New history exhibit shows city’s deep relationship with water is everywhere

Long Beach’s origin story is awash in water.

It was a resort and farming town of transplanted Iowans who got water from aquifers under Signal Hill; the drill bits even found a more lucrative resource underneath: oil. Then when the city outgrew the wells, the Metropolitan Water District was forming and voters jumped in.

Freshwater for drinking and saltwater for playing. The Pike, the L.A. River, the aquarium and Alamitos Bay, then there are the coastal wetlands that have largely disappeared, though, thanks to climate change, those wetlands seem to be coming back.

The city’s evolving relationship with water is the subject of the Historical Society of Long Beach’s new exhibit “Water Changes Everything.” The free exhibit, which opened Friday and runs through June 2020, shows how “water has determined the history of Long Beach,” said Kaye Briegel, the long-time board member who helped put the show together.

There are photos of the city’s nascent sprawl surrounded by acres of muddy wetlands that stretched from the oil wells of Huntington Beach to central Long Beach. They include the breakers that crashed against the boardwalk before the breakwater tamed them, deadening the famous beach, but also opening up the port area to commerce and wartime ship-making.

“Clearly Long Beach began as a beachside community,” said John Royce, HSLB membership coordinator who helped create the exhibit. “They renamed the city Long Beach for a reason because they wanted to capitalize on that resource. So you can’t talk about water in Long Beach without talking about the ocean and the beach resources they provided, especially in the early days.”

Visitors can see 1800s-era maps of the Long Beach water supply and old ads urging voters to allow Long Beach to join the Metropolitan Water District to tap Colorado River water, which it did in 1931, before growth exploded after World War II.

People forget Long Beach was an agricultural community as well, said Royce.

“That was one of the reasons it was founded.,” he said. “When population starts to grow, they need fresh water to drink and to survive. Saltwater was for fun and for commerce and fresh was a basic human need.”

There is ample evidence of human determination to calm the waters of the ocean with breakwaters, as well as the flood-prone L.A. River, which was channeled into concrete. The ocean and rivers were calmed but there were consequences. The paving over of the river and the farmland meant less groundwater would be generated through nourishing rains. (Long Beach still gets roughly half its water from underground sources. The Water Replenishment District is one of 14 sponsors of the exhibit along with the Long Beach Water Department and the Metropolitan Water District.)

Historical accounts celebrate that fact engineers turned mudflats into usable land, said Royce. Belmont Shore exists today because workers dredged Alamitos Bay and created a turning basin, piling up mud to raise the area, otherwise it would be underwater. Of course, once again thanks to climate change, it could be again one day.

Perhaps the most stark part of the exhibit are visuals pointing to the future, renderings showing floodwater eventually seeping through Belmont Shore, Naples and even up to Atherton Street by 2050 and 2100 due to rising seas from climate change. After decades of man taming the water, the water is winning.

“The climate change is a double threat for Long Beach because we’re a coastal city and we face the sea level rise,” said Joe Vanderhorst, who served on the exhibition group. “Because we’re a city in the southwestern United States that relies on imported water from the Colorado River and the Feather River, the increase in temperature is affecting the supply for the freshwater we need.”

The deepening cycles of wet and dry will intensify, according to scientists.

“That means the infrastructure we’ve created for ourselves over the last 100 years may not be appropriate for what we’ll be in for,” said Royce. “We hope it doesn’t, but the writing on the wall is it is going to come to pass.”

The Historical Society of Long Beach is open from 1- 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 1-7 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. The museum and exhibit are free to the public.

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Barbara Kingsley-Wilson is a full-time lecturer at California State University, Long Beach and an adviser to the campus’s student run newspaper, the Daily 49er. A journalist with over 20 years in the field, she continues to write and spends her summers as a general assignment reporter for the Long Beach Post. When she’s not drilling her pupils on the details of AP style, she’s likely practicing her downward dog or traversing the city perched atop her mountain bike.