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Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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1934 New Year’s Flood and the Years After

After the disaster of the big flood there was much work to do. The Red Cross provided the bulk of the relief efforts for survivors, bringing in food, medical supplies and temporary shelter. Service groups from the valley were extremely active, although their numbers were small – Boy Scouts, American Legion, La Crescenta Woman’s Club, various churches. All did what they could. Water distribution was a priority, and water trucks from the Forestry Service made deliveries until temporary pipes could be laid from La Cañada. But shovel work was the main occupation – clearing off roadways, filling in gullies and flinging dirt out the windows and doors of houses that had been filled with mud. The Civil Works Administration, one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to put unemployed men to work, sent 3,600 men with shovels to the valley, along with some heavy equipment.

The County Flood Control District began to formulate plans for a comprehensive way to prevent future floods. But they were initially stymied in their efforts to find funding. Bond issues to pay for flood control had been turned down by frugal voters before, and even after, the flood but the Flood Control District was able to draw on county and federal funds. They planned to create a series of catch basins (debris basins) below each canyon along the face of the San Gabriels. The concept behind the debris basin is an ingenious and simple solution to a natural geologic occurrence. In heavy rain, the debris flow, a mix of water, sand and rocks, races down the canyons and out onto the floor of the valley. Anything in the way of these heavy, rocky mudslides gets pulverized. But if the flow dumps into a debris basin and stops, the rocks and sand drop to the floor of the basin and the separated clear water goes over the spillway and down through concrete channels to the ocean. There had been accidental proof of this concept in the ’34 flood. A commercial gravel operation had left a deep hole at the base of Haines Canyon. The debris flow coming down that canyon had dumped into this gravel pit, dropped out its load of rocks and sand, and the relatively clear water had continued down through Tujunga, doing only minor damage.

The first two canyons to get the debris basin treatment were Hall-Beckley and Pickens, work starting in 1935. Interestingly some homeowners above Foothill Boulevard objected to the plans, calling the debris basins unsightly and a threat to their property values. An “anti-debris basin” group formed which advocated the use of check dams and reforestation. They were ignored and work continued, digging the huge debris basins, and cutting channels along the paths the flood had taken. The other canyons in the valley received their debris basins, and work was completed in February 1938. A month later, one of the most devastating storm systems ever to strike the southland flooded the Los Angeles basin, taking many lives and destroying property. The Crescenta Valley, because of its just completed debris basins and concrete channels, was relatively untouched. The County Flood Control engineers had proved their concept. Today there are hundreds of debris basins at the base of canyons all through the Los Angeles area. You can get a good view of one on the east side of Deukmejian Park.

Debris basins occasionally fail by not having been built big enough, or not getting cleaned out often enough. But for the most part they have saved property and lives. Could they handle another cloudburst like the one on New Year’s Eve 81 years ago? Someday we’ll probably find out.

I’ve presented to you a taste of one of the major events in the history of our valley – tales of watery death, hard to believe in the warmth of spring sunshine in the middle of a drought. But the rocks in our yards are hard evidence of the flood – many of them arrived there on that horrible night.

For more flood stories, please read “The Great Crescenta Valley Flood – New Year’s Day 1934″ by Art Cobery.

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

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