‘Round Glendale: One Block on Elk

In our first tour of Glendale, we took a long walk down W Wilson Ave, from the city center on Brand Blvd to the industrial edge at San Fernando.

Today, we’re going to go seven blocks south and look at a short block on W Elk Ave, between the end of the ramps from the 5 and Pacific Ave. This stretch is barely 700’ long, but has a remarkable diversity of buildings.

From the freeway off-ramp, the view is at first dominated by Brio, a large apartment complex that was finished in 2012-2013. The left side is large apartment house with three wings; the right side of the street is a set of 14 townhouse-style units built as part of the same project. The 186-unit apartment building has a Colorado St address but takes up the whole block, with the wings opening up towards Elk.

Like most large new construction apartment buildings with boatloads of on-site amenities in LA, rents aren’t exactly cheap. Studios start around $1,800/month and a 2BR will run you over $3,000/month. The side facing Colorado has first floor retail.

The apartment portion of the project is zoned SFMU, which is Glendale’s basic mixed-use zone, allowing up to 100 du/acre and 75’/6 stories height. (These are slightly reduced when abutting other multi-family zones and significantly reduced when abutting single-family zones.) This is more or less equivalent to the RAS4-1L zone in Los Angeles. On some streets (San Fernando, Colorado, & Broadway), commercial uses are required on the street frontage. The townhouse portion of the project is zoned IMU-R, which is Glendale’s most generous mixed-use zone, allowing everything up to heavy manufacturing. (Multi-family requires an administrative use permit and mixed-use requires a conditional use permit.)

Moving beyond Brio on the right, there are three single family homes.

Well, there were three single family homes. Now there’s one and a hole in the ground.

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The demo permit for this job was just issued at the end of March. Soon, a 6-unit townhouse will be rising on the site. This is going to leave on SFR in between Brio & the townhouses, for some infill developer in the future to tackle. The south side of Elk from Brio to Pacific is zoned R-2250, one of Glendale’s basic multi-family zones. As the name suggests, this allows one unit per 2250 SF of lot area, or 19 du/acre, similar to the RD2 zone in LA.

The next building up looks like an SFR at first, but is at least a duplex and maybe a triplex, and it might even have a backyard cottage too. Walk around this part of Glendale, and you’ll notice the density is often hidden; it’s nearly impossible to tell how many units a property has from the street. This is classic missing middle affordable housing, which we ought to be building in spades all over the region, especially towards the edges of the city where there’s housing demand but apartments might not pencil out.

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Then we have a newer development with two houses on one lottwo houses on one lot, but who knows, maybe one is a duplex.

After that, we have two classic 1980s buildings. The building on the right was finished in 1988 and is built on two lots, just like the new 6-unit townhouse project being built. However, it has 15 units. So unfortunately, the permitted density here has been reduced by more than half since the 1980s, making it impossible to construct smaller, more affordable units. If you can only put 3 units on a lot, you need to make them pretty big to make it worthwhile. The building on the left was finished in 1989 and has 5 units.

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Three small structures take us to the corner of Pacific. The one on the right is a duplex; the middle is single-family. The last is two units on one lot and actually has a Pacific Ave address.

The north side of Elk is still zoned SFMU all the way to Pacific, so eventually we may see another mixed-use development pop up here. For now, most of the north side between Brio and Pacific is occupied by a generic light industrial building, mysteriously and awesomely named “Promoting Growth AWAP”. A little digging reveals this to be an auto parts wholesaler.

The last building, a set of twin apartment buildings at the corner of Pacific, was built so long ago they actually got away with a surface parking lot. It has a Pacific Ave address, and provides 16 apartments.

This little block on Elk displays a lot of the different types of housing you’ll find in Glendale. It’s providing a variety of housing for a variety of people, but it’s also a warning about what we’re at risk of losing the LA region. New buildings like Brio are great; new townhouses are great. But we’re not building the small duplexes, the small apartment buildings, or the medium size apartment buildings that fit in many small, but affordable, apartment units.

