This Was The Winter When It Rained In LA

I barely recognize Los Angeles these days.

Runyon Canyon, which just a couple of months ago could have been mistaken for a desert mountain, now resembles something more like the Irish countryside. In Beverly Hills, the medians still have signs that say “Water has been turned off because of the drought,” but the medians themselves are lush and green where they used to be dusty and brown. All over the city, bushes are full and flowers are budding. Things are growing where it had seemed like there would never be life again: In the desert near Palm Springs, flowers whose seeds have been underground for 20 years or more are blanketing the landscape in what people are calling the Super Bloom. Closer to home, at the dog park at the top of Laurel Canyon, I watched recently as a mist rolled in slowly over the hills, which were a beautiful patchwork of different shades of green. It looked like the coast of Oregon, not Mulholland Drive.

In my four years in LA, I’d gotten used to a parched, withered landscape. It was 80 degrees in January; winters went by with barely a drop of rain. At first I didn’t really mind, especially having moved from the East Coast, where you’d be foolish to ever plan an outdoor event without an indoor backup plan for rain or snow. A place where you never had to worry about whether your flight was going to be canceled due to weather seemed like a dream. But as the drought got worse, it started to feel less convenient, more apocalyptic. Last year at this time, over 99% of the state was in drought.

Wells in the Central Valley ran dry; rich people started hoarding bottled water and paying fines to keep their lawns green. Water restrictions went into effect for the rest of us: You could only water your lawn before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m., three days a week. Most people adhered to the rules, but there were always a few who didn’t, defiantly turning on their sprinklers in the scorching middle of the day. I sometimes took pictures and emailed them to the water department. It felt like snitching in the name of survival.

Rain is always a big story in Southern California; local TV stations will open the evening news with breathless reports about a quarter inch. But this year, when it finally started raining after so many dry seasons, it was a huge story. The first few storms were East Coast-style and scary: It rained all day and all night, and streets, many of which don’t have storm drains in LA, flooded. People had to be rescued from the LA River. The authorities warned of landslides, because the ground had been so dry for so long it wouldn’t be able to absorb all the precipitation. Still, no one knew how long the rain would last, and no one wanted to get their hopes up too high.

Water itself has always been a fraught subject in Southern California. Late–19th-century city leaders realized LA’s growth would be stunted if they couldn’t figure out a way to get more water to the city. Their solution was to divert water from the Owens Valley region in Central California by building an aqueduct, finished in 1913. Their machinations to buy up land and water rights in the region from farmers and build the aqueduct would come to be called the California Water Wars, and were partly the basis for the movie Chinatown.

Today, LA gets most of its drinking water from the Colorado River. The water travels through a system of pipes and drains until it reaches Lake Havasu, on the Arizona border, and from there, the Colorado River Aqueduct carries it nearly 250 miles to LA, San Diego, and cities in between. (Historically not the best-tasting, it’s gotten better in recent years after the Department of Water and Power changed the chemicals used to treat it. Yum!)

Before the current drought, the worst droughts of the last 100 years were between 1987 and 1992, and 1928 and 1934 (the so-called Dust Bowl). But scientists have determined that California historically also went through periods of mega-drought — that is, droughts that lasted for 10 to 20 years, even up to close to 250 years — before it was settled in the 1800s by Europeans. It doesn’t seem crazy that a mega-drought could happen again — with climate change, maybe a drought that lasts only six years is actually getting off easy.

So it almost seemed like the rain that finally came was too good to be true — and then it just didn’t stop. The warned-of landslides finally did materialize, in Laurel Canyon, where the back patio of a house collapsed and rolled down the hillside, closing a main artery between the San Fernando Valley and West Hollywood for days. When the next storm hit, another house started rolling down the hill — right into an $8.5 million home newly purchased by Demi Lovato, who hadn’t even moved in yet. The wealthy might be able to get around a drought, but it turns out that rain is a great equalizer. A storm in February killed two people, and a sinkhole in Studio City swallowed two cars.

Things are worse in Northern California. Near Sacramento, the Oroville Dam’s main and emergency spillways failed because of the heavy rain; nearly 200,000 people had to be evacuated. A bridge leading to Big Sur, on the coast near Monterey, collapsed — 350 people are trapped, and officials are helicoptering in supplies. The town has been cut in half, and it will take at least six months, and more likely a year, for the bridge to be rebuilt. A 61-mile-long section of Highway 1, the iconic coastal drive that snakes along the Pacific Coast, is now closed. In February, Big Sur got 1,150% of its yearly average rainfall.

Certainly in LA, no one is equipped for this kind of rain. Everyone has an earthquake kit in their house and their car, but they drive 50 miles per hour on the freeway in a downpour with their lights off. The only reason I have a waterproof jacket and a pair of rain boots is because my husband and I went to Iceland and London on our honeymoon a year and a half ago.

I went to a restorative yoga class a couple days after the sinkhole incident, and the teacher told us that we were all weathering the storm, literally and metaphorically. This isn’t the kind of thing that people in New York say with a straight face; it was the kind of speech that, a few years ago, I might have rolled my eyes at. But as I sat there with my eyes closed and my hands resting on my knees (palms down, to feel more grounded), I found myself nodding.

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Cynthia Hirschhornwater