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Let's Get One Thing Straight: Los Angeles Is Not a Desert

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"Los Angeles is a desert community. Beneath this building, beneath every street there's a desert. Without water the dust will rise up and cover us as though we'd never existed!" Yeah, forget that, everyone, it's Chinatown (Mayor Bagby ginning up some water-based furor, specifically). Over at KCET, environmental writer Chris Clarke is here to remind us that Los Angeles is not a desert--the city and its surroundings have a Mediterranean climate, according to "the most commonly used system of climate classification, the Köppen system." Which must be how we get those nice avocados and lemons. Clarke writes that part of the confusion is the changing definition of "desert," which once meant "any land that had no forest cover" (e.g., Nebraska).

The current definition is hard to pin down but is generally centered on extremes: "periods of drought, high temperatures, saline soils, or a combination of several such factors." LA is actually pretty predictable (and yes, East Coasters, we have seasons): "The chaparral plants have adapted ways to survive periodic fires, and now and then they have to put those skills to use. But the toyons in the hills predictably survive the predictable dry seasons, the bunchgrasses set seed in anticipation of wet autumns that almost always come, and marine layer fogs reliably cool the city in June when actual deserts start to climb above triple-digit temperatures."

In a rejected LA Times op-ed from 2003 (which Clarke refers to), history professor Ralph Schaffer wrote that the paper published a story in 1888 saying that LA had "a plentiful supply of water in our mountains and valleys to irrigate every acre of land that needs irrigation, and for every other purpose to sustain many millions of people." So how did the desert myth become so pervasive? (The LAT, for instance, frequently refers to LA as a desert now.) It really was, to some extent, all that Chinatown stuff: in the 1880s, the Times reprinted a San Francisco newspaper story referring to SoCal's "'primeval condition of wilderness and desert,' abandoning it to 'the lizard, horned toad and burning sun.'" According to Schaffer, "Otis knew a winning argument when he read one. He resurrected it two decades later to coax voters into supporting the Owens Valley aqueduct bonds."
· Los Angeles Is Not a Desert. Stop Calling It One. [KCET]
· L.A. is not a desert [LAObserved]