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Debating the L.A. River

created Feb 25, 2016 02:04 PM

A 12th Grade Lesson

by Dave Neumann and Nicole Gilbertson, Directors of the CSU Long Beach and UC Irvine History Projects

Teaching students major history-social science issues in a local context connects them to personal experiences and makes tangible topics that may at first seem abstract and distant. Here in Southern California, a local case study approach seems natural. A distinctive region in many ways, Southern California has evoked bemused commentary for many years. Nearly 70 years ago, journalist Carey McWilliams pointed to the region’s well-established reputation for uniqueness: “Not a neutral land, [Southern California] has long aroused emotional reactions ranging from intense admiration to profound disgust… Southern California is the land ‘South of Tehachapi’—south, that is, of the transverse Tehachapi range which knifes across to the ocean just north of Santa Barbara. Once this range has been crossed…‘even the ocean, as well as the land structure, as well as the people, change noticeably.’”[1]

One of Southern California’s most notable features is its fraught relationship with water. For over a century, the arid megalopolis has relied on imported water from the Owens Valley, the Colorado River, and Northern California to support a population that has grown to nearly 23 million. This water dependency has sparked impassioned debates about who should bear the brunt of water rationing, especially during this current drought. Moreover, the region is susceptible to flash floods and mudslides during heavy rains. The looming possibility of a heavy El Nino system underscores water scientist John Andrews’s point that while the “specter of California running out of water has spawned many a tome, …too much water is actually a far greater danger.”[2]

The present drought notwithstanding, average precipitation has remained essentially constant over the last century. But, as water scientist John T. Andrew points out, “when describing water in California, ‘average’ often means little.” When it comes to precipitation, “form, location, timing, intensity, duration, and variability” are all important. Consequently, discussion can shift very quickly from concerns about inadequate water to worries about the possibility of flooding.

The lesson we propose deals with a local water source to get at broader issues regarding water use and its stakeholders. Whether California’s drought continues after the predicted El Nino or not, residents and legislators will have to address sustainable water allocation measures. By framing this topic in its historical context, students will see the lasting consequences of previous government policies, and how these policies have impacted them personally. Ideally, students will recognize the importance of engaging in these public issues—and they may even learn how to debate these difficult issues in a thoughtful civil manner.

The Los Angeles River—yes, there is such a thing—runs for fifty miles before emptying into the Pacific, but it drops over 1000 vertical feet in that distance, roughly the same drop the Mississippi River takes 2350 miles to accomplish. Heavy rains falling on the local San Gabriel and San Bernardino ranges can lead to massive flooding in the Santa Ana and Los Angeles River basins. More than a dozen major floods led to several deaths and millions of dollars in damage before the US Army Corps of Engineers turned the river into a concrete ditch during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In the mid-twentieth century, many Southern California rivers, including the Los Angeles River and the Santa Ana River, were “channelized,” or lined with concrete. This development changed the region in several ways. On the one hand, channelizing reduced chances of catastrophic floods and allowed homes and businesses to be built right alongside the riverbank. On the other hand, channelization destroyed natural habitats, collected contaminated water, and depleted local water supplies by rapidly sending water downstream. For several decades, many environmentalists have advocated returning at least portions of each river to a more natural condition to encourage wildlife to return and allow local inhabitants to enjoy the rivers as recreational opportunities. Opponents remain concerned about the possibilities of flooding. Both sides agree that fresh water is an important asset to the region.

To prepare our students for a deeper understanding of the complex nature of this debate, we propose that 12th grade teachers work with their students to use a structured academic controversy (SAC) to discuss the important roles that rivers and natural watersheds play in our state. An SAC promotes a classroom that stresses important skills for citizenship: using research to build knowledge, listening to evidence from a variety of perspectives, and discussing the issues with peers. “The goals of a SAC are for students to gain content knowledge about issues, appreciate and respect multiple viewpoints, and learn how to build consensus. SACs promote teaching about a controversy without requiring students to take a dualistic stance, straining classroom interactions between students with diverse views, or marginalizing students whose personal beliefs are different from those of the majority.” [3] This activity allows students to engage in Common Core State Standards for reading and speaking and listening, while delving into a policy debate. 

Students work in pairs to read several sources that develop a specific stance on the question. (In a Government class: How can too much water be a problem for California? And what can we do about it? Or in Economics: What do we gain or lose when rivers are restored to their natural habitats?) Students identify evidence from the sources that supports their position. Then they join with another pair of students who have read sources that respond to the issue from an opposing viewpoint. To support students with low-literacy or English Learners, teachers may want to offer them with sources that have guiding questions and glossaries. During the discussion they can provide students sentence frames that guide them through discussion, such as “The evidence of this source is convincing because…” After each pair has shared their evidence, the other side repeats the claim and evidence to the satisfaction of the initial pair. Then, the second group shares their position and supporting evidence, which is repeated by the first pair. As a conclusion, rather than deciding whose position is “best,” the students reach a consensus on how they would solve the issue using evidence from their readings.

Teachers who engaged in this activity developed specific plans that allowed them to come to a collaborative consensus on what would be best for the Los Angeles and Santa Ana river basins. These teachers, with students in courses that included AP Government to continuation high school and independent study, agreed that this activity would prepare their students to have a civil discourse with their peers and practice the listening and speaking skills so necessary for citizenship. David Feldman, a leading expert in California’s water policy and the Director of Water UCI, argues that water policy must be developed with the voices of all stakeholders in mind and that communities should work together to solve the problems associated with water consumption. He highlights the link between water policy and social justice, “[t]he need for fair, open, and transparent decision-making processes in which all groups affected by water decisions can equally participate, and where no relevant constituency is excluded.”[4] Water is an essential need for personal and economic well-being of all Californians and we hope that our students will be prepared to enter the discussion as informed citizens who have something to say about water use and conservation.

Visit here to learn more about this 12th grade lesson.

[1] Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1946), 4.

[2] John T. Andrew, “Adapting California’s Water Sector to a Changing Environment,” in Allison Lassiter, ed., Sustainable Water: Challenges and Solutions from California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 11.

[4] David Lewis Feldman, Water, Cambridge:Polity Press, 2012, p.147.

Image: L.A. River through downtown, from Wikimedia: