• A woman by a the mouth of a large cement pipe

      Lily Jane Tsong at the source of the San Rafael Creek (Photo – Louisa van Leer)

      Stories of the natural waterways that once flowed in Northeast L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley — but have been mostly cemented over.

      By Christopher Nyerges

       With our recent heavy rains, some of the analysts suggested that most of the rain just flows to the ocean.  In fact, a surprisingly large volume is filling various reservoirs throughout our area, but it is correct that the lion’s share just flows out along the cement ditches to the ocean. Let’s explore this history, and what might be done to save more water, going forward.

      Whenever geologists and biologists talk about Southern California, and Los Angeles County in particular, they speak of the “coastal desert plain.” This is a land where streams and rivers once 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, we need to turn back the clock 150 years or so, and look at the many water stories of the area.

      Growing up in Pasadena, I was aware of Eaton Canyon’s seasonal stream to the east, and the larger Arroyo Seco to the west, which flowed from the mountains to the ocean. I was also aware of the many “ditches” throughout the San Gabriel Valley; some of these waterways still exist and some are now underground cement tubes, all designed to expel the water from the residential areas, where it was regarded as a problem. The short reason why nearly every waterway today is a cement ditch, which allows little to no water to soak into the water table, can be summed up in one word:  Development. That means, as more and more people made this area their homes, wild rivers, even seasonal ones, and springs, were regarded as a nuisance to be dealt with. No one was thinking about 100 years into the future when so many people lived here, when most of the local water was whisked away to the ocean, to a time when three major aqueducts would have to be built to bring water into the sprawling coastal desert plain to feed the millions of people who live here. It’s quite a story!

      “Myriad Unnamed Streams” is a series of historical vignettes by local environmentalist Jane Tsong to show where the water once flowed throughout our area. You can read them at this link.

      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 there is no lack of precipitation that falls on the region, rather, that the way we have developed the landscape to shed water (rather than store water in the soil). This has created a situation of water scarcity where none existed before.

      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. “We heard rumors of a freshwater spring by the high school sports field next door,” she explains. “When I visited the site, I was mystified by how the water flowed naturally through a well-groomed miniature landscape, before unceremoniously disappearing into a drainage grating.” She later learned that this was the historically significant Kuruvungna Springs, which has since been revived by the Tongva people.

      After she moved to Highland Park in 2003, she discovered that Northeast L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley also had many stories of local springs and past streams.  “I was surprised,” stated Tsong. “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 diverse water stories.  Along with archival research, she interviewed people from 2006 through 2008, and eventually catalogued her information on a web site media book, called “Water, CA.”  “I presented this as a tour that one could actually take by bicycle,” says Tsong with a smile.  “At the very least, you can pull out a large map, click on the website, and re-discover some of the hidden water history of our area.”

      A car parked next to a commemorative sign

      Site of the Eagle Rock springs. Today, it’s a mobile home park (Photo – C. Nyerges)

      Water History – 1880’s to Turn of the Century

      Jane Tsong’s tour begins with the intersection of Figueroa Street and the westbound onramp for the 134, once the site of Eagle Rock Creek. In the 1880s, visitors walked in the stream, and found wild roses, blackberries, and tiger lilies, like so many of the mountain streams. With increasing development, including the building of the freeway, these wild lands were made virtually unrecognizable so that today 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 following the lay of the land, and then, because of the hills, 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.

      Other streams flowed 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 tree-covered grounds with a small artesian lake supplied by several flowing artesian wells.” Water from these springs flowed all the way to westward to Eagle Rock Blvd., and then south to York Blvd., where watercress and willows lined the way.

      To the east of the Arroyo Seco, a study of a topographical map of the communities of Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley also reveals numerous springs and streams before dense housing and underground drains made this system all but invisible.

      Besides the obvious Arroyo Seco on the west side of Pasadena, and Eaton Canyon on the east, old maps show dozens of springs and temporary streams flowing through Pasadena. Perhaps the most obvious was one that flowed south from the foothills, which was still an open ditch about 30 years ago between Santa Rosa Avenue and Madison Avenue, flowing south into what is now Washington Park (which was a seasonal lake by some accounts).  Old-timers recall water flowing under the stone bridge in Washington Park in wet years.  In fact, if you study the terrain maps of Altadena, Pasadena, and the greater San Gabriel Valley, you’ll see that many parks, cemeteries, and golf courses in this area happen to be situated in areas that used to regularly become swampy.

      A man standing by an old bridge

      Historian James Ruther examining the old bridge in Washington Park where a seasonal stream flowed many decades ago (Photo – C. Nyerges)

      Water History – Turn of the Century to the Present

      Another local water conservationist is Tim Brick, founder of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, who also served on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for 28 years, including two terms as Chairman (2006-2010).

      “It would be better to have more permeable landscape to let the water go into local water table,” says Brick, who also started Unpave L.A. about 10 years ago to raise awareness of this issue.

      “About a hundred years ago, the idea was that it was easy enough to import water, and so all the storm water was eventually put into cement channels and it flowed into ocean,” explains Brick.  “It’s OK to have some water flow into the ocean, but the cement channelization was a kneejerk response to floods. Now, with the cement channels, a lot of the urban crud goes to ocean too, so storm water system has become one of the biggest polluters of the ocean. A much better solution is to have as much of the rain water percolate into the groundwater as possible.”   Brick points out that his organization is concerned about the health of the huge Raymond Aquifer which covers about 40 square miles from the Arroyo Seco to Arcadia. “There are some concerns that urban growth and water use will deplete that aquifer eventually, and so percolation of rainwater should be encouraged.”

      Today, 65 to 75% of our 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 evermore water has resulted in lowering water tables. Additionally, in these modern times, unless one has installed a legal grey water system or practices free-lance grey water recycling, 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, where is it treated by wastewater treatment plants, and then released into the oceans.

      According to Tsong, “Water conservation, the use of grey water, and ‘best management practices’ to augment local sources of water can be implemented by individuals and cities to increase this region’s water resiliency. But it’s important to see how the growth of the population of the greater San Gabriel Valley, and the many choices that were made all along the way, are responsible for our water landscape being largely invisible today, and for the fact that so much of the water which falls onto this land unceremoniously flows out to the ocean through underground pipes and concrete channels, rather than the waterways that once existed.”

      map showing different springs

      A map showing some original waterways that flowed through Eagle Rock, Highland Park, and western Pasadena (Map- Tsong)

      > See  an interactive map at Water, CA – Jane Tsong.

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