If we want to maintain the dynamism that makes LA such a great city, we’ve got to be building those missing middle housing types. Land costs are such that it might not make sense to build them in this particular neighborhood today, but there are places where it would – if we only allowed it.

The Housing Crisis & Wages in Tight Labor Markets

A short note on the impact of the housing crisis on wages in tight labor submarkets, as a follow up to a Twitter conversation about the impact that moving to an expensive city has on disposable income.

In The Rent is Too Damn High, Matthew Yglesias argues that you can’t command higher wages to live in a high-cost city, even if your skills are relatively scarce, because employers roughly “pay workers according to how valuable their work is… nobody is going to offer you a higher salary to offset your high cost of living just to be nice.”

Anecdotally, I can tell you this is not true. Working in an industry where there is currently high demand for certain niche skills and limited supply of workers, we have to offer substantial pay raises to get workers to relocate to LA. My engineering skills are not particularly specialized, but you’d still have to pay me more if you wanted me to relocate to SF or NYC or some other place more expensive than LA. We’re not offering higher salaries to be nice; we’re doing it because the high cost of housing gives workers the ability to cut into our producer surplus.

The reason is that labor has a supply curve too, and the cost of housing is an input into the cost of supplying labor. If housing is more expensive, less people are going to be willing to relocate to the city. Obviously, the amount of money it would take to convince a worker to move will vary – some people don’t want to move to LA for reasons other than cost, some people really want to move to LA despite the cost – but overall, workers will demand higher compensation to relocate to higher cost cities.

The increase in pay that workers can demand depends on the number of potential workers and the demand for their skills. For jobs that many people can perform, modest increases in wages should bring about a decent increase in the number of workers. On the other hand, for niche skills, the supply curve might be pretty steep, and workers may be able to command substantially higher wages. On the demand side, if employers can easily automate work or move it to another city, they may not offer much in the way of wage increases. But if the work cannot easily be moved elsewhere, demand will be less sensitive to wages and workers can again demand substantially more money.

Employers almost always have some alternatives to raising wages. They can try to have the work performed remotely; the reduced productivity of remote work may be more than offset by wage savings. They can forgo the work entirely; in some cases it might be impossible to do the work profitably.

All of this implies that high housing costs will be borne jointly by workers and employers. Higher paid workers with niche skills will be able to force more of this cost onto their employers, though by no means all of it. The cost to employers becomes a deadweight loss, money that could have been otherwise invested in expanding a business and employing more people. Lower income workers are affected worse than higher income workers, making solving the housing crisis even more important.

Jane Jacobs at 100

May 4th was the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, whose works certainly need no introduction here. Rightly revered for successfully blocking Robert Moses’ plans to build freeways across Lower Manhattan and her works that helped redefined urban planning, Jacobs has become the patron saint of urbanism, however loosely defined that term may be. Her 100th birthday has prompted many retrospectives and celebrations of her work, with the Toronto Star calling her more relevant than ever.

Recently, though, some of her writing in The Death and Life of Great American Cities has come under fire. Stephen Smith of Market Urbanism sees the seeds of NIMBYism and gentrification in her opposition to dense construction being proposed in Greenwich Village and other parts of Manhattan in the 1950s and 1960s.

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Jacobs’ writing is extensive, spanning over four decades, and even within Death and Life itself there are many different concepts that can be examined on their own merits rather than as a portion of the whole.

When I first read Death and Life many moons ago, I was living in Boston’s North End, which is cited frequently in the book as an example of a neighborhood that, by virtue of its built environment – mixed uses, small blocks, aged buildings, & density – had produced a successful urban community. Young and smug, I wallowed in the self-satisfaction of having chosen to live in the right kind of neighborhood and built environment.

Over time, though, it became impossible to pretend that I was living in Jane Jacobs’ North End. The neighborhood had already undergone tremendous change since 1961, when Death and Life was published. Gone were the noxious waterfront industries and the surface-running freight railroad, and the Central Artery’s days were numbered. Many Italians had long since decamped for the suburban dream on the North Shore. My North End was not that of former Boston City Councilor Paul Scapicchio, who described the eyes on the street of his childhood as “like having a thousand grandmothers” ready to tell your mom if you were up to no good. In fact, a nice feature for some of us living there was not having eyes watching all the time.

