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Know the West

L.A. activists try to stop woodlands from becoming sediment dumps


The list price was $1.125 million in August 2011, when Sotheby's International Realty held the first open house for 1674 Highland Oaks Drive, in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia. Scented candles burned, classical music played and the air conditioner ran as potential buyers milled through the home's three bedrooms, living room and combination den/dining room. Through sliding glass doors, a pool was visible in the rear garden; beyond it stood a sharply trimmed hedge. Past the hedge, in the ravine below it, a deep wash lay. Metropolitan Los Angeles ends at the edge of this canyon property, and above the wash, its steeply upland collar of national forest begins.

Once, like all the canyons threading the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Anita Wash had a stream tumbling through it, lined with coast live oaks, sycamores and mountain mahogany. In the dappled light of the understory grew coffee ferns, delphinium, phacelia, monkeyflowers. Bears gorged on blackberries while scrub jays jealously cached acorns. By day, the canyon was atwitter with finches and bushtits, and at night, the tree frogs and crickets chorused.

But on the day of the open house for what Sotheby's called its "Highland Oaks Beauty," there was no wild swell of twittering. No frogs, no crickets, no sign of a creek. The roughly 200 acres of sun-bleached concrete, gravel and sand in the canyon below resembled some kind of quarry. In a sense, that's what it was -- a pit gradually gouged out of the woodland over the last 85 years in an ongoing struggle to contain the mountains.

This was the front line between Arcadia and the notoriously sandy slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains, which in any given year, if it rained hard enough, just might bury what Businessweek Magazine routinely ranks as one of America's "Best Places to Raise Your Kids" under a roiling mix of rock, sand and water. Santa Anita Creek once flowed freely here. Now, there was a reservoir two miles upstream, then a debris basin to settle grit out of the released water, a concrete channel funneling clear water out of the basin, and a series of gravel-lined pits to filter and store it for later use in local kitchens and pools.

That summer day in 2011, a newly erected elevated conveyor stood alongside the debris basin, channel and pits. It was there to carry sediment from a scheduled cleanout of the reservoir. Beyond that, most of the eastern lip of the creek's steadily widening wash had been cleared for a sediment dump.

Back inside the house, asked about the potential for noise from the flood-control site, the Sotheby's agent said, "No, there's no noise." After a moment's thought, she reconsidered: "Wait a minute. There were some trees."

There were indeed some trees, most recently 179 oaks and 80 or so sycamores. They comprised such a rare remnant of old-growth riparian woodland that when the Los Angeles County Flood Control District bulldozed them eight months earlier to enlarge the sediment dump, the state's most famous tree-sitters climbed into the canopy. Actress Daryl Hannah protested at the gate. News helicopters thundered overhead.

Only later did it become clear that the skirmish was about more than just a single woodland. It was the catalyst for the far deeper and wider recognition that the Los Angeles County Flood Control District planned to bulldoze yet more wild places in more wild canyons, even in the Angeles National Forest, to dispose of a backlog of sediment from 13 other dams and 161 other debris basins. The felling of the Arcadia woodland, in effect, drew back the curtain on the magic trick that makes life on a floodplain possible for 10 million people. In the furor that followed the bulldozing of the oaks behind 1674 Highland Oaks Drive, not just environmentalists but also ordinary homeowners suddenly came to believe that L.A.'s Flood Control District had become as hardened as its paved river beds. In the process, it had gone too far, destroying what drew many residents to Los Angeles in the first place.

"Hell, we're giving away the land, we're selling the climate," quipped Elias "Lucky" Baldwin, who owned the ranch that back in the day encompassed Santa Anita Wash. The year was 1881, and the railways had just come to Southern California. The land rush was on. But one thing never made the fine print of the deeds: flood danger. After nine often-deadly storms washed through the Los Angeles Basin, a catastrophic flood in February 1914 drove so much silt into the San Pedro Harbor that ships couldn't dock. The Chamber of Commerce finally demanded action. Loss of life was one thing. Loss of business was another: The Panama Canal was just about to open up maritime trade to the Pacific as never before. In 1915, the Los Angeles Flood Control District was formed.

