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Al Clark began a lifelong study of water as a college student and now prepares to publish a book that covers 500 years of water in the San Gabriel Valley and its watershed.
In 1968, as a college undergraduate, all that Al Clark wanted to do for his senior project was write about his hometown — but his mentor waved him off that track. Little did Clark know that the turn of events would lead to him becoming an expert about something that affects the life of every living soul: water.
“When I was doing my senior project, I was working with the most famous local historian, Donald Pflueger of Glendora,” said Clark, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, Faculty, at the University of La Verne. “Since he wrote a book on Glendora, I wanted to write a book on Azusa, which is where I grew up. He said, ‘No, find something less extensive.” So I started in to water and there was a tremendous amount of material.”
Lots of material, but, as with the water, documenting civilization’s 500-year history of water in Southern California required some digging. Clark began his quest in earnest in 1970, writing a paper titled, “War Over The San Gabriel,” documenting the power of water in all aspects of life — economics, politics, agriculture, power, colonization, as well as basic survival. His recent campus presentation, “Watershed & Warming: An Environmental History of the San Gabriel River, 1542-2042,” serves as an outline for a book that Clark is writing about the 500-year history of water usage in the Inland Empire, the San Gabriel Valley and the Los Angeles Basin.
“I’m giving myself a little cushion,” Clark said with a chuckle, noting the 2042 end of the span, when he would himself be nearing the century mark.
In his research, Clark discovered six different economies that bubbled up since the region’s first settlers appeared. The course of history has changed, he said, with the shifting path of the water from local mountains.
“Watersheds are fixed, but that doesn’t mean they don’t change,” Clark said.
And, Clark pointed out, as water consumption and use changed, so did life in Southern California. For instance, there are no native grasslands left in the region, Clark said. Migration of non-native cultures, and the introduction of their animals and vegetation from other parts of the world, brought about widespread changes.
“We see on our mountains vegetation that greens up quickly,” Clark said. “These are plants from wetter parts of the world. They also turn brown and dry quickly and so we have fire danger.”
Clark says the establishment of rancheros and introduction of cattle to the area in the early 1800s made it the worst time in history for the local watershed. Factors such as overgrazing, manure and insects, destruction of native grasses, ground compaction and dust, and hunting of native carnivores to the point of near-extinction had a major impact on the region. Los Angeles became known as the “King of the cow counties.” In a little twist of irony, the great flood of 1862 essentially ended the cattle economy.
With the land boom of the 1880s came new technology and new challenges to the watershed to support life here, Clark said. It was then that 32 thirsty new cities sprang up and the economy shifted to agriculture. Floods in 1914 and 1916 prompted a greater emphasis in flood control and ushered in a new era of water management. Since then, five dams have been built and all are used today in flood control.
Clark said that in 1960, his junior high school teacher announced in class one day that global population had reached three billion. Today, a little more than half a century later, that number is seven billion. Clark estimates that by 2050, there could be nine billion people on the planet. Add to that factors such as a likelihood of less precipitation and more droughts, and the challenge for future generations will be greater than ever.
It’s a situation Clark will continue to monitor. He took the plunge into the subject nearly fifty years ago, and finds continued intrigue.
“Water has become so central to our needs,” Clark said. “I won’t say that it has consumed me, but it certainly has interested me.”