Baldwin Hills Dam Collapse Marks 50 Years
December 19, 2013
By Stephen Hadland
Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary of The Baldwin Hills Reservoir collapse. The reservoir served as a water storage basin located on a just west of LaBrea Avenue at the top of Cloverfield Road in the Baldwin Hills.
It was completed in 1951 by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) and was built on an active fault line which was subsidiary to the nearby Newport-Inglewood fault.
The collapse of the dam was one of the first disasters documented by a news helicopter. Footage of the fissure in the face of the damn and the subsequent collapse can still be viewed on KTLA's web site
On December 14, 1963, the lining of the reservoir failed followed by a serious leak through the dam at its east end. It took three hours the dam to be breached at which time 250 million gallons cascaded into the streets and residential community below.
Water and debris ran through the neighborhood and ultimately into the Ballona Creek which became clogged. All tolled 277 homes were destroyed and five people were killed
Actions of the Los Angeles Police and Fire Departments and the time of day kept the loss of life from being even greater. The failure of Vajont Dam in Italy a few weeks later resulted in the loss of 2,000 lives.
The failure of the dam in such a densely populated area has received considerable attention over the years. The post World War II dam was built during a time of new technology and with almost an arrogant attitude towards the forces of nature. Interestingly the engineer who designed the dam, Ralph Proctor, was an engineer on the Saint Francis Dam, another DWP project, which suffered a sudden collapse in 1928 and caused 600 deaths.
Within the DWP there were serious disagreements over design details and the geologic stability of the hills.
The tragedy has been traced to ground faulting and fault movements and was related to the Inglewood Oil field a short distance away. While the oil companies have steadfastly denied it a 1969 report by the US Geological Survey placed the blame on the earthquake faults and seepage of oilfield waste brines.
Hydraulic Fracturing or as it is more commonly called "fracking" also contributed greatly to the collapse, according to the investigation.
In 1976 the US Geological Survey concluded that, "displacements at the ground surface causing reservoir failure and also ground cracking in the Stocker-LaBrea area southeast of the reservoir were 90 percent or more attributable to exploitation of the Inglewood oil field, and that this faulting was likely aggravated by waterflooding with pressures exceeding hydraulic fracturing levels."
One expert concluded that there had been seven inches of offset under the reservoir thereby cracking the lining which led to the eventual failure.
Other experts disagreed with the findings and claimed that the oilfield operations were not a significant factor.
Finally a third theory emerged claiming that overcompaction of the dam fill and lining was significant in the failure.
Fracking remains controversial to this day with numerous lawsuits and bills introduced in the state legislature to ban fracking in populated areas. Noxious odors which have wafted over the Culver Crest neighborhood have been blamed on the fracking process.
The Baldwin Hills Reservoir site is now part of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area and little remains of the remnants of the dam. The actual site is called the Janice's Green Valley, named after Kenneth Hahn's daughter Janice Hahn, who currently serves in the US Congress.
Saturday the Baldwin Hills Restoration group will be hosting an outing to commemorate the 50th anniversary. The event will be held in the park at the site of the former dam from noon until 4pm. For more information call (323) 290-5270 or email firstname.lastname@example.org