of broken turtle flipper bones. Kudos to the great work of the Aquarium of the Pacific staff and the Times’ Louis Sahagun. There are also sea lions in the San Gabriel River.)

>KTLA news coverage of Ballona Creek Bike Path issues (via LA Streetsblog, includes Ballona Creek Renaissance’s Jim Lamm)

>Dorothy Green with Creek Freak bloggers (Jessica and Joe) talking with Los Angeles City Councilmember Ed Reyes on the city’s L.A. River Report public information channel

>Hook TV on How to fish for carp in the Los Angeles River

>Jeffrey Tipton’s Montage on the July 2008 Los Angeles River Boating Expedition organized by George Wolfe (Coming soon: an actual high production value trailer about this expedition. Also, check out George’s kayak commute video.)

>A group I don’t know about called LA River Story has done a somewhat accurate trio of documentaries beginning with San Fernando Valley tributaries: The Great Wall of Los Angeles Mural on the Tujunga Wash, the adjacent Tujunga Wash Greenway, and what they’re calling the beginning of the river in Chatsworth.

>Turn Here’s Down by the (L.A.) River (How many errors can you spot in Creek Freak Joe Linton’s brief appearance? Be grateful that I don’t plan to blog on restaurant recommendations any time soon.)

>Meeting of Styles Graffiti Murals Event (These murals were later painted out)

>Insidious Bliss (A bleak and beautiful documentary on crystal meth addiction and homelessness in the Glendale Narrows stretch of the L. A. River)

and lastly a couple of not entirely successful attempts at Los Angeles River Humor:

>Stewart Paap in search of the LA River (“Easy access, huh?”)

>Deep Sea Fishing in Studio City (My favorite part of this are the outtakes and the brief scene where the actor steps around the construction fence – I plan to blog soon about my frustration that the city of Los Angeles’ Studio City Riverwalk has been fenced off for more than a year.)

Building a Healthier San Gabriel River Watershed Day 2

September 19, 2008 § 3 Comments

San Gabriel River Watershed (from LA&SGR Watershed Council website - click for larger image)

San Gabriel River Watershed (from LA&SGR Watershed Council website - click for larger image)

 If it’s Wednesday and I’m in El Monte, this must be the second day of the Watershed Council‘s Building a Healthy San Gabriel River Watershed conference.  I neglected to mention earlier that day one concluded with a very delicious dinner at the recently expanded Rio Vista Park.  I’ll blog about that park very soon.

Day two had plenty of informative speakers – a bit more focused, less broad than day one.  Irma Munoz, of Mujeres de la Tierra, spoke on doing real community engagement, not just minority outreach.  Irma tells it like it is – especially how critical it is that we listen to and respect our stakeholders.  Munoz got quite a few questions from agency staff who (it seemed to me) wanted her to reveal the secret trick to making connections with the community.  There’s no shortcut for real respect and transparency and knocking on doors.  Travis Longcore, of the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, spoke about the false dichotomy between cities and nature (and local impacts on the Loggerhead Shrike also called the Butcher Bird).  Ken Schwarz, an environmental restoration engineer for Horizon Water & Environment, discussed changing approaches to flood control channels urban streams, including hopeful examples from Napa, Sonoma, and Ballona Creek.  He brought up an interesting aspect that I think is underappreciated locally – integrated channel maintenance(!) and restoration. With all our integrated plans, there hasn’t been much focus on how go about maintaining existing channels and rights-of-way to better restore ecological functions… hmmm… there’s a whole blog entry that we could do with that one… soon.  Ellen Mackey, the Watershed Council‘s native plant guru  Senior Ecologist, spoke about the importance of emphasizing locally native plants.  She’s been instumental in coming up with the very-native LA River Master Plan landscaping guidelines, mapping vegetation on the San Gabriel River, and is also looking at that pesky maintenance issue – by coming up with a site-specific park maintenance manual for park staff and the community.  I will try to get my hands on this and share it soon on this blog.

