Walteria Lake was a nameless basin of lower-level land where rainwater naturally collected back when A. Richard Walters built a hotel bearing his name in the area in the late 1800s. Walteria was little more than a stagecoach stop between Redondo Beach and Wilmington at the time.
The lake was a well-known fixture in the area during the rainy season at least as far back as the 1880s. The city of Torrance certainly was aware of it when it annexed Walteria’s .39 square miles on March 12, 1928.
Travelers and residents learned to work their way around the seasonally flooded area, whose modern-day boundaries are roughly Hawthorne Boulevard on the east, Pacific Coast Highway on the south, Lomita Boulevard to the north and Calle Mayor to the west.
The area’s periods of inundation mostly were an inconvenience to residents and farmers. They gave the temporary body of water the tongue-in-cheek name Walteria Lake, which stuck.
Enter the post-World War II population boom. Suddenly, clearing land for tract houses to serve the voracious housing needs of postwar suburban families became a priority. Also, the general commercial and residential buildup in the area made the lake’s regular impediment to transportation more glaring.
Serious talk about dealing with the problems caused by the lake began in the early 1950s, when developers, such as Southwood builder Don Wilson, began eyeing the area.
Many ideas were floated, so to speak. In September 1951, the city proposed turning the impromptu lake into a permanent one by draining excess water via a tunnel leading to the ocean; the remaining water would form a lake for a new public park.
In 1953, plans were announced to drain the area by connecting pipes to the new Lomita storm drain being built, but this proved to be impractical.
Walteria-area businessmen pushed for the park-with-lake idea while the city considered other options. These included digging drainage tunnels and converting Walteria lake into a water retention basin, the official name for a sump.
The park idea would persist even after the city nixed it in 1958, surfacing from time to time as work on the drainage problem began. It would never become a reality, though.
Life went on while the politicians pondered what to do about Walteria Lake. Farmers continued to raise crops on the empty land, then one of the largest undeveloped plots in the Torrance area.
When grading began for the construction of the new South High in 1956, crews had to build up a 75-foot elevation on the high school location to prevent flood waters from affecting the new school.
The debate continued throughout the 1950s. In October 1959, Torrance City Manager George Stevens killed the idea of a storm drain to the ocean, declaring it too expensive for the city to consider. Planning moved ahead on creating a sump to solve the problem.
The turn of the new decade brought a more determined course of action. In August 1960, the city and Los Angeles County agreed on a 27-acre site for the sump, to be known as the Walteria Lake Retention Basin, which would be dug to a depth of 40 feet.
The Los Angeles County Flood Control District authorized a $975,724 project that would include a pump station to remove excess water. The water would be sent through a system of five pumps to Machado Lake, in Harbor City’s Ken Malloy Regional Park.
The dimensions of the sump had changed since 1960. In order to withstand a continuous 10-12-inch rainstorm, the sump became 106 feet deep instead of 40 feet.
It had its first test before the project was completed. Heavy rains on Feb. 9-10, 1963, came close to swamping the sump and related structures, but hard work by dedicated engineers minimized the damage, and proved the new “lake” to be storm-worthy.
By August 1964, the storm drain project was completed, and Walteria Lake’s days as a traffic-stopping, house-flooding nuisance came to an end.
Because of the former lake, the land in the area has what experts call “expansive soil,” which contracts when dry and expands when wet at a greater rate than normal soil. Houses built in the unstable area, including some in the Southwood Riviera tract, were subject to movement and cracking in the walls as a result. Residents nicknamed the area “Shaky Acres.”
Homeowners wanted the city to help pay for repairs, but the City Council members said in January 1991 that the city wasn’t liable to pay repairs on snaking cracks in walls, crooked door jams and sagging floors because it didn’t know about the conditions when the houses were built.
At the meeting, Torrance officials told homeowners to try preventing further soil movement by keeping properties constantly wet or dry, and gave them an allowance for the use of extra water to do so.
Today’s Walteria Lake stretches between Hawthorne Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, from 234th to 238th streets. It’s sheltered from public view by an elevated embankment and thick growths of oleander. Most importantly, when it rains, the sump, measuring 300 feet wide and 1,200 feet long, does its job, making the original Walteria Lake nothing but a distant memory.
Sources: Daily Breeze files; Historic Torrance: A Pictorial History of Torrance, California, by Dennis F. Shanahan and Charles Elliott Jr., Legends Press, 1984; Los Angeles Times files; “1950s: Torrance Thrives After the War,” City of Torrance website; Torrance Herald files.