Water, water, everywhere -- no more



It sure was good weather for ducks last weekend. On Saturday, a lot

of rain ran down Gothard, Goldenwest and Edwards streets and flowed

into the lakes in Central Park. Now Talbert, Huntington and

Sully-Miller Lakes and Blackbird Pond are full for the first time

this rainy season.

Water in these lakes soaks into the ground and helps to recharge

the ground water basin under Huntington Beach. Unfortunately, most of

the rain sheets off streets and parking lots and runs down storm

drains and out to sea.

The rain got us to thinking about water in the early pioneer days

of Huntington Beach. We pored over old maps and historical accounts

to see if we could figure out where the water flowed in the days when

our current Downtown area was an unpopulated sandy strip called Shell

Beach and only a few farmhouses dotted the uplands.

Early pioneers raved about the abundance of fresh water in this

area. When they wanted water, they merely stuck a pipe into the

ground and water aplenty would bubble up. Willow hitching posts set

into the ground found enough water to take root and grow into huge

trees. Lakes, springs and vernal pools were everywhere. In his book,

“My Sixty Years in California,” pioneer Tom Talbert said that in 1896

this area held “a sparkling chain of freshwater lakes surrounded by

green barley fields.” Some of these lakes survive today in our city


Due to extensive marshes at Alamitos Bay, Anaheim Bay, Bolsa Bay,

the Santa Ana River marsh and Newport Bay, travel along the coast was

impossible. Even several miles inland, willows needed to be hacked

low to allow passage of wagons across broad streambeds. Travel by

horse-drawn wagon was difficult due to all the peat bogs and artesian

springs that dotted the land.

The Bolsa Chica wetlands stretched about seven and a half miles

inland, fed mainly by Freeman Creek. In those days, Freeman Creek was

a river that flowed year-round, deriving most of its water from the

peat springs in what is now Central Park. At least one branch of

Freeman Creek may have originated in an artesian spring in the old

town of Wintersburg, on present-day Ocean View High School property

near Warner Avenue and Gothard Street. A state survey done in July

1918 showed that Freeman Creek sent 500 inches of water into Bolsa

Bay at the driest time of year, and even more during rainy season.

Freeman Creek flowed through what is now Central Park, with

additional water coming from the springs in Talbert Lake and

Blackbird Pond. Although grading, fill and development have made

tracing the old creek bed difficult, Freeman Creek appears to have

entered the Bolsa Chica lowlands near Edwards thumb. From there it

meandered around to the end of Springdale, where there is still a

freshwater pond.

Artesian springs in what are now Greer Park, Carr Park and the

Meadowlark Golf Course appear to have fed a large creek that flowed

into the north end of the Bolsa Chica near present-day Graham Street

and Slater Avenue.

The other great wetland in town was Gospel Swamp. Swampy lowlands

extended from the east side of Huntington Mesa all the way across the

Santa Ana River floodplain to Costa Mesa. If you look east and south

from Newland House at Beach Boulevard and Adams Avenue, and imagine

willows and sycamores filling the lowlands all the way to Costa Mesa,

you’ll get a feel for just how extensive those wetlands were a

hundred years ago. According to Tom Talbert, the Santa Ana River

“produced the greatest amount of water of any river south of the

Tehachapi.” At times, the Santa Ana shifted course and joined Freeman

Creek to flow out through the Bolsa Chica outlet at Los Patos.

While this surplus of fresh water would be a priceless treasure

today, it was a nuisance to the early farmers. Around 1899, they

began digging ditches to drain the water to the ocean to “reclaim”

the land for farming. They used a horse-drawn drag plow with six

backward-slanting blades to cut lengthwise strips of peat. Then they

cut the long strips into squares with hay knives and pulled out

chunks with peat hooks, one square foot at a time. The fresh water

drained away to the ocean. The combination of drainage ditches and

farming depleted the top two water tables, which were 60 and 95 feet

below the surface. Development of Orange County depleted the

remaining ground water.

The days of fresh water bubbling up from the ground are over. We

no longer have enough fresh water to support our existing population

and must import it. And yet, when it rains, we allow flood control

channels to carry most of that fresh water away to the ocean instead

of attempting to recapture it so it can percolate back into the

ground water basin. Although the lakes in Central Park serve a

valuable function of recapturing some of the water, the lakes aren’t

big enough to hold even the limited amount that drains to the park.

It seems we haven’t learned much from the lessons of a hundred

years ago. We need to capture more of that rainwater so it doesn’t

just drain away. Next week we’ll discuss how this might be


* VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and

environmentalists. They can be reached at