First come floods, then flowers, then fire: the ‘benevolent dictator’ of Southern California’s climate

Originally written by Eve Andrews

Over a century ago, the city of San Diego offered Charles Hatfield the equivalent of $250,000 in today’s money to rescue it from a drought that had depleted the Morena Reservoir, which provided its drinking water. Hatfield, who referred to himself as a “moisture accelerator,” had developed an early form of geoengineering mechanism that sent little puffs of a vaporized chemical solution skyward. He claimed those puffs could squeeze rain from the stingy clouds above and fill the reservoir anew. If his technology proved to be a boondoggle, the parties agreed, he wouldn’t get paid.

Hatfield set his device in motion at the end of December 1915. Over the course of the following month, San Diego was inundated with an extraordinary amount of rain, raising the reservoir level by nearly a foot and a half in just the first two weeks. Hatfield was both delighted and smug, making the rounds to demand his payment.

Soon, however, a second downpour caused the San Diego and Tijuana rivers to overflow, flooding the slightly inland Mission Valley and the small farming towns within it. About a week later, a third, unprecedented deluge knocked down the Otay Dam and wiped out the Otay Valley, leaving approximately 20 casualties in its wake.

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Hatfield maintained that he had performed his job as promised even in the face of, well, mass murder accusations. Nonetheless, both officials in 1916 and historians today remain unconvinced that Hatfield’s experiments actually generated the amount of precipitation that decimated the region.

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In fact, it’s much more likely that it was the product of something that wouldn’t be named for another 80 years: The atmospheric river, Southern California’s fickle rain goddess, which delivers a great deal of the region’s precipitation and almost all of its devastating floods.

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