LA River Historical Flows, circa 1879

February 3, 2022 § 5 Comments

Just a quick note to add some perspective to a recent LA Times article about treated wastewater discharged into the LA River and the possibility that this could be reduced. The amount of water in the river in its “beforetimes” has been the subject of quite some argument that sometimes gets trotted out to justify modern decisions. So here’s documentation from the State Engineer William Hammond Hall circa 1877 (Emphasis mine):

The drainage of the Los Angeles river after leaving the Sierra Madre Mountains is received into the large basin of the San Fernando Valley, whose soil is gravelly and porous, but probably underlaid with an impervious substration(sic) of clay or rock , and acting as a great sponge, it holds the water it receives and gives it off slowly. This valley is shut in on the south of the coast range at the foot of which the river runs, finding an outlet through the hills by a narrow gap just above the city of Los Angeles. The streams emptying into the basin are the Paloma, the Pacoima, the Tujunga, and the Verdugo, of which the largest is the Tujunga. Like all the mountain torrents which descend from the Sierra Madre, they have a very rapid fall, and on reaching the valley spread out into broad “washes”, whose beds are composed of boulders gravel and coarse sand. In flow they flow entirely across the valley to the Los Angeles river, but in summer the water barely emerges from the mountains, and sinks from sight in the porous channels. The Arroyo Seco, another large tributary having the same characteristics as the other mountain torrents, enters the river at the city of Los Angeles.

In May last the discharge of the river at the mouth of Tujunga Wash ten miles above the city, where the upper dam of the Los Angeles irrigation system is located, was 24 ½ cubic feet per second. This amount was augmented by about 54 cubic feet per second from springs rising in the bed of the river at various points between this dam and the city. The total available supply therefore was about 78 ½ cubic feet per second. An amount which is but little diminished during the summer months.

Below the city the river is broad, shallow and sandy, and only upon rare occasions does the water ever find its way entirely to the sea, but is absorbed by the thirsty sand.

-State Engineer William Hammond Hall Papers, Misc. Working Papers, General Irrigation Info, Reports- LA County (Schuyler)
Which are at the State Archives under AC 91-06-10

(Schuyler FWIW is the actual person taking the measurements and writing the notes…The dam mentioned is near present day North Hollywood. That total flow description is for flow approximately near Figueroa Street in Northeast LA – He doesn’t mention any inflow from the Arroyo Seco, so it’s hard to say if he was measuring above or below that)

It’s a shame the terms of contemporary debate are so narrow that serious people only argue about how much life support (treated sewage aka used imported water) to give the river – if any. In some parallel universe there is perhaps a dialogue being had about recharging groundwater, reconnecting floodplains, and removing or reducing the effect of dams on river flows… but for us, in this universe, we don’t even have in the English language much of a functioning subjunctive tense with which to describe the possibilities that the river (and we) deserve, without being laughed out of the room.

But the subjunctive still gives us this: Long live the river!

Symposium Explores the Complexities of Sediment Management

September 29, 2011 § 8 Comments

1969. A conveyor belt transports sediment away from Big Tujunga Reservoir. (Los Angeles Public Library Images)

Last Tuesday (9/20), the Council for Watershed Health (formerly the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council) hosted a creek-freaky event entitled Shifting Soil: Sediment Management Policies in Los Angeles. While I was fortunate enough to be in attendance, it has taken some time to digest all that was discussed and to place in context all of the remarks that were made. The following is my best attempt at a summary including a few thoughts on the topic. For further reading, have a gander at Mademoiselle Gramophone’s in depth coverage (including video and audio snippets) or visit the Council’s event archive for downloadable PDF files of each presentation. A friendly forewarning: this post is a lengthy one… « Read the rest of this entry »

Bring back the floodplain!

May 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Creekfreaks who enjoy (if that’s the word for it) my regular call (rant?) for floodplain reacquisition may find this Washington Post article gratifying.

Floods along the Mississippi River lead to renewed calls for a change in strategy.

A point of view folks in California from the Bay Delta on down to “Katrina West” areas  may want to take under consideration.

Thanks to Melanie Winter of the River Project for forwarding the Wash Post story, and Jeffrey Jones for the Bay Delta report news.  To echo Mel, a functioning LA River floodplain – especially in the San Fernando Valley – would benefit our local water resources as well as bring back habitat and create recreational areas.