Flood Control's goal, as set down by James Reagan, its first engineer, was not just to protect the port, but also to render as much as possible of L.A.'s "non-operative" land commercially viable. By 1927, the Santa Anita Dam above Arcadia was completed, and the 13 other dams along the San Gabriels were either built or in the pipeline. Reagan told Angelenos that the only way someone at the port would even know about torrents in the mountains 40 miles away would be if they telephoned to inquire about the weather. The next year, however, St. Francis Dam failed just outside Los Angeles. The ensuing floodwaters killed hundreds. The heyday of dam building in Southern California was over.

The decline of new dams would have made more sense had other measures been taken to prevent flood damage. The notion of hazard zoning got such short shrift, observed Jared Orsi in his 2004 history Hazardous Metropolis: Flooding and the Urban Ecology in Los Angeles, that it amounted to none at all. Wetlands set aside to absorb seasonal floods don't pay taxes. Neither do parks. So when, in 1930, landscape design scion Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and urban planning pioneer Harland Bartholomew presented a park master plan for Los Angeles that incorporated flood zones, noting that the land could serve for recreation during dry seasons, the Chamber of Commerce rejected it.

Slowing development was another option. But the opposite happened: Pushed by Southern California property barons, the federal Bureau of Reclamation agreed in 1928 to build what became Hoover Dam, near a then little-known Nevada railway town called Las Vegas. While this Mojave colossus wouldn't stop floods in L.A., it would provide all the water needed to keep building houses across the Los Angeles Basin. In 1936, part of the old Baldwin ranch was sold to a real estate syndicate led by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler. Reporting the acquisition, the Times extolled two things: old oaks and new water. "Winding drives among its oaks will lead to residential sites of from one to five acres, each marked out to include some of the noble trees."

The "noble trees" were coast live oaks, trees that are to the L.A. foothills what redwoods are to Mendocino. Back in Baldwin's day, oak woodlands provided the region's air-conditioning system. But as his land was divided up, housing tracts replaced the oaks. Five-acre lots advertised in 1936 became third-of-an-acre lots by 1951. To line the new suburban streets, post World War II subdividers planted lawn-friendly and water-hungry tropical trees. New, sun-drenched "ranch homes" had plate-glass windows along with plenty of power from Hoover Dam to run the now-necessary air conditioning.

Just before Colorado River water began flowing to Los Angeles in 1939, a series of catastrophic floods killed more than 100 people. Nobody wanted that in the real estate section of the newspaper. Aided by federal dollars and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District began building what Orsi's Hazardous Metropolis describes as "a Maginot line of debris basins along the front of the foothills." Beyond these stadium-sized catchments, rivers were narrowed, deepened, paved and fenced. The entire floodplain was fitted with curbside storm drains that fed into the paved rivers. The upshot: a Los Angeles County Flood Control District empire of not only 14 dams and 162 debris basins, but also 500 miles of channelized former river and 3,035 miles of storm drains.

When 1674 Highland Oaks Drive was built in 1952, it epitomized the California dream. Arcadia was fast becoming the third-richest city in L.A. County, right behind San Marino and Beverly Hills. The Army Corps brought military efficiency to the flood-proofing of the San Gabriels, and in 1960, the northwestern corner of Santa Anita Wash was cleared for a debris basin. But it wasn't until 1969 that Flood Control began clearing out the sediment choking the reservoir upstream. In 1971, local residents first fully realized what would replace the Baldwin-era "noble trees" behind their homes. Three piles of dam debris were planned, each of them eventually reaching perhaps 70 feet in height, with slopes etched by the tracks of dump trucks.

When the Arcadia Beautiful Commission complained about "eye pollution," Flood Control engineers replied that they were trying to save lives: 350 square miles of the San Gabriel Mountains had burned since development had crept up the skirt of their foothills. Rain on fire-scarred mountains caused mudslides. Did the residents of Highland Oaks Drive really want to weather the next rainy season downstream from a clogged dam?

The dam cleanout dragged on for two full years, while workers bulldozed the oaks at the north and south end of the Santa Anita Wash. Locals who worried about what would replace the once oak-ruffled canyon behind their homes were told that the sediment mounds would one day be landscaped to create a "park-like recreation spot."

