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Littlerock Creek Watershed: A Shared Resource

Map of Littlerock and Sun Village
Map of Littlerock and Sun Village

In partnership with Antelope Valley Art Outpost: Managed by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, Antelope Valley Art Outpost is a creative placemaking project that supports regional vitality through artist-driven projects in the unincorporated California communities of Littlerock and Sun Village.

If you a take a close look at this map above what you will find is one key physical feature that connects and defines the western boundaries of two small unincorporated towns (Littlerock and Sun Village) on the northern boundary of Los Angeles County - Littlerock Creek Wash. Draining an area of about 65 square miles, this watershed is relatively small, but it is one of the reason towns along the northwestern foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains were settled in the late 1800s and were able to survive.

The first non-native settlement near the town now known as Littlerock was by the Santiago Garcia family around 1850. Garcia and his family built an adobe house near what is now called the Garcia Cienega. This site is near the San Andreas fault line as it crosses the Little Rock Creek wash, where underground water resurfaces, creating small pools and a beautiful grove of Cottonwood trees. A natural spring provided the impetus for Garcia to start farming.

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Located about a half-mile south of the Little Rock Creek Siphon of the California Aqueduct, there are remains of a 310-foot long dam, submerged into the creek bed to force the underground water flow to the surface. This dam was built in 1916 by the Little Rock Creek Irrigation District. | Photo: Jenny Kane

The gold rush in California brought some of the first non-native prospectors to the quiet foothill areas just north of the San Gabriels mountain range. Grazing livestock and mining were principle occupations before farming was attempted. Copper and gold mines were established at various sties along the foothills of the mountains, but the first colonies were settled closest to water. One of the primary sources was the Littlerock Creek wash. As early as 1880, the first infrastructure was built to bring surface water flow to the first acres of cultivated land to the areas now known as Palmdale and Littlerock. Open ditches, sometimes lined with concrete and sometimes just open dirt channels, carried water, using gravity feed through a carefully devised route from close to where the current dam sits down to both Palmdale lake, an historic sag pond, and the Littlerock irrigation ditch which provided flow for the flood irrigation practices early in the 1900s.

Within a relatively short amount of time, inhabitants unaccustomed to the area's climate changes and natural cycles of dry and wet periods, were harvesting hundreds of acres of pears, apples and almonds. Not every variety was a success. Figs, prunes, apricots, and almonds were all tried, until pears survived as the clear winner. Almonds were still planted and harvested throughout the region, but the largest orchards along the present day Pearblossom Highway became the namesake of the region.

None of this would have been possible without the watershed above Little Rock Creek and some timely legislation, which began divvying up water rights.

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Under the provisions of the Wright Act of 1887, local farmers and landowners were allowed to form irrigation districts to support agricultural and farming interests. In 1892, the Little Rock Creek Irrigation District (LCID) was formed, and oversaw an area of more than 2000 acres, with less than 100 inhabitants. The district and its early managers were already struggling to provide adequate water to the farms, with only the help of seasonal surface water flow and a few pumps.1

After an extended drought that began in 1896, the local irrigation district, together with the financial support of the Palmdale Water Company, began devising plans to build a dam that would hold in reserve the previously uncontrollable spring runoff and floods of the creek. In April of 1918, John S. Eastwood agreed to draw up plans for the Little Rock Creek Dam. The final design plans were approved by the state engineer Wilbur F. McClure in the spring of 1922, after multiple design sets were redrafted and the site of the original dam relocated to where it presently sits.

Eastwood's designs were not without opponents, including the state engineer himself. Best known for his multiple-arch design, Eastwood's dams were attractive and innovative, but also economical. Because of the design features, his plans used less concrete and therefore, smaller districts and public entities like the LCID and Palmdale could actually afford the construction.

Design debates concerning safe height limitations of the dam and how thick the walls of concrete should be were raised as well. So Eastwood redesigned and relocated the dam further downstream of the original site, which also brought it closer to the San Andreas Fault.

Littlerock Dam and Reservoir | Photo: Jenny Kane
Littlerock Dam and Reservoir | Photo: Jenny Kane

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, the dam is considered an historic architectural monument, but its northern face has changed dramatically over time. In the 1990s the Palmdale Water District office lead the way in retrofitting the dam against potential future earthquake damage. The north face of the multiple arch dam completed in 1924 is now eclipsed by a gravity dam intended to reinforce the older structure.

It is a fascinating walk through time to pass through the gateway tunnel, under the new portion of the dam to the buttresses and trellis of the older structure. A private tour last week led us inside the two structures.

Inside the Dam | Photo: Henderson Blumer
Inside the Dam | Photo: Henderson Blumer

When visiting the dam and recreation area now, because of area closures to protect the endangered Arroyo Toad, there is very little activity. Once open to hikers and campers, the recreation area has fallen into disuse due to the closure and severe limiting of recreational activities on the reservoir itself. In 2009, the reservoir was closed to outside boaters because of the potential contamination from an invasive mussel that can be transported via boats, kayaks, and canoes brought in from outside water sources.

Boating Closure | Photo: Jenny Kane
Boating Closure | Photo: Jenny Kane

As of April 2015, the recreation area is currently closed to the public, as the private business granted the rights to run the Dam Grill have decided to stop cleaning the public facilities, including bathrooms, which were part of the agreement with the Forest Service when granted the concession rights. The interpretative sign and display at the vista point of the dam itself have been destroyed by vandalism and now looks like a barbeque pit, effaced by droppings from the local swallow population.

Public debate continues about the future use of this area. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts still use the empty reservoir for mud-runs during the drier bookends of the season. Boaters still occasionally fish the reservoir during the wet season. But what remains of the recreation area that used to be so enjoyed by locals of the Antelope Valley and tourists alike?

 

Notes:

1 Donald C. Jackson. "Building the Ultimate Dam: John S. Eastwood and the Control of Water in the West." University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2005.
 

Check out this upcoming event with Antelope Valley Arts Outpost:

RADIO PLAY WITH METABOLIC STUDIO
SUNDAY, MAY 3, 2015 4:00 P.M.

8244 East Pearblossom Highway, Littlerock, CA 93543 map
WHAT: A presentation with Metabolic Studio

Metabolic Studio will present "Man Against the Mountain" (1947), a lost radio play that was discovered in the archives of the Eastern California Museum. The play, which documents how the people of Lone Pine, CA built the Mt. Whitney trail, will incorporate Lone Pine, Littlerock and Sun Village residents performing station break announcements that draw parallels between the Owens Valley and the Antelope Valley. Free dinner and community discussion about environmental and cultural issues relevant to both areas will follow the performance.

Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studio takes a multidisciplinary approach to developing new tools for urban living and city planning. Since 2005 it has focused primarily on land and water use in the city of Los Angeles and by extension in the Intermountain West. It is divided into three separate areas of practice: optics, sonics, and "a mano" (handmade).

 


 

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