Climate change was the subject of the second panel, with Rich Varenchik of the California Air Resources Board giving a broad overview of the state’s plan to implement AB32.  It mostly boils down to a much needed massive energy-efficiency plan (with some some smart growth and low impact development thrown in.)  For me, the most interesting speaker of the whole day was Stefan Lorenzato of the state Department of Water Resources.  Lorenzato spoke about how climate change is shifting how we look at watershed management.  In the unpredicability of future climates, he stressed that we should move away from monitoring for static goals, and look at “gradients.”  Our strategy should create rich resilient mosaics, not monocultures.  He connected this with a look at unpublished research that he’s involved in that shows the roughness of various stream channels.  It turns out that, at some flow volumes/speeds, some vegetation (ie: willows) turns out to be less rough (which is to say, allows more stream flow volume) than bare channels.  This means that some vegetation in a channel doesn’t necessarily reduce that channel’s capacity.  I will try to track this study down and blog on it, too (gotta keep a list of the promises I make here.)

The day ended with a media panel: Louis Sahagun of the Los Angeles Times, and Steve Scauzillo of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.  They each spoke movingly of growing up along the then “lush jungle setting” of the San Gabriel River and how their journalism has brought environmental issues to light.  The creek freak bloggers could learn a thing or two from these veteran journalists… especially about getting out a good “summary lead.”  I have to work on that.

Changing Historical Alignments of the San Gabriel River

Lastly, here’s an image from Eric Stein’s presentation on day one of the conference.  I blogged on this before, but didn’t have the visuals to show you.  The maps on the left show how the course of the San Gabriel River has changed over time.  Click on the image to download the full 17MB SCCWRP report.

Well… there’s was quite a bit more that went on at the conference… but that’s my summary of the formal high points.  The best informal aspects of conferences being those times where I get to catch up with many of the other creek freaks from throughout the southland.  I’m grateful to and looking forward to more informative events from the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council.

Recent News, Upcoming Events 2008 September 18

September 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

An occasional round-up of news and events. Act now as these links tend to get kinda stale kinda quickly.

Urban River Turtles: on August 30th, the L.A. Times reported that Endangered Green Sea Turtles have taken up residence at the mouth of the San Gabriel River.

Long Beach Buy River Greenway Parcel: on September 11th, reported that Long Beach has acquired land for their L.A. River Greenway. The parcel is located between 6th and 7th Streets on the west side of downtown Long Beach.

Urban River Hippos, too?: on September 17th a Downtown News editorial cartoon blatantly favors dangerous invasive species in our local waterways.

Layers of Cornfield History: on September 17th, the selfsame Downtown News reports on archaeologists invading our cornfields.

“I don’t look back, only forward.” : on September 17th, L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez interviews Dorothy Green, founder of Heal the Bay and the California Water Impact Network and one of our heroes.

Upcoming Events:

California Coastal Clean-up Day takes place this Saturday September 20th from 9am to 12noon at beaches, parks, creeks and rivers near you.

The 2008 Frogtown Artwalk is also this Saturday. It opens with a 4:30pm Los Angeles River walk hosted by yours truly. It’s a great stretch of river – come on down.

Friends of the Los Angeles River hosts Riofest on October 2nd and 4th, including music by Very Be Careful!

Building a Healthier San Gabriel River Watershed Day 1

September 17, 2008 § 3 Comments

 I’m attending the “Building a Healthier San Gabriel River Watershed” conference in El Monte today and tomorrow.  Thanks to the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council for hosting.  For me, today’s stand-out presentation was by Eric Stein of Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCRWP, affectionately called “skwurp.”)  Stein, with others, is the author of a report called Historical ecology and landscape change of the San Gabriel River and floodplain which is available on SCCWRP’s website as Technical Report No. 499 (a 17MB PDF file.)  Jessica referred to this report in an earlier blog about L.A.’s historic streams.

Stein’s team compiled various historic San Gabriel River sources.  Primary sources included coastal resources mapping (1850s-1880s), Disenos – Spanish Land Grant maps (1830s-1860s), Irrigation maps (1880s), soil survey maps (early 1900’s) and early aerial photos – as well as secondary sources including the early County Flood Control District Interviews (that Jessica fondly blogged about here and here.)  From these, the team was able to map the changing historical configurations of the San Gabriel River.

In early accounts, the San Gabriel River was a tributary of the Los Angeles River.  Their confluence was where the Rio Hondo meets the L.A. River today.  In heavy rains in 1867 the San Gabriel River shifted out of its bed and moved to more-or-less its present course, emptying into the Pacific Ocean at Seal Beach.  Initially the new San Gabriel River course was simply called “the new river.”  Over time, the new river came to be called the San Gabriel and the old San Gabriel was re-named the Rio Hondo.

