Los Angeles is not a desert

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Ralph Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona and the historian who put together the website (and book) compiling letters published in the L.A. Times in the 1880s. In recent years, he has been trying without success to get Times writers to stop referring to Los Angeles as a desert, climate-wise. Simply put, he says it rains too much for the coastal plain to qualify as a desert.

After LAT style czar Melissa McCoy last week banned the term "resistance fighters" to describe the Iraqi bombers, Professor Shaffer directed his campaign her way -- churlishly borrowing the syntax of her memo that was disclosed here.

While "desert" is not an inaccurate term on its face when applied to some, but not all, portions of the county north of the San Gabriel Mountains, it conveys an incorrect although intended meaning when referring to the heavily populated basin. A more accurate descriptor, preferred by anyone who has had a course in elementary geography or climatology, would be "humid," which is the designation applied to the city of Los Angeles by Vladimir Koppen nearly a century ago in what was, and probably still is, the most widely used climatic classification system in the world. How the Times came to be the promoter of the desert myth is described in the op-ed piece below...

Now I should confess I've been guilty of using the desert canard, but after reading his case below I won't anymore. (I wouldn't have anyway after researching Wilshire Boulevard. I learned about the marshes that lay south of the road -- and about all the streams from the Hollywood Hills that fed them. One still flows across the Wilshire Country Club and through Hancock Park. There's a reason the rancho that covered the land where Beverly Hills sits was called Rodeo de las Aguas -- "gathering of the waters.")

Professor Shaffer's submitted (and apparently rejected) op-ed piece follows.


Harrison Gray Otis has been dead for nearly a century and the Chandlers no longer run The Times, but the myth they created - that Los Angeles would be a vast desert wasteland without importing water from distant sources - remains firmly embedded among members of the paper's staff. A recent lead editorial, "It's Still a Desert," shows a continuing disregard for the reality of the city's climate.

Briefly, early in the paper's history, Otis actually pushed the idea that Southern California was water rich. In an 1888 article the opening paragraph noted that "Developments throughout Southern California show beyond doubt that there is a plentiful supply of water in our mountains and valleys to irrigate every acre of land that needs irrigation, and for every other purpose to sustain many millions of people. Every day the supply is increased...."

That view didn't last long. In support of legislation in the 1880s to divert river water for the purpose of irrigation, Otis reprinted an article from San Francisco's Alta California that characterized opponents as "in favor of restoring Southern California to its primeval condition of wilderness and desert," abandoning it to "the lizard, horned toad and burning sun." No doubt a bit of Bay Area snobbery was involved in the Alta's description, but Otis knew a winning argument when he read one. He resurrected it two decades later to coax voters into supporting the Owens Valley aqueduct bonds.

Over the years the "Los Angeles is a desert" theme has appeared regularly in The Times. Columnists, reporters, editors, politicians and op-ed writers all pushed the idea. A quarter century ago Remi Nadeau, quoted in the recent editorial, wrote in an op-ed piece that "Los Angeles is by far the largest city ever built in a desert."

Wrong on two counts. According to the widely used Koppen classification, Los Angeles and its coastal basin are humid, with a Mediterranean climate of winter rains and warm summers similar to its European namesake. In fact, migrants from the eastern states, arriving in the early nineteenth century, described a Los Angeles plain filled with ponds, forested, and anything but a desert. The ponds dried up and the forests disappeared, not because the climate changed but because resources were simply overused.

But even if Los Angeles were in a desert, Nadeau's statement surely was news to Cairo's residents, who thought they lived in the world's most populous desert city.

Given the city's mean annual temperature of 65 degrees, to qualify as a desert under the Koppen system Los Angeles' yearly rainfall would have to average less than 7.22 inches. That has occurred less than ten times in the past 125 years. To put it another way, with its nearly 15 inches of rain each year the city would have to have a mean annual temperature of 100 degrees to be a desert. With a temperature like that the basin's overpopulation problem would quickly disappear.

Just because Los Angeles brings in water from hundreds of miles away does not make it a desert. Nearly all of the world's largest cities, located in humid areas, have to import water from great distances to supply their needs. And no one seriously refers to New York or San Francisco as deserts.

Nor is it necessary to distort the climatic record to make the point that Southern California has too many people and too much industry for the water supply that is naturally available here. Lawns, azaleas and non-native plants can be supported by Southern California's local water supply. It's the region's unbridled growth that The Times should be attacking.

[Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona and
editor of "Letters From the People," an on-line anthology of letters to The
Times in the 1880s, can be reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu]

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