Not the 2nd wettest year?

1952 flooding on Jefferson Blvd.Ralph Shaffer is Professor Emeritus of History at Cal Poly Pomona (he compiled a searchable book of 1880s letters to the L.A. Times) and something of a stickler about the local climate. A while back he chastized everyone who says Los Angeles exists in a desert, arguing that no desert averages fifteen inches of annual rain. Now he has submitted an op-ed to the L.A. Times insisting this is not the second-wettest rain season on record, despite what the weather service says. He invokes the Times' own archives, plus authors of today (D.J. Waldie and Blake Gumprecht) and yesterday (Harris Newmark), but the Times rejected his piece. So here it is:


The rain that's about to fall before I finish this piece and hit the send button will be heralded in tomorrow's Times as carrying the 2004-05 rain season into second position among the all-time rainfall leaders in Los Angeles history. Stop the presses. It ain't so.

Tuesday morning's Metro section noted how close we were to surpassing the 34.84 inches of rain that fell in 1889-90. Virtually the first drop on Tuesday will flush that old mark aside. Right, putting it into fourth place on the list of wettest years. A few more inches and we'll pass 1883-84's 38.18 inches. And that'll put us in second place.

Even with another downpour of five inches this will not be the wettest year, nor was 1889-90, for that matter. Everyone discounts the storm of 1861-82. Those who have access to the Proquest historical database to the Times should search for "rain" AND "1861." Several articles will appear to verify that anywhere from 35 to 50 inches fell within one month, beginning on or before Christmas, 1861. The flood that followed was among the worst that ever befell Los Angeles and vicinity. When the sun came out briefly during the storm, the Los Angeles Star remarked that several residents were awe-struck by the phenomenon.

For those without access to Proquest, google for "Los Angeles" AND "Rain" AND "1861." Numerous authorities on Southern California weather will appear online, including river historian Blake Gumprecht and Lakewood official D. J. Waldie. The region's historians are also cited there, commenting on the size of what was truly the storm of the century. An eyewitness, Harris Newmark, also recounts the ferocity of the seemingly unending rainfall in his "Sixty Years in Southern California."

But after today (or tomorrow depending upon the fickleness of the weather), 2004-05 will become in the Times' archives the second wettest year since someone decided that only r.f. since 1877 was to be counted. That isn't true, for the Times itself, on Aug 15, 1886, printed statistics for each year back to the early 1870s, but for some reason the paper refuses to include that in its annual chart. Moreover, as Times columnist Harry Ellington Brook once noted, the current system of measuring r.f. from July 1 to June 30 was not always the system used. For a time it was from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31, and on a calendar year basis before that. Why the period before 1877 is deliberately overlooked by the Times is inexplicable.

Moreover, current r.f. figures are skewed because the weather gauge has been moved from downtown to some other location. Weathercasters say it is at USC but it may in fact be at a USC weather station at an even greater distance from downtown. Human habitation has measurably altered temperature and r.f. for what is now the civic center. Newswatchers are aware that a surprisingly large number of record cold days of the year date from the 1880s and 90s. Rarely is a winter minimum record for a specific day found in "modern" times. While it may be due to global warming it is also in part the result of construction, population increase and related factors attributed to human habitation. And moving the rain gauge (it was at Ducommun's Hardware store downtown for many years in the 19th century) to a more remote location has surely affected the amount of rain recorded.

Some day the Times will finally concede and print my oft-rejected op-ed about the myth promoted by the paper that LA is a desert. Name another "desert" city in the world that has 34 inches of rain 4 times in 143 years, or has an average r.f of 15 inches!

When not analyzing rainfall charts, Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona, can be reached at reshaffer@csupomona.edu

The photo is of Jefferson Boulevard in 1952, from the Los Angeles Public Library collection.

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