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

  • Oak woodland in Arcadia, California.

    Joshua Link, ecotonesudios
  • Los Angeles County's Santa Anita Sediment Placement Site slopes into the concrete channel of Santa Anita Wash in Arcadia, California.

    Joshua Link, ecotonesudios
  • St. Francis Dam (colorized) after its catastrophic failure in 1928 resulted in flooding that killed more than 450 people.

    Pony Horton
  • Giant stumps from the Arcadia Woodlands that were knocked down to make room for sediment from the Santa Anita Dam

    Emily Green
  • Camron Stone last month in front of a watershed map at the L.A. County Department of Public Works, where the Flood Control District had just released its strategic plan showing sediment outpacing dump capacity over the next 20 years.

    Emily Green
  • The Santa Anita Creek Wash, remade by the L.A. County Flood Control District last winter. To the right (west) is Camron Stone's neighborhood, with its 1950s houses which were marketed highlighting their proximity to the noble oaks of Arcadia. In the background, Arcadia and the L.A. Basin.

    Emily Green

Page 2

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.
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