Where The Water Once Flowed
During all the recent record rains,
some of the analysts, while wringing their hands, tell us that most of the rain that’s falling just flows to the ocean. And though we generally think of Los Angeles as a land that gets all its water afar, such wasn’t always the case. Once, the entire Northeast L.A. – though described as “coastal desert plain,” was a land where streams and
rivers flowed, and where water could be readily obtained. The story of why so much water now goes to the ocean is not a simple story, but to get a full understanding, it’s helpful to turn back the clock 150 years or so, and look at the
water stories of the Northeast.
“Myriad Unnamed Streams” is a
series of historical vignettes by local environmentalist Jane Tsong to show where the water once flowed throughout the Northeast. You can read them at: Water, CA – Jane Tsong explains what happened to the free-flowing water, as the decades rolled by. The totality of her research makes
us look again at our familiar landscape, and realize that lots of water once flowed through the region. Tsong is an artist who took an interest in the waters of Los Angeles after her family first moved to West Los Angeles in 1997. They hear rumors of a freshwater spring by the high school sports field next door. When she visited
the site, she was mystified by how the water flowed naturally through a wellgroomed miniature landscape,” before unceremoniously disappearing into a drainage grating.” She later learned that this was the historically significant Kuruvungna Springs, since been revived
by the Tongva people.
She moved to Highland Park in 2003, and discovered many of the stories of local springs, and past streams, that were found all over the Northeast. Tsong was surprised. After all, weren’t we told that this is a desert, and that all our water came from afar? Finding that most of these springs and seeps and streams were never named, and largely unknown today (if they still exist), she began to research these. Along with standard research, she interviewed many people from 2006 through 20098, receiving answers and guidance from Eric Warren and Jessica Hall. Eventually, she catalogued her information on a web site media book, called Water, CA, and presented it as a tour that one could actually take by bicycle. At the very least, pull out a large map now, click on to her website, and re-discover some of the hidden water history of the Northeast. Her tour begins with the intersection of Figueroa Street and the westbound onramp for the 134, once the site of Eagle Rock Creek, now mostly cement. In the 1880s, visitors could have walked in the stream, and found wild roses, blackberries, and tiger lilies, like so many of the mountain streams. With the purchase of much of Eagle Rock Canyon by Henry Huntington, the development swallowed this up so that most residents are barely aware that a stream still flows along the entrance to the Scholl Canyon dump, and is mostly underground near the iconic “eagle rock.” An altered remnant of the creek is still visible behind the businesses located northeast of Colorado and Figueroa, and then the stream is hidden in cement until it flows into the Arroyo Seco.
Back in the 1880s, the Eagle Rock Creek continued to flow roughly in the proximity of Lanark Street and turned west toward Yosemite Drive. This temporary stream flowed eventually along Yosemite, causing flooding until the 1930s when the large underground drainage pipe was installed. Springs and creeks flowed from the Verdugo Mountains to the north, irrigating many early orchards and providing water for local residents. These were gradually sealed over, cemented shut, or routed into underground pipes. If you study a map of the Eagle Rock/ Highland Park area of the 1880s, you’d see numerous waterways that flowed from the hills to the north, meandering south. Some flowed along Figueroa, east along La Loma, and into the Arroyo Seco. Springs and lakes were common. Springvale (off Figueroa) was the source of a significant tributary to the Arroyo Seco, called the North Branch. Other streams formed in the foothills above Colorado. Their water kept the water table in Eagle Rock high, feeding springs at Eagle Rock Springs and Sparkletts. At Eagle Rock Springs Mobile Home Community off Argus, cattails and willows once abounded. In 1912, this site was described as “approximately one acre of treecovered grounds with a small artesian lake supplied by several flowing artesian wells.” Water from these springs flowed all the way to Eagle Rock Blvd., and then to York, where watercress and willows lined the way. Further south, near York and Eagle Rock Blvd., artesian waters were abundant enough to support multiple water companies (including Sparkletts) to sell the bottled water. The York and Eagle Rock Blvd area was known in the past as “Cienega del Garvanza,” was described by Ludwig Luis Salvator (in 1876) as “a small green swamp with clumps of bunch-grass and at the bottom, Sacate de Matico, which never dries out.” The area was drilled by 1880 and water flowed from the wells without the need for wind or steam. The northeast had numerous springs, wells, rivers, streams, and lakes, including a lake-like depression near Sycamore Grove park, before the water flowed into the Arroyo Seco. In researching the water of the Northeast, Tsong researched many of the historical accounts of our area, including talking to many of the old-timers who shared their stories. As Tsong points out, most of the wells were sealed – some ordered to be sealed by the City of Los Angeles when they annexed Eagle Rock. Flowing water was diverted underground, into pipes and directed to the Arroyo Seco or the L.A. River, because they were considered safety hazards when it rained, or simply nuisance water. Today, at least 75% of the area’s potable water comes from one of three aqueducts – two bringing water from Northern California and one bringing water from the Colorado River. And an increased population using ever-more water has resulted in lowering water tables. Additionally, in these modern times, with small yards and no way to process one’s own water, water from baths and dishes and household use no longer goes into the land, to soak into the water table, but rather simply flows into the sewers and out to the oceans. There are many little solutions to our growing need for water, and they can be implemented by individuals and cities. But it’s important to see how the growth of the population of Northeast L.A., and the many choices that were made all along the way, are responsible for our water landscape being largely invisible today, and for so much of the water which unceremoniously flows out to the ocean. I strongly encourage you to check out Tsong’s web site, and then actually travel from site to site to experience the not-thatdistant past water history of our Northeast area.