Speaking up for Hetch Hetchy Valley

December 2, 2010 § 3 Comments

What do you tell a major, environmentally and socially progressive metropolitan area that drowns Yosemite’s twin valley for its water and electricity?

NBC interview with Restore Hetch Hetchy Board Chair Mark Cederborg and Executive Director Mike Marshall.

Restore Hetch Hetchy!

That’s right, San Francisco gets its water from the Hetch-Hetchy Valley, part of the Yosemite Park System. Legislation was passed that enabled a dam to be built on National Park land early in the 1900s. But San Francisco can manage its water supply without this dam. In the same way that most Angelenos don’t know where their water comes from, or the impact it has on those places, most San Franciscans don’t know their water comes from Hetchy Hetchy either. They don’t know that John Muir’s heart broke when he lost the political battle over the valley, or that today Senator Feinstein could be a game changer for its fate…but isn’t interested. And I’m guessing that most folks in the Bay Area don’t know that when you look at the residential water use outside of San Francisco County (with an admirable per capita consumption rate of 68 gallons per person/day), you find veritable water hogs on a par with or even exceeding Los Angeles, viz. San Bruno: 95.4 gpp/d; Stanford University: 107 gpp/d; Redwood City: 130.5 gpp/d; Palo Alto: 203.8 gpp/d; Menlo Park: 338.9 gpp/d! (Follow this Sierra Club link to page 5 for a list.)

Advocates from Restore Hetch Hetchy came down to LA and brought a film festival together at AFI two weeks ago. They noted that Los Angeles responded to statewide public pressure (and litigation) and pulled together to save Mono Lake, and that we’ve successfully held steady our total water consumption rates despite population growth. Thanks for the nod, Bay Area peeps! They are hoping that Angelenos will take an interest and step up public opinion to remove the dam at Hetch Hetchy – and after being ribbed over the years about how LA is “stealing all the water” how many times? I’m sure we’re willing to oblige for a good cause.

A Small Red “Y”

February 27, 2010 § 4 Comments

The red "Y" indicates "stream bottom" vegetation, and coincides with the Eagle Rock Creek forming from two small branches. Light brown indicates "sage". Other indicated plants include Sycamore (in stream bottoms), and on the slopes, Chamise, Ceanothus crassifolius, Laurel Sumac, Black sage, and Scrub oak ("Quercus dumosa"). Source: Wieslander, 1928.

A very interesting day! We visited several sections of the Eagle Rock canyon on a quest to find sycamores that predate development. It is amazing that despite the scale of engineering and earthmoving that resulted in  1.) the building of the 134 freeway over foothill terrain  2.) an entire complex of utilities related buildings and an access road to Scholl Canyon Dump being built over the streambed– that the stream continues to flow, as if nothing has ever changed!

All this urban complexity means that the landscape around the stream appears radically different  (if it’s above ground at all) in different places. Depending on where you are, you might only see concrete under your feet and utility lines overhead. In another section, you might look down from the road and see sycamores growing near the base of steep canyon walls.

The most idyllic part of the canyon is the far upper reaches, which still show a similar same palette of vegetation as recorded by a crew under Wieslander in 1928, save for some very old introduced trees.

I was thankful to be with plant people.  Barbara Eisenstein pointed out monkey flower, and Ceanothus crassifolius, which was in full bloom.

It was amazing to think that only a couple generations ago, this same mix of vegetation extended all the way down the canyon past the Eagle Rock. This reminds me of the passage by Helen and Francis Line, who lived right at the Eagle Rock, from January 1945:

Shortly after we moved here to our home last January 26, the buckthorn bloomed. It has come early this season and the hills are already turning white again. Each of the eleven months that we have been here– save one or two– has seen wild shrubs and flowers in blossom;– the buckthorn, monkey flower, buckwheat, toyon, and wild tobacco.

By a wonderful stroke of luck, we also met someone who knew about the history of the canyon, who offered information to corroborate something told to me by one of Eagle Rock’s most illustrious oldtimers. More on this later.

The lower part of Eagle Rock Creek, which used to be the central feature of a well-known local park is described at Myriad Unnamed Streams.

An Artesian Belt in San Gabriel: Part II

January 6, 2010 § 10 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 »

Creekfreak gets sent to the (not-a) Cornfield

September 28, 2009 § 3 Comments

But not in a Twilight Zone kind of a way!  I am giving a talk at the Farmlab/Not-A-Cornfield space, located next to the historic Cornfields aka Los Angeles State Historic Park.

