No city is better prepared for flooding than Los Angeles. El Niño is testing that city’s ability to overcome short-term flooding and the massive flood damage that could result if the system fails. But as Los Angeles deals with a changing climate over the long term, will its strategy of dumping flood water into the ocean continue to make sense — especially since there’s a drought and that water could be put to good use?
Los Angeles has been working to better deal with El Niño events since 1938. That’s the year when a flood ripped the city apart and killed 49 people while doing $40 million in damage. That catastrophe led to the creation of the Los Angeles River’s 51-mile concrete viaduct.
Heavy winter storms in Southern California are common, and not just in El Niño years. After four years of drought and in the face of a climate that’s clearly changing, does this effort to limit flood damage from extreme storms do more harm than good?
Simply put, infrastructure put in place to solve one problem may cause or worsen another.
El Niño has impacted the Pacific Northwest most heavily this winter, but meteorologists expect the pattern to shift southward and bring greater impacts to Los Angeles, San Diego and the rest of Southern California.
And Los Angeles is ready for the short-term event. Crews have cleared debris from the channel and websites have been put up to make sure residents know how to prevent flood damage. The sites push things like cleaning drains, knowing how to get sandbags and stocking up on essentials as well as emergency supplies. Warnings have been circulated in the areas most prone to flood damage in the past. Portable traffic barriers are in place if needed.
If things work as planned, all the water from El Niño events will quickly move out of the city — and into the Pacific Ocean. Capturing it for future use isn’t possible at the moment. While storm water goes into the ocean, water for use comes in from the drier-than-ever Sierra Nevada Mountains and the drought-strained Colorado River.