Guest opinion by Jan Siegel
If you believe the headlines of today, you would think that that the Earth is collapsing around us. First, we’re told that global warming was our major concern. Now, it is climate change and the cold weather of winter that we need to be concerned about. We are going from one climate crisis to another. Besides the record summer heat wave, we are told to be ready for the 100-year flood … but what we are going through is a cyclical pattern that has been going on for centuries. Floods have been a part of the San Juan Capistrano landscape since records have been recorded beginning in 1861.
Following our latest “century” flood in 2010, Don Tryon—former archivist for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society and The Capistrano Dispatch—wrote on the history of flooding in our town over the past decades.
Tryon wrote, “The first heavy floods recorded were in 1825, but there was a lack of detail on what happened. But in 1861 and 1862, it was reported that four weeks of rain fell, and the skies poured out water in such sheets that it tore into adobe walls and carried away soil, chickens and loose belongings. The two raging creeks, Trabuco and San Juan Creek, covered the town.”
Between October 1863 and March 1864, 29 inches of rain fell on San Juan Capistrano. The 1916 flood wiped out several bridges, including two railroad bridges and 1,000 feet of railroad track. In 1927, railroad bridges were again destroyed, as well as valuable orange trees, which could be seen floating down to the Pacific Ocean. The 1927 flood completely isolated the town.
The next major flood was in 1938. It was referred to as the 50-year flood. A record nine inches of rain fell in six days and, once again, San Juan Capistrano was isolated. Both creeks crested over their banks and inundated all the surrounding farmland. McKinley Bridge, which was located behind Zoomars on Los Rios Street, was destroyed … and, once again, the railroad bridge over San Juan Creek was washed away. This flood affected all of Orange County.
Following the 1938 flood, federal money was allocated to try and tame the Santa Ana River. One answer for the money was to build Prado Dam. Completed in 1941, it has been constantly upgraded due to more and more urbanization. Part of the theory behind Prado Dam was the San Juan Creek watershed. Beginning in Lake Elsinore, there are about 19 tributaries that flow into San Juan Creek, including Trabuco Creek that follows Ortega Highway. As it reached flat land, seepage into the ground provided an underground aquifer. The U. S. Geological Survey installed water gauges to measure the water flow into the creek.
The years 1943 and 1968 saw more flooding, but the worst was 1969, when the water gauges at the U. S. Geological Survey at San Juan Creek measured 5.8 feet. In January and February, 14.56 inches of rain was recorded in San Juan Capistrano. There were more bridges collapsing. Another flood year was 1982.. As was 1993. That year, the front wall surrounding the Mission collapsed.
The last flood year was 2010, which saw the flooding of the San Juan Hills Golf Club course, the evacuation of horses, the closure of the Mission and suspension of Amtrak service.
Spend a “Moment in Time” reflecting on the meaning of “century floods” and take reasonable precautions. A century is not as long as it used to be.
Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.