I had friends there and knew some business owners, but had nowhere near the extent of social interaction described in Death and Life. I certainly wasn’t assimilating anyone’s kids; even in those days, disciplining someone else’s children would get you long looks, if not a tongue lashing. Entire blocks that would have had ground-level retail in 1961 had been converted to exclusively residential use, their shopfronts replaced with small windows set high in the wall for the privacy of the occupants, who certainly didn’t want to be interacting with anyone on the sidewalk. Yet these streets had not been doomed; rather, they were more desirable because they were likely to be quiet at night. In years, I never really knew anyone else who lived in my building.

What’s going on? Like many questions on urban development, the answer can be found in Palms.

Palms is neighborhood that, according to Death and Life, should fail. The definitive dwelling type of Palms, the dingbat, built on the definitive zoning of Palms, R3, produces residential densities of about 50 dwelling units per net residential acre (du/ac). This is half the density that Death and Life speculates is the bare minimum for urban neighborhoods, but more than twice the posited maximum density for a suburb. Palms should be a “gray area” under the great blight of dullness. It’s not. Palms is one of LA’s most diverse neighborhoods, attracts new investment, and offers a wide variety of commercial amenities.

The neighborhood I live in now in Glendale is zoned for 19 du/ac, but has higher density in reality due to a significant amount of legacy development built when the zoning allowed more. It doesn’t suffer from the issues ascribed to middle densities either. I know more people in my building here than I did in the North End. This isn’t a reflection of the neighborhood’s design; it’s a reflection on people, myself included, being in different places in life.

Jacobs was badly needed in 1961, when American cities were being sacked on a scale that is almost unimaginable now. Nothing today comes close to the wholesale destruction of urban renewal and freeway construction; no one wields concentrated power of the magnitude Robert Moses had then. We should be thankful that the Lower Manhattan Expressway wasn’t built, and that the tide of public opinion turned against demolishing entire neighborhoods and towards respecting communities.

However, it seems to me that two things have gone wrong. One, we have underestimated the ability of people to form communities in different ways and flourish in different environments. Two, we have taken the lessons on urban aesthetics too close to heart.

On the first point, consider that people use and need cities in many different ways. For some, the ability to form a tight knit community is essential to survival because of the need for support; this is frequently the case with immigrant communities, like the North End when it was home to new Italian immigrants. Others are looking for social and cultural community; artists and writers are the stereotypical examples here. Still others might be trying to escape bad situations elsewhere, looking for new friendships and opportunity, but wanting or needing the anonymity that only a city can afford. People can successfully do these things in many different types of built environments. If you’re a recent Chinese immigrant to SoCal, you might end up in pretty suburban Monterey Park – not because of how it looks, but because that’s where the community you need is located.

On the second point, we have become focused on programming the details of new buildings – materials, interaction with the street, unit sizes, mandatory mixed use in some places, and mandatory single use in others. We obsess over design while much larger market forces are reshaping cities. We let our cities become cartoons of themselves – maintaining the same appearance while serving a smaller portion of the people who need them. It’s the urban answer to Disney’s Main Street USA – looks and feels like a real city neighborhood, if you can afford the price of admission.

This is not to say that Death and Life is irrelevant or dated. But for many cities, the problems that it discusses are. There are cities that are struggling the way New York was in 1961 – places like Detroit, Cleveland, St Louis – and they really do still face plans for extensive demolition of old neighborhoods, new roadways through the urban core, and urban renewal schemes. But no one is trying to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway anymore, and no one is trying to demolish the North End and replace it with another West End. People talk about the need for aged buildings as if Robert Moses were still lurking around the corner, as if places like LA weren’t largely comprised of old buildings. We have lots of old buildings, what we need now is some new ones. On my entire street in Glendale, you could probably count the buildings finished in this century on two hands; on my street in Palms, in four long blocks, there were probably three or four. And of course, many of LA’s single-family zones have functionally added no new dwelling units in decades.

If we are to use the lessons of Death and Life to help address the challenges many cities face today, we have to start with the recognition that neighborhood character comes from people, not buildings. The buildings don’t make the community; they just make it possible for the people who make the community to live there. Design matters and can make a difference, but only if you have enough buildings for all the people who want to be a part of the city.

Greenwich Village today is not what it was in 1961. Do we like how Greenwich Village, and countless other neighborhoods in coastal cities, are actually functioning today, with rising rents and reduced access to the city for those who need it most? Or do we just like how they look?

I tried to look up rents in my old building in the North End, but it’s been condo converted. A mortgage on the cheapest unit would be at least two and a half times my rent. Are we really willing to pay such a price just to look good?

Culver City Cluster

The intersection of Venice & Robertson near the Culver City Expo Line stop holds a special place in many pedestrians’ hearts, but not in a good way. It dwells in that special place where existential fears reside – will I survive crossing 8 lanes of Venice Blvd and a the goofy one-way pair that is Robertson, full of impatient drivers trying to get to the 10?

There is no love for this intersection among drivers either, as it is reliably snarled for much of the day, causing major delays to Metro bus routes 33 and 733. The exhaust of so many idling cars doesn’t lend much to the ambience of the Venice Blvd bike lanes either. It’s pretty much an unmitigated multi-modal disaster. With Expo Line construction complete, we are at least done with lane closures and pedestrian detours, but that’s not saying much, especially since the final configuration still has no crosswalk on the west side of Robertson.

To see why this area is such a mess, let’s zoom out a little and look at the arterial grid in the region.

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In addition to the oddly-configured interchange with the 10, arterial roads around downtown Culver City are very disjointed, with Venice being the only continuous one. Culver ends at Venice. Washington is interrupted in a way that forces travel on Culver. Robertson, for all purposes, ends at Washington, because traffic controls on Higuera St make it impossible to link Robertson, Higuera, and Rodeo as a continuous arterial. National and Hughes/Duquesne are only one lane each way, reducing their utility as routes around Venice/Robertson. The result is that traffic is funneled to Venice/Robertson, creating misery for everyone involved (except Expo Line riders sailing overhead).

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What could be done?

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The most ambitious plan (which many readers aren’t going to like) would be an underpass from Culver to Robertson and reconfiguring the offramp from the 10 eastbound. This would require tunneling under Venice, the shopping center, and a retained fill section on the Expo Line. It would create a continuous arterial out of Culver & Robertson, and remove this traffic from the existing Venice/Robertson intersection. It would also turn the intersection into a conventional four-legged junction. The carrot to this stick would be crosswalks on all four sides of Venice/Robertson with lower traffic volumes, and, by virtue of removing the worst bottleneck on Venice, a center running BRT on Venice from Crenshaw Blvd to the Pacific Ocean. I don’t have time to properly CAD this up at the moment, but here, have a crappy MS Paint rendering.

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A less ambitious plan would be to eliminate Culver Blvd between Washington and Venice, reconfigure downtown Culver City to make Washington continuous, and still reconfigure the offramp from the 10 eastbound. This would still reduce the traffic volume on Venice, and reduce left-turn volumes from Venice eastbound to Robertson northbound by forcing Culver/Washington traffic to turn at Washington/Robertson instead.

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There are probably other options too. The absence of the crosswalk at Venice/Robertson is really inexcusable in any case, and that at least should be fixed immediately.

Zoning, Building Codes, & Cheap Housing

Over at Market Urbanism, Emily Washington writes about the need for low quality housing, attributing some of the high cost of housing in US cities to building codes that increase construction costs. Some provisions of building codes were encouraged by social reformers and reflect middle-class standards and expectations, rather than necessities of health and safety.

Over at Rooflines, Jamaal Green responds that there is no shortage of low quality housing in the US. Anyone with a cursory familiarity with the lower end of the US housing market can vouch for the fact that there are many dwellings out there, in cheap cities and expensive ones alike, that are very low quality in their ability to provide shelter, keep out pests, supply functioning water and sewer connections, and so on.

Part of the issue here is that quality can be used to convey a wide variety of characteristics. Something can be low quality in the sense that it is hazardous to human health and safety, or something can be low quality in the sense that, while functional, it doesn’t meet the aesthetic preferences of the neighbors.

As Paul Groth details in Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States, it is clear that many zoning and building code provisions reflect the middle-class sensibilities of Progressive Era reformers. In particular, living arrangements that were not centered on family life, such as residential hotels and rooming houses, were nearly driven out of existence. Unlike the lower end single-room cubicles of Groth and the doss houses of Jacob Riis, this was not due to public health, but to the perceived impact on social relations of residents. Turn of the century hotels and rooming houses made it possible for women to live alone and for both men and women to engage in intimate relationships, straight or gay, outside of marriage, behavior which was viewed as deviant by many reformers of the time.

It’s reasonable to think that building codes have an impact on the cost of construction. An 1870 pre-law tenement was basically a shell – no electricity, no gas, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no insulation. You could build a tenement pretty cheaply today, if you wanted to. However, code requirements have been phased in over time, and technology drives down the cost of construction. The cheapest new single-family construction today is nearly the same cost per square foot as a Levitt house, but the former is a much higher quality product.

It’s also beyond a doubt that tenements were terrible places to live. The most basic requirements – city water to each unit, indoor plumbing and city sewer service, gas and electricity – are requirements for survival and public health. The oral histories at New York’s Tenement Museum and of the Lower East Side represent people who lived in tenements after these basic amenities had been forced upon landlords by building codes. However, by 1932, Harry Shulman would write in Slums of New York that some tenement owners were making improvements of their own accord, because transportation improvements like the subway had made it possible for renters to find newer, better housing in other parts of the city.

This last bit is perhaps a clue into our situation today. There is lots of low quality housing in the US, but virtually none of it is newly built like the new law tenements were. I’m not sure about this, but the distinction between what can be constructed new and what has filtered down from old construction may be important. (Good transportation to places where new affordable housing has been built is also important, but not central to this discussion.)

The breakeven price for new, code-compliant construction sets an upper bound on what rents can be charged for older construction. If there is abundant new construction, rents for units in new buildings will be driven down to the breakeven price. Would that reduce the portion of the population subject to living in substandard conditions? If you can rent in a new building for the same price, your landlord can’t coerce you into accepting deficient conditions.

There should also be a breakeven price for maintaining old buildings; below that level (and perhaps above sometimes) landlords let the properties deteriorate and rent to progressively poorer tenants, until selling the building.

Zoning and building codes should both make the new construction breakeven price higher. In expensive coastal cities in the US, zoning is likely the largest contributor to high prices, simply by restricting the number of units that can be constructed on a property. If zoning is not constraining, the building code will still have an effect. I am no expert in building codes but others, such as Mark Hogan, have noted that multi-family construction costs in some places are quite high. There are probably improvements to the building code that could be made to help reduce costs. For example, a guest author on this blog once explained the impact of LA’s building code on high-ride construction costs.

For the breakeven price for old buildings, zoning and building codes should again both have an effect. Older buildings might be able to generate self-sustaining rents if allowed to be converted to smaller units, such as rooming houses. It might be less costly to comply with better building codes, reducing the breakeven price. Many code officials can tell you stories about having to order the demolition of well-constructed but unpermitted units for non-compliance, turning the occupants out onto the streets.

Zoning codes are probably the larger factor in housing costs. However, while we shouldn’t change any building code requirements that truly affect health and safety, it’s still worth seeing what can be done on that side as well. Though never eliminating the need for good code enforcement, relaxed zoning and better building codes should lower the price of new construction, making it harder for owners of old buildings to pressure tenants into accepting unsafe conditions.

Can the Middle Class Afford Cars?

Via The Taupe Avenger, The Truth About Cars wonders if middle-class families can’t afford new cars anymore. (Warning: the author of that piece strongly insinuates the problems are Obamacare and immigrants. Which, no.)