Roughly 26 acres of the old woods remained when 12-year-old Camron Stone's family moved to the Arcadia Highlands in 1972. Yet to the boy's eyes, Flood Control's nearly 200-acre gated compound was already a park -- the best kind of park! -- the kind with no park keepers. After scrambling over county fencing, young Stone could skateboard down the debris basin spillway until bats began criss-crossing the sky at dusk. Conscious appreciation for the way the trees cooled the air and absorbed foothill smog, for the wild things that rustled in their deep bed of leaf litter, came only later, when he was a grownup, taking his mother on strolls through the woods on a road cut by Flood Control trucks. "She used to hike, but she can't go up in the mountains anymore," he said. "She could walk through the woods on the road, eyes up, not looking down."

Stone left Arcadia only long enough to get an engineering degree at UC San Diego. Now the father of teenagers, he still lives in the house that his parents bought. His first inkling that the days of his favorite strolling ground were numbered came in 2009, in what amounted to a pardon-our-dust flier from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, the agency overseeing Flood Control. At the meeting describing the procedure for yet another dam cleanout, Stone discovered that the roughly 40 residents present didn't seem to mind that Flood Control was planning to clear-cut half of the remaining woodland. "I got up and said, ‘Do any of you realize what they are going to destroy? There is a beautiful, pristine woodland over there that really should be a park.' I was basically shouted down," he said. "It was literally, ‘Sit down and shut up.' "

Stone is a big, blocky man, ruddy-cheeked and curly-haired. Scottish blood runs through his veins, and he has a red-haired daughter to prove it. When his neighbors wrote off his beloved woods, he got mad and stayed mad. Stone admits that, two years earlier, he missed the meeting held by Flood Control to canvas local opinion. "It was announced in a free weekly that they give away at the car wash!" he snorted.

The discretion of the announcement may have been deliberate. If there is one consistent theme regarding land management from Lucky Baldwin's day to Camron Stone's, it's a tradition of contempt for outsiders. In 1883, when a claim-jumper diverted some of Baldwin's water in Santa Anita Canyon, Baldwin allegedly paid to have him shot. But the Los Angeles County Flood Control District enjoyed no such remedy. Earth Day-era legislation required county engineers to produce environmental impact reports for things like cutting old-growth woodland. Inside engineering circles, this process is called "compliance." Sit through enough compliance-mandated public meetings, read enough environmental impact reports, and you, too, can find yourself wishing that Flood Control could shoot you.

Compliance for the felling of the Arcadia oaks took from 2007 to 2009. Four possible options were offered for the disposal of the half-million cubic yards of sediment behind Santa Anita Dam: the preferred alternative, which was felling the trees for the dump; doing nothing at all; then two options involving trucking the sediment to some suitable location, perhaps the gaping mining pits of Irwindale, about 10 miles east on the 210 Freeway.

Although Stone missed the compliance meetings, his neighbor two doors down, an officer with the Highland Homeowners Association, did not. Ralph Bicker declined to be interviewed for this story, but minutes from one of the meetings show that he was adamant from the outset that Flood Control fell the trees. By Bicker's calculation, trucking the sediment out of Santa Anita Wash instead of expanding the dump could mean as many as 400 trucks a day rumbling past the neighborhood's homes -- for as long as a year. Flood Control later amended that estimate to 160 trucks per eight-hour-day, 30 weeks a year, for two years.

Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game recommended sparing the woods and trucking the sediment, but Flood Control rejected the advice as not meeting its needs. A Fish and Game spokesman shrugged off the insult, explaining, "We do not have any enforcement power."

Stone scrambled to save his childhood haunt. "I wrote letters to all the newspapers," he said. "Nothing." He pleaded with land conservancies to intervene. "Nothing." The December 2010 razing date was fast approaching when Stone snuck a reporter and photographer from the Pasadena Star News into the wash to see the condemned oaks. "They did a front-page story and -- boom! -- it went viral," Stone said. A petition was circulated. Local chapters of the Sierra Club, Audubon and the California Native Plant Society were loud in support. The Los Angeles Times began following the story.

On Dec. 7, 2010, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the five elected officials who oversee the enormous Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and its most powerful division -- Flood Control -- ordered a 30-day stay on the felling.

"Who are all these people?" demanded Ralph Bicker, nine days before Christmas 2010. Roused by Stone, roughly 100 turned up at Highland Oaks Elementary School to insist that the county supervisors make the moratorium permanent. A Flood Control spokesman reiterated the four alternatives originally suggested. But this time, Camron Stone offered a fifth one, reviewed by an independent engineer. Flood Control could still bring the sediment down-canyon on its conveyor belt, top off the existing dumps, cart out the remaining 125,000 cubic yards, and do it from an exit that would pass fewer homes.

