Water in Los Angeles: A Portrait of an Urban Ecosystem

Jared Orsi

in Hazardous Metropolis

Published by University of California Press

Published in print May 2004 | ISBN: 9780520238503
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520930087 | DOI:
Water in Los Angeles: A Portrait of an Urban Ecosystem

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A winter storm rolled onshore at Los Angeles on 13 February 1980. A second storm followed a day later, then a third, a fourth, and a fifth. A sixth storm brought the heaviest rains yet, swelling the Los Angeles River to its levee tops. The deluge of 1980 was not a great flood. In fact, the most extraordinary feature of the storm was its ordinariness. Flood-control experts estimated that a storm of that severity could be expected to occur on average about once every twenty-five to forty years. According to the engineers' calculations, such a storm should not have deposited any debris on the levee at Wardlow Road in Long Beach. Not only did debris top the levee, but a lake doubled in size; a flood-control channel crumpled while carrying less than its design capacity; and flowing mud smashed suburban foothill homes. The storm raises some heretofore unasked questions. Why, over the course of the century, did the engineering structures keep failing, and why did people keep building them? Put another way, why have bulldozers and concrete been so consistently appealing even though they have not always controlled the floods? Answering these questions leads simultaneously along two related paths of inquiry. Along one path unfolds the story of the flow of water in Los Angeles and the complex of forces that left water atop the levees at Wardlow Road and in other places it was not wanted. The second path invites us to generalize from Los Angeles to explore the ecological and historical structure of the urban places we inhabit today. The stories of both Los Angeles in particular, and urban ecological structure in general, begin in the water.

Keywords: winter storm; floods; flooding; flood control; urban ecological structure

Chapter.  4014 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas

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