The math is pretty simple. Median household income in the US is about $53,700; thanks to wage stagnation and the Great Recession, this is barely above where it was in 1989. The article uses a new Toyota Camry LE, which costs $23,905. According to Autotrader, in 1989 the basic 4-door automatic model Toyota Camry had a list of price of $12,158… which, in 2016 dollars, is $23,248. The basic 2016 Honda Civic starts at $18,640, while the 1989 model was $10,090 or $19,290 in 2016 dollars.

Note that the 2016 Camry and Civic are better cars the 1989 models. They are safer and more fuel efficient. So even if it feels like the middle class can’t afford new cars, it seems like that’s not actually the case. Incomes haven’t gone up very much, but the real price of a basic new car hasn’t gone up very much either.

Leave aside that this rough analysis is based on median incomes, which ignores changes in income distribution that would make new cars affordable to a smaller number of people. (If the middle class shrinks while the high-income and low-income classes grow, the median will stay the same but a larger number of people will be unable to afford a new car.) What’s going on here?

My guess is that people feel poorer because of the Big 3 items whose real costs really have increased greatly since the 1980s – housing, health care, and education. And in fact, the article unwittingly suggests this is true.

First, the mortgage payment that the hypothetical family is making is given as $2,100/month. With 10% down at current interest rates, that’s nearly a $400,000 house. As of February 2016, the median new home price in the US is just over $300,000. In 1989 it was about $120,000, or $230,000 in 2016 dollars. So while new car prices and real wages have more or less stayed the same, new home prices have gone up by about 30%. Suffice to say that if you live in some of the most populous parts of the country, it’s considerably worse than that.

We could say the same for health care – the article complains about Obamacare but of course the real problem is that health care costs in the US have grown faster than wages and inflation, and faster than the rest of the world, for decades. Likewise for education.

The increase in cost of housing, health care, and education probably explains most of the squeeze put on ordinary Americans over the last 25 years. Sometimes people realize this; sometimes they focus on the cost of something else like cars or gas. Unfortunately, even when people realize the costs of the Big 3 are the issue, they often blame the wrong thing – Hispanic immigrants, Obamacare, Chinese property buyers, Chinese factory workers, Chinese college students.

It’s easy to scapegoat, and convenient for the people who do not want to do anything to solve the problems of housing, health care, and education costs. The real sources of the problems are more complex. But they are of our making, and that means we can solve them, if we want to.

El Niño Update: Joke’s on SoCal Edition

Somehow, it’s already April, and despite intense media hype and warning, SoCal residents have watched storm after storm deliver rain to northern California but die on the way past Point Conception. The storms that have made it to LA have been mediocre, with limited moisture; the remnants of a tropical storm in September brought more rain than any system since. Through the end of March, this year has been no better for LA than the last four drought years.

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If El Niño is going to bring any rain to SoCal, this is the eleventh hour. The April through June period has brought over 5” of rain only 5 times since 1877 (including the 1982-1983 El Niño), and even this amount would leave LA well below normal for the year.

Major water supply reservoirs in northern California have continued to fill up. The biggest reservoirs in the state, Lake Shasta and Lake Oroville, will almost certainly fill to capacity this spring, after starting out the water year about 30% full. Folsom Lake and Bullards Bar will likely fill, and other large reservoirs like Trinity Lake, Don Pedro Lake, and Millerton Lake have risen significantly.

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The snowpack in the northern and central part of the state is running close to average, and about 75% of average in the south Sierra, which will keep water flowing into reservoirs through the spring.

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The situation in SoCal, though, is dire. While urban areas in LA and San Diego draw water from all across the southwest, the Central Coast is much more dependent on local supplies, with only small State Water Project allocations of NorCal water. Lake Cachuma, in Santa Barbara County, has fallen every year since 2011 and this year was no different. Nearly at capacity in 2011, it currently sits at only 14% full.

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Urban water supplies are one thing; we humans will figure out a way to get by. The impact of this fifth dry year on SoCal’s environment is going to be depressing. Wildlife will have tough times finding water. There are going to be a lot of dead trees in the hills and mountains, increasing the fire danger. At this point, all we can do is hope for monsoon moisture and tropical storm remnants to somehow find their way to LA this summer. At least it would do something to help stop forests from drying out.