It made sense, but it was too late. Incorporating a fifth option would have meant another new two-year round of compliance. From the time that the supervisors had ordered the moratorium in early December to the delivery of the new compliance report in early January, the rain gauge at the Santa Anita Dam had recorded 30.51 inches. Los Angeles was having the wettest December since 1889, when it flooded so badly that the Angeles and Santa Ana Rivers both changed channels, an entire winery was washed out to sea and the L.A. Times reported "sad havoc in fruitland."

In 2010, the Santa Anita Dam held, but every supervisor involved in the moratorium had been warned by Flood Control that the dam sat within a mile of the Sierra Madre fault, which is capable of producing earthquakes up to a magnitude of 7.5. In an earthquake, the sediment-choked dam might fail. An estimated 50,000 people lived in the path of the floodwaters. The woodland was condemned.

Watching Daryl Hannah pack up climbing equipment -- including funnels that enable tree-sitters to pee into bottles when aloft -- is not the way that most men fantasize about meeting the star of Splash. Yet on the night of Jan. 11, 2011, sitting in his living room, Stone was doing just that. "It was surreal," he said. He was sleepless. Desolation vied with panic. Emails from the campaigners he'd roused flashed across his computer. Every legal option to save the oaks had run out. Then Hannah came to Arcadia to support Stone's cause, along with California's most famous tree-sitter, John Quigley.

Hannah and Quigley were experienced tree-sitters. In 2004, it took officials two and a half months to pry Quigley out of a 400-year-old oak targeted by a road-widening project in north Los Angeles County. Both activists made headlines in 2006, occupying an old almond tree in a South Los Angeles community garden that had been condemned. Climbing with Quigley would be three recruits, Julia Jaye Posin, Travis Jochimsen and Andrea Bowers. Hannah would protest from the gate.

They slipped onto the Flood Control site under cover of darkness. Months later, recounting the events of Jan. 12, Bowers described the depth and softness of the leaf litter beneath her feet as she hoisted herself into an oak. "I had thought of a lot of scenarios of what might happen," she continued, "but them leaving us in those trees and tearing down the trees all around us with big quad bulldozers wasn't one of them." That is exactly what happened, however, when Flood Control workers moved in at daybreak. "The guy operating the machine took the wrong angle on a sycamore tree," said Quigley. "As the tree started to buckle, it was buckling into us." Yelling, he scrambled to the top of their oak to signal hovering news choppers. "Finally, the guy suddenly understood that he was about to kill us, so he backed off."

The woodland's wildlife received no such reprieve. While Flood Control made good on a promise to have a biologist present for the razing, none of the elaborate plans in the environmental impact report to conduct preliminary wildlife evacuation or fencing had been carried out. "There was tons of stuff running up and down the tree," Bowers said. Squirrels leapt from boughs. Clouds of chittering bushtits moved from tree to tree. Sun-blinded bats circled among crashing boughs. By dusk, their roosts were gone. A Search and Rescue team in a cherry-picker removed the tree sitters, who were promptly arrested. As the felled oaks began disappearing into chippers, the tree-sitters were hauled off to jail.

After being charged with criminal trespassing, the "Arcadia Four" were released on bail. Two weeks later, Public Works sent a letter to the county sheriff's office demanding $2,639.69 from the tree-sitters to cover the cost of staff needed to "ensure safety for tree activists and possibly other activists who may have been hiding in the bushes."

Camron Stone didn't hide in the bushes. He didn't go down to the wash at all that day. "I couldn't stand it," he said. Only that evening did he venture out to the locked gate near Highland Oaks Drive. There, he took part in a candlelight vigil.

Where, you might ask at this juncture, were the firebrands whose activism supposedly put California at the vanguard of environmentalism? The short answer is: ignored, unaware, dead or co-opted by Flood Control's parent agency, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. The region's leading watershed warrior, Dorothy Green, had lost a long battle with cancer in 2008. While the U.S. Geological Survey warned of the potential for catastrophic mudslides after a massive wildfire swept through the Angeles National Forest in 2009, exceptionally mild rains that winter failed to produce them. Complacency had set in. The more Flood Control actually controlled floods, the less people thought about it.