When:  Friday October 9, noon

Where:  1745 North Spring Street, Unit 4, LA 90012

Under the umbrella of Los Angeles & Water, I’ll probably touch on all my favorite subjects – water, Los Angeles, creeks, urban design, political will, birth control…

Come on down!

Squeezing water from a rock

September 25, 2009 § 2 Comments

Already dry.  Mojave River as seen on a 2001 camping trip.

Mojave River as seen on a 2001 camping trip.

(acknowledgments and thanks to Emily Green of Chance of Rain blog for being the primary source of information for this piece)

Do you know where your water comes from?

I expect most of you do.  Besides our local groundwater (which probably supplies 10-15% of the water we as a basin consume), our water is shipped from far-away watersheds, the sources of which are magnificent mountain ranges like the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies.

But the source of your water may soon be the desert.

Along came a gentleman aptly named Brackpool, who acquired a vast swath of land in the Mojave Desert.  His proposal might sound like squeezing water from a rock, yet offered water managers some reliability:  he would use the Mojave River aquifer as a recharge basin for Colorado River delivery in wet years, and sell both this and the native groundwater for our use.  This is the crux of the term “water banking.”

Ever been to the desert?  I don’t mean the baking-hot Target parking lot on La Cienega, but a real desert:  somewhere like the Mojave where the rare river is a lifeline for the species that depend upon it.  Lined with desert willows and cottonwoods.  Point is, you suck down that aquifer even a little bit and those trees will die, as had been happening on the Rio San Pedro in Arizona, as happened here in the LA Basin when we got pump-happy at the turn of the century, and well, almost everywhere in the West.

Brackpool’s proposal got shot down earlier this millenium as its claims were questionable and the environmental impacts considerable, but he’s back – and now has the Governor’s support.  His investors have kept him afloat for years but with this support his stock shot up.What’s more, LA Observed reports that he’s been vacationing with our mayor(who was his consultant at one time), and another one of his former consultants (who was also sitting on the PUC) is now the Gov’s chief of staff.  The Gov also just nominated him to the California Horse Racing Board.  Oh, and now his company, Cadiz, is not just about water banking – but also renewable energy and conservation.  He obviously hasn’t been reading the High Country News reports (“High Noon” and “Solar Sense” for example) on the conflict between solar and wind farms and desert conservation.

This is David and Goliath, where Goliath has taken a page from Freddy Krueger and keeps coming back.  Please take the time to follow the news on this story, and if this touches you, get involved.  Emily Green at the Chance of Rain blog has done excellent research and is keenly following this story, and LA Observed and the LA Times is also staying on top of the political relationships.  With a packed slate of investors and politicians on Cadiz’s side, it’s hard to believe the desert will come out of this fight untarnished.

Bursting at the seams

September 16, 2009 § 2 Comments

More broken water pipes:

Two more water mains burst overnight, bringing more questions (LA Times).

Be sure to check out the comments. Steve Lopez also enters the fray:  Awash in trouble, it’s time to spout off at DWP(LA Times).

Springs hope…eternally

May 1, 2009 § 16 Comments


Water bubbles up at Kuruvungna Springs in Los Angeles

Water bubbles up at Kuruvungna Springs in Los Angeles

Spring relief drains in Silverlake

Spring relief drains in the Silverlake area.

The stream mapping is complete,  but that image of a stream’s flow spilling over and down a road stays with me, challenging the conventional wisdom about “urban slobber.”  If you’ve ever been out to the Kuruvungna Springs at University High School in West LA, you’d know that springs gush forth thousands of gallons of water every day, and this water doesn’t stay on site – what used to feed a stream now flows into a storm drain that feeds into the Sepulveda Channel and then Ballona Creek.  Other springs on site are directly capped, with only a manhole cover to hint at its presence.  So it’s not just headwater drainages whose flows get lost to these underground conveyances, it is also springs, and yep, LA still has some.

Old stormdrain maps sometimes can offer clues to the capped springs.  This image here is of a “spring relief” area in the Silverlake/Franklin Hills area.  I have seen a few – not many – of these areas on these old maps.  

Don’t get me wrong – plenty of urban slobber really is overspray from urban slobs.  But if we manage the springs’ flows that way, we miss something essential and precious about our native ecosystem, and we miss out on opportunities to restore pockets of habitat in the city. And you know, springs hope eternally.

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