To see how dry it has been in SoCal the last 5 years, let’s look back to 1877, when weather records started being kept in downtown LA. SoCal is a land of extremes: the wettest water year (2004-2005, 38.25”) had over ten times the rain of the driest water year (2006-2007, 3.73”).

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While dry years are common in SoCal, the last 5 years have been severe, and it is unusual to have so many in a row. Water years 2012-2014 were the driest 2-year period in LA’s history, with just 11.97”, 0.69” less than the previous record of 1897-1899. 2011-2014, 2012-2015, and 2013-2016 are the third, fourth, and fifth driest 3-year periods in LA’s history. Water year 2015-2016 doesn’t end until September 31, but we very close to LA’s dry season and 2012-2016 is currently the driest 4-year period by over 2”, with 29.80” – and the current record holder is 2011-2015 with 31.91”, beating the previous record by 1.50”.

As it stands today, the five year period 2011-2016 has had 38.50” of rain, which would shatter the previous record of 45.63” set in 1985-1990. Simply put, since 1877, LA has never had a five-year period where every year was below average by so much.

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Even in that context, though, you can see just how variable precipitation is in SoCal. If we look to the driest 6-year periods, 1945-1951 (57.78”) and 1958-1964 (53.25”) are both drier than 2010-2016 (58.70”). Next year would only have to be a normal year to avoid 2011-2017 stealing the crown.

The 1958-1964 period is particularly illuminating. Monthly totals are presented below.

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In that 6-year period, LA had 5 years that were every bit as bad as the last 5 years have been – worse, actually – split up by one year of above average precipitation in 1961-1962, with 18.71”. That year would have been below average if not for one monster month, February 1962, which recorded 11.57”, more than any other year in the period and more than the driest 2 years combined.

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Furthermore, almost all of the rain that February fell in a 2 week period, with 10.88” between February 7th and 19th. Almost 4” of rain fell on February 8, 1962 alone, and 7.56” fell between February 7th and 11th. That 5-day period saw more rain than the entire water year for 1958-1959, 1960-1961, and 1963-1964.In other words, if not for that one 5-day period in February 1962, the 6-year period 1958-1964 would have been drier than the 5-year period 2011-2016. The last wet year in LA, 2010-2011, was above average thanks to 10.23” of rain in December 2010, of which 7.90” fell in just 5 days.

Precipitation in SoCal is of the ultimate capriciousness, even without humanity running an uncontrolled experiment in geoengineering. Storms struggle to bring rain until conditions are just right, and then the skies open like a breached dam. Hating on California’s water supply system is a popular pastime in much of the country, but it’s exactly the logical thing for a civilization to build in a place like SoCal. LA’s water comes from local supplies, the East Sierra via the LA Aqueduct, northern California via the State Water Project, and Wyoming-Colorado-Utah-New Mexico via the Colorado River Aqueduct. Properly managed, it’s a robust system that ensures reliable supply, and makes much more sense than trying to depend on wildly erratic local precipitation.

(Note: data at left is for LAX, so it doesn’t match monthly totals above. All other data in this post is for downtown LA.)

Looking even longer-term, at decade-long totals, we can see that the last 10 years have been unusually dry, averaging just over 10” of rain a year, the lowest since 1877. However, the 20-year, 30-year, and 50-year trends are unremarkable.

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Fortunately, people who know much more about California’s climate have been doing much more detailed research on long-term trends than the armchair analysis above.

Recent research published by Daniel Swain, who writes the excellent California Weather Blog, finds that weather patterns that cause dry years in California are becoming more frequent. However, this does not appear to be at the expense of patterns that cause wet years, which may also be increasing in frequency. The result is that long-term precipitation averages may stay the same, even as global warming causes temperatures to increase, but California’s wet and dry extremes may become even more pronounced.

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Source: California Weather Blog.

If long-term trends are leading toward even move variability in California’s water supplies, it heightens the importance of improving water storage and management. If there’s a silver lining to the persistence of SoCal’s drought this year, maybe it will be a continued focus on tackling these challenges.