As for the threat posed by Flood Control's tendency to see woodlands as a dumping grounds for sediment, a local pillar of the Audubon Society, Mike San Miguel, had begun to take on the Santa Anita oaks battle when he died in an accident in the summer of 2010. His colleagues didn't learn about the proposed dumping until it was too late, said Pasadena Audubon's Laura Garrett.

If the coalition of county-funded arborists then at work on the first Oak Woodlands Conservation Management Plan knew about the dumping plans, it was largely mute until a few members eventually joined Camron Stone's ranks. The single organization whose purview most squarely included dams and rivers was the Los Angeles & San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, recently re-branded as the Council for Watershed Health. It had been aware of the backlog of debris and the quandary about where to put it, confirmed its executive director, Nancy Steele, in early January 2011. But her hands were tied when it came to protesting. The watershed council's mission was "strictly scientific," she said. Critics also noted that its board of directors included some representatives of local water companies and the county Department of Public Works, all of whom were pressing for fast dam cleanouts.

So it took building contractor Camron Stone to sound the alarm for what sediment dumping was doing to the Los Angeles foothills. To stop more bulldozers, Stone and his allies created the "Urbanwild Network." Their strategy was simple: Everywhere Flood Control went, they would go, too. "They took something away from me that was very precious," Stone said. "That got me really angry. My goal is to change the culture at the Department of Public Works."

In one early victory, in February 2011, Urbanwilders forced Flood Control engineers into a new two-year environmental review for one dam cleanout, on the grounds that willows sprouting from the sediment choking Pasadena's Devil's Gate Dam provided waterfowl habitat.

By April, freshly radicalized and newly media-savvy, Stone was giving an interview to the Pasadena Star News with Quigley, Hannah and actor-activist Ed Begley Jr., arguing that "local people do care about the wildlands in their back yards that are disappearing at an incredible rate." The next oak woodland in the path of Flood Control's bulldozers lay west of Arcadia in La Tuna Canyon, west of where the San Gabriel Valley gives way to the San Fernando Valley.

Asked for an impartial assessment of what was at risk, Bart O'Brien, a Southern California native plant expert, led a tour through La Tuna Canyon in June 2011. Just 500 yards into the sheltered lowlands, in the midst of reeling off plant names, O'Brien nearly shrieked. "A Humboldt lily! We've gone hardly anywhere, and we're finding this plant that many people take ages to find." As O'Brien sees it, it's essential to preserve these riparian, low-lying oak woodlands, not only for their biodiversity and value as wildlife habitat, but because of the unique adaptations made by the plants that live in them. "When you think about gene pools, if you take out all the plants on flat lands, what do you think you've done?" he asked.

Throughout 2011, faced with a groundswell of protest driven by Stone, the Los Angeles County Supervisors organized yet more outreach from Flood Control. Anyone interested was invited to come to its headquarters south of Pasadena for meetings of the Sediment Management Strategic Plan Task Force. The agency had already had sediment-control plans under way, said Flood Control spokesman Bob Spencer, but for the engineers involved, these politically mandated open sessions were as welcome as the prospect of finding women at the urinal in a Suffragette-era saloon. Outrage over the loss of the Arcadia woodland ran so high at the first meeting in January that by the second one in April, chastened Flood Control officials announced that they had taken La Tuna Canyon's oaks off the list for immediate demolition.

Yet as the meetings progressed, even oak lovers began to understand the problems involved in disposing of the sediment stacked up in Flood Control's network of dams and debris basins. Most had read John McPhee's writings about Southern California's fire and mudslide cycle. The new wrinkle was that until Aug. 26, 2009, when an arsonist in the San Gabriel foothills started what became the biggest wildfire in Los Angeles history, nobody had thought of mud in quite such vast and dangerous quantities. After the Station Fire left more than 160,000 acres charred, Flood Control Engineer Christopher Stone (no relation to Camron) reckoned that rains would send 20 million cubic yards of sediment downhill. As Flood Control translates it for laymen, that's the amount of space it would take to stack 20 million washing machines. McPhee never put the sheer load of mountain debris building up around the basin in terms quite so comprehensible to the average homeowner. Yet citizens at the Flood Control sediment management meetings were full of ideas. Truck it to the beach! Use it as landfill cover! Dump it in retired mining pits! Sell it as decomposed granite to landscaping companies!

