When it Pours in Dry LA, Water Quickly Runs Out to Sea

Categories: Rainwater Harvesting

Winter rains finally hit water-starved southern California in January. The first bands of El Niño storms delivered around three inches to Los Angeles alone, and more is expected. But nearly all that water went straight into the Pacific Ocean. After four years of punishing drought, that may seem like a colossal waste, but the people who built this sprawling West Coast metropolis wanted it that way.

To understand, rewind to the early 20th century, when rain was seen as a threat to the city’s rapid economic development. A series of deadly floods hit the city,  killing hundreds of people, destroying homes, railroad lines, bridges and roads. Woody Guthrie sang about one of those disasters in “The New Year’s Flood.”

 Kind friend do you remember,
On that fatal New Year’s night?
The lights of old Los Angeles,
Was a-flickering oh so bright.
A cloudburst hit the mountains,
It swept away our homes.
And a hundred souls was taken
In that fatal New Year’s flood.

That was 1934. In 1938, another flood devastated the region. Fatality reports vary, but in Los Angeles County alone, at least 87 people died,  thousands lost their homes and a third of the city was inundated with floodwaters. Nine-one railroad and highway bridges collapsed, parts of major highways washed away, and sewage lines ruptured.

According to Blake Gumprecht in "The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death and Possible Rebirth," the climactic scenes of the novel "City of Angels" are based on the flood. Author Rupert Hughes wrote "it was as if the Pacific had moved in to take back its ancient bed."

With that history of floods and destruction, rainwater was something to be controlled and sent out of the city as quickly as possible. Los Angeles was designed to keep humans and water apart.

“LA was literally built as a drain,” Tree People founder Andy Lipkis said.

As the city developed in the 1900's, building codes made sure that rainwater quickly flowed off residential and business property into city streets, down storm drains, into channelized rivers and out to the ocean. “It flows off our property so quickly that we don’t see it, it’s gone,” Lipkis said.


Flood control efforts had started before the 1938 flood, but after that, the full-blown "channelization" of flood-prone waterways like the Los Angeles River began in earnest. U.S. military commanders helped persuade Congress to pay for the effort, citing the location of “national defense industries” like Lockheed Martin and Douglas Aircraft in the city. 

“The Army Corps of Engineers did it,and it was a massive project,” Lewis MacAdams said. MacAdams , founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, said the effort was hailed as a job creator when so many Americans were out of work.

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