This shifting behaviour is not unusual for Southern California Rivers, which tend to move around the relatively flat alluvial plain.  The shifting courses of the L.A. River are mapped in Gumprecht’s book.  Our rivers have many mouths, many distributaries.  Indeed, Stein makes the case (as the Watershed Council does) that the San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers are historically inseparable.  They’re one overlapping and intermingling system.

Stein further states that the very dynamic local San Gabriel River system consisted of large continuous zones of floodplain – a large swampy area with sloughs, lakes and wetlands dotting the landscape.  These would sometimes dry up leaving vast seasonal alkali flats.  Stein characterized the main drivers of changes to the landscape (that is: near total loss of historic wetlands) as including: transportation (initially railroads followed by impermeable automobile roads), extraction of groundwater, and construction of flood control infrastructure.

The report has lots of excellent color maps that tell the story well.  I will try to get some of these and blog them here soon. The free conference continues tomorrow from 10am to 4:30pm.  Sorry for not blogging this sooner, but if you’re interested in the San Gabriel River, come on down and join us at the Grace Black Auditorium at 3130 N. Tyler Ave in El Monte, CA 91731.

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!


LA Streams in early 1900

August 2, 2008 § 2 Comments

Los Angeles’ natural environment has obviously changed a great deal with its history.  So much so that it is difficult for ecologists and historians to re-create a picture of LA before 1860.  By 1900, a lot had happened to this region – lands that had been managed by the Tongva had been converted to ranching and grazing lands under the Spanish and later Mexican colonies, and subsequently farmed fairly intensively by Anglo-American settlers (a troublesome term, I mean Anglo in the way my hispano ancestors did, coming from the word anglosajón, English speaker).  These landscape changes may seem subtle to our urbanized eyes, but they resulted in significant changes of habitat & vegetation, runoff & groundwater infiltration patterns, and water use (widespread pumping of the groundwater).  So the streams noted in 1900 were mostly likely quite different in 1800.  And we know that urbanization has resulted in even more dramatic landscape changes. 

As Joe’s post noted, Blake Gumprecht’s the Los Angeles River:  It’s Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth is an excellent description of the river, based on first hand accounts, and its demise into its current state.  One source Gumprecht mentions in his book is a flood control engineer, James P. Reagan, who in 1914 interviewed old timers for their memories of floods and waters in LA.  A colleague handed me a photocopy of Reagan’s interviews several years ago, and my sense of LA has never been the same.  Here’s a juicy tidbit describing the Carson-Dominguez-Compton-Gardena area (more of these to follow as time for typing allows):

The Carson Brothers at Dominguez have lived there all their lives.  Ed. Carson states that the river at one time ran along the foot of the hills at the Dominguez home place, 1824.  They said that from Dominguez hill to Los Cerritos is considered the river. In 1858, perhaps it was the ’60-’61 flood, a boat came up from San Pedro and took the Carson family, who lived over in the valley east of the Dominguez home, off of their marooned and dangerous position and carried them over to the Dominguez place. 

The floods in those days were not so damaging and did not wash as they do in these later days, for there were no railroad embankments to hold the water or to concentrate it, but the water was free to spread out over the valley and did little damage.  And too, the valley was covered with a growth of willow, larch, and sycamore trees, together with grasses and other undergrowth which prevented a rapid movement of waters.  The railroad fill from what is now Elftman and Watson, was washed out and the floods poured into the…Slough. This was 1889.  About 1894 the Slough began drying up rapidly, and fish began to die by the tons.  The stench became so bad it became necessary to burn and burn the dead fish.  This greatly fertilized the land….

One excellent recent account detailing landscape changes with respect to our waterways is the study, Historical Ecology and Landscape Change in the San Gabriel River and Floodplain (careful! clicking on this link unleashes a 16.5 MB download but well worth the read!), put together by a great team of researchers out of Southern California Coastal Waters Research Project (SCCWRP), Cal State Northridge (CSUN), University of Southern California (USC), San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), and the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council (LASGRWC).  The project was funded by the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (RMC). While we obviously can’t reclaim the landscape of 200 years ago, or even 100 years ago, we can recover some of our natural environment.  More on that later.

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