It took months to get the besieged Christopher Stone out to the Arcadia dam and sediment site. But in late May 2011, he agreed to tour the newly razed landscape. Up close and in person, the man so vilified that many Urbanwilders spit his name -- "Ssssstone" -- was more like Grandpa Walton than Lord Voldemort, right down to the twinkling blue eyes. After viewing the conveyor belt leading two miles up to the dam, and a number of the dream homes backing onto the site, he dealt with the million-dollar question: Why didn't Flood Control leave room for rivers to carry the sediment where gravity wanted it to go, which was of course, down, across the Los Angeles basin to the Pacific Ocean, where it once fed madly fecund wetlands and beaches?

"We aren't involved in zoning," said the man from the department created precisely to ensure that developers never had to encounter any zoning impediments.

Later on, paused at a turnout in the narrow road tracing the nauseatingly steep slope near the top of the Santa Anita Dam, looking down over the Los Angeles Basin, a floodplain formed by sediment from these very mountains, an awful realization dawned. Ralph Bicker battled to save Arcadia Highlands from truck traffic, but the felling of the Arcadia oaks created space not just for Santa Anita Dam's current load of sediment, but for half a million cubic yards more. The need is so great, Christopher Stone said, that while Flood Control won't be trucking sediment out of Arcadia, it may well end up trucking it in.

Irony, you're a bitch.

In March 2012, after a $125,000 price reduction, 1674 Highland Oaks Drive sold for a million dollars, in spite of the dam cleanout taking place behind it. In April, the 15-month listening marathon forced by Urbanwild's campaign ended. The doors of Public Works were flung open yet again for public review of a 524-page summary of L.A.'s sediment-disposal options. The document reveals that Los Angeles County will need space for up to 67.5 million cubic yards in the next 20 years alone.

Existing facilities have capacity for only 48 million. Some seemingly clever ideas -- trucking sediments to replenish beaches, for example -- were thrown out on the grounds that the 40-mile trip from mountain to shoreline was expensive and profoundly polluting. To judge by the endless pages of decision-making matrices laid out for the many dams and debris basins in need of cleaning, the notion of trucking sediment to retired mining pits has gained credibility. The idea of removing some of the misplaced suburbs and letting sediment flow downhill to its old floodplain did not make any of the short lists.

Lovely La Tuna Canyon is still listed as offering some of the largest potential sediment storage capacity among the foothill sites. Other grounds listed as open for dumping are 11 places in the Angeles National Forest, most near dams built in the 1920s and '30s. Once they fill these, Flood Control may look for more forest canyon sites. T.J. Moon, a fresh-faced engineer available to help members of the public interpret the massive report, seemed genuinely excited that another solution might be found, though. "The system was built 100 years ago and we didn't really think about the environmental end," he said, "but now we are. This was due to public outcry."

Jared Orsi hasn't followed the recent sediment debacle. While dams were no doubt steadily silting up when he published Hazardous Metropolis in 2004, that book ended on a bright note, hinting that portions of the Los Angeles River might be unchannelized enough to sustain parks and wetlands, revitalizing urban corridors. To Orsi, who was interviewed by phone at his office at Colorado State University, the sediment dilemma upriver signals a new era. Popular conviction that engineers can fix anything is clearly on the wane. "What policy-makers need to learn from this episode," he said, "is, it's not just the mountains that are dynamic; society is dynamic too, so we need policy that responds to that variability."

With 10 million people next to a tremendously flammable forest, climate change likely to exacerbate the fire-flood cycle, and a mighty backlog of existing sediment, the 15 months of public meetings have produced no answers, only more questions. Los Angeles has built itself into a corner. "The next step is to look at impacts," said Public Works spokesman Dan Sharp. "It's always a matter of trade-offs."

Camron Stone is no longer optimistic. He has given up on the dream that he can change Flood Control or save further woodlands from being razed for sediment dumps. "There's nothing you can do," he said. "It's a freight train."

Emily Green is an environmental writer based in Los Angeles. She has written for the
Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the Guardian and UK Independent, and is a former columnist for the New Statesman magazine. Her five-part series on a proposed Las Vegas pipeline from the Great Basin Desert won a 2009 Associated Press Managing Editors Award. She blogs about Western water at chanceofrain.com.

This story was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.