The Dry Garden: L.A., braced for a deluge, <br> has barely returned to normal rainfall


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In his 1982 autobiography “My Last Breath,” legendary film director Luis Buñuel wrote:

A year can go by, even two, without so much as a single cloud in the impassive sky. Whenever an adventuresome cumulus wandered into view just above the mountain peaks, all the clerks in the grocery next door would rush to our house and clamber up onto the roof. There, from the vantage point of a small gable, they’d spend hours watching the creeping cloud, shaking their heads and murmuring sadly: ‘Wind’s from the south. It’ll never get here.’ And they were always right.


May a Los Angeles filmmaker one day match the elegance with which the Spanish-born Buñuel exaggerated the dryness of his native Aragon. Annual rainfall there is much like ours: 12 to 15 inches a year.

But when it comes to exaggeration here, our tendency is to overstate the rain. Ever notice how much it rains in Los Angeles on TV dramas? (Thank the fire hoses.) But when real clouds roll in, it never merely rains in Southern California. As our newscasters style it, we get “slammed” by “storms.”

We get slammed even when it doesn’t rain. Ever since some forecasters predicted an El Niño this year, we’ve been at battle stations. The weeklong succession of showers last month were given the media coverage of a disaster, but downtown Los Angeles got less than 5 inches of rain, barely an inch more than the historical average.

As February opened, downtown L.A. had received less than 10 inches of precipitation for the season. In other words, the city had 5 inches to go before it reached what Buñuel remembered as impossibly dry.

We might think of it as dry here too, had we not built in precarious places near burn zones and were we not so flush with water imported from sources hundreds of miles away. The problem with our borrowed water is that its sources are being sucked dry. Panicked that recent rain might undermine conservation messages, last month water managers churned out news release after news release designed to impress on us that local rain is no cure for distant drought.

From the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California came the Jan. 25 release pointing out that our main storage reservoir, Diamond Valley Lake, “remains less than half full.”


From Sacramento, the Department of Water Resources followed on Jan. 29 with its own caution that, “We are still looking at the real possibility of a fourth dry year.” Over in La Canada Flintridge, Jet Propulsion Laboratory oceanographer Bill Patzert is sticking to his guns that our supposed El Niño will turn into a normal rain year.

One big cure would be to lessen our need for imported water by planting native and Mediterranean climate-zone plants adapted to local rainfall. As much as half of our water is used outdoors.

Then, as it does every year in spring, when Los Angeles becomes as dry as Aragon, instead of climbing onto the roof and wondering what a lone cloud might hold, we would know that our hoses are full. We would have protected the imported supply that makes modern Southern California so different from Buñuel’s Spain.

-- Emily Green

Green’s column on sustainable gardening appears here weekly. She also blogs on water issues at

Photo credits, from top: Randall Benton / Sacramento Bee / McClatchy-Tribune News Service; Al Seib / Los Angeles Times