Opinion: Think Los Angeles is a desert? You need to see it from the San Gabriel Mountains

Low clouds drift into the mountains and valleys of the San Gabriels
Low clouds drift into the mountains and valleys of the San Gabriels in 2020.
(Los Angeles Times)

There are a few things wrong with the libelous statement “Los Angeles is in a desert.” First, it is factually inaccurate (but maybe not for much longer), as explained by The Times Editorial Board recently. Second, even if it were true, it wouldn’t explain the whole story. A trip into our local mountains can help explain why.

From sea level or thereabouts, much of Los Angeles feels flat and dry — like a desert. But take a steep hike to one of the looming peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains, and you’re rewarded with views that are both visually stunning and educational. Perched a mile above the city, you see vast alluvial fans and washes emanating from the mountains that are graded, dammed up and otherwise “controlled” in ways that shunt water to the ocean and make urbanization possible. Prior to the area’s buildup, this water was left to find its own way to the sea or fan out over the basins that would eventually be paved over and turned into tidy street grids. Even if precipitation over what would become Los Angeles wasn’t plentiful, the water that flowed from the San Gabriels and San Bernardinos was much more so, percolating into the aquifers beneath us and creating a wetter, vastly more complex landscape than we can imagine today. There’s a reason one of our major streets is called “La Cienega.”

The letters here were written in response to the previously mentioned editorial. As we discuss yet another water emergency in California and climate change’s role in it, perhaps it’s worth remembering how our alteration of the landscape to make the area “habitable” may have made it less so.



To the editor: Every time I read an article about how we don’t have enough water and all the ways we should preserve what we have, I think about the thousands of new houses and apartments we are building in and around Los Angeles without sufficiently considering how that affects our water use.

Why is it that water usage is not considered more thoroughly when building all these new units? It should be the first consideration. I also rarely read about how much traffic density will change with all this unlimited growth in Southern California.

When I look at the photos that The Times has been running of Lake Mead, I think of the phenomenal growth of Las Vegas and am not surprised that the reservoir, the largest in the United States, is running out of water.

We have to look at the whole picture when we decide to build, build, build. That is not happening now.

Marie Gamboa, Los Angeles


To the editor: Once again, kudos to The Times for its unwavering persistence in keeping at the forefront the very real and threatening effects of climate change to those of us right here, right now in California.

Unlike those past civilizations that were not able to adapt to the reduction in water resources, I’d like to think many of us want to answer the call and support whatever measures are deemed necessary to meet the current challenges.

So, L.A. Times, please write another editorial outlining how we can support or demand from our water resource officials the historic actions necessary to meet the moment.

In the interim, can we all agree a monumental next step would be for all of us to demand passage of pending legislation in Congress to attach a fee to carbon production and fossil fuels? This would reduce carbon emissions and provide funding for the kind of necessary innovation mentioned above.

Wayne Bass, Mission Viejo


To the editor: Right — we are not yet living in a desert, but the California landscape is a charred husk as fire crews put out yet more blazes up and down the state. And it’s almost beside the point to bolster water infrastructure without addressing the imperative to sharply reduce emissions and sequester carbon.

We will have more fires, more drought, more lake and reservoir loss and more sea level rise until we face this climate Armageddon.

Elizabeth Fenner, Los Angeles


To the editor: Your editorial was a well-written piece about the state of the local area and the western United States as a whole with respect to our water supply.

In listening to all the discussion of President Biden’s infrastructure plan, why do I hear no mention of desalination plants for the western United States? Global warming is making oceans rise, so there is abundant supply.

This truly would be an infrastructure project and would help alleviate the Achilles’ heel of living in an arid climate.

Frank Perri, Claremont


To the editor: Part of the solution — which would help solve two problems — is covering the surface-level aqueducts that bring water to urban areas with solar panels.

A great deal of water is lost to evaporation. Covering these aqueducts would reduce that as well as provide vast amounts of electricity while not putting open land at risk of destruction.

Herb Adelman, Del Mar