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Photo by Keith MayFor millennia, the Santa Ana River flowed wild and dangerous, rushing out of the mountains east of Orange County, dropping several thousand feet in just 70 miles before emptying into coastal marshland near Huntington Beach. Attempting to cross it in 1769, the Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola was temporarily stopped at the river's edge, terrified by an earthquake that "lasted half as long as an Ave Maria." He called the Santa Ana River Rio de los Temblores—River of the Earthquakes.
Two centuries later, the dreaded waterway is still causing our bowels to rumble. Environmentalists suspect the Santa Ana River is the source of much of the bacteria that closed up to five miles of Huntington Beach in the past month.
They may be right. Decades of U.S. government intervention has transformed the Santa Ana River into one of the largest flood-control and storm-drainage systems in Southern California. Anything that passes through a storm drain—including beer cans, chewing-gum wrappers, paints, solvents, motor oil, gasoline, smashed pumpkins and dog shit—uphill from the Santa Ana River, from central Orange County north to the mountains and canyons of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, travels through the Santa Ana River directly to the Pacific Ocean.
In its heyday, the Santa Ana River was a twisting, turning, natural marvel many times wider than it is today; its many curves and riparian plants filtered the water along its meandering journey to its terminus in the Bolsa Chica wetlands. That was great when the river ran low, as it did through much of the year. But in the rainy season, swift water could transform the river into something murderous. In 1862, the Santa Ana River ran over its banks, flooded vast tracts of central Orange County and destroyed much of the best pastureland. Within a year, 75 percent of the herds there had perished, and the Spanish barons who hadn't gone belly-up fled with their surviving cattle to San Diego and Mexico. "By 1868," says David Wiley, a local historian of the Santa Ana River, "everyone was broke."
In 1938, the river rose once again. On March 3, following five straight days of rain, the Santa Ana River flooded, killing 45 people, leaving 2,100 homeless, destroying dozens of bridges, and causing $14 million in damage. County officials estimate that if the same flood occurred today, it would inundate 110,000 acres from Anaheim to the ocean, kill up to 3,000 people and cause more than $15 billion in property losses. Just about every major freeway in Orange County would be submerged, as would hundreds of shopping centers, schools and universities. Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm would become underwater theme parks.
In the wake of the 1938 flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over much of the Santa Ana River. Engineers removed the river's kinks, ripped out the vegetation, and lined the riverbed with concrete. The goal: to prevent future floods by speeding water in a straight line from the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. Starting in the early 1940s, Army engineers also built four major dams along the river, diverting water for various agricultural, municipal and industrial uses.
"The idea behind flood control is to get the water to the beach as quickly as possible," explained Gordon LaBedz of the Huntington/Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental organization that opposes coastal and wetlands development in California. "It doesn't even work. It doesn't stop the flooding."
And by straigtening the river—its mouth is now at the city's southern border with Newport Beach instead of the Bolsa Chica wetlands north of the city—wetlands vegetation no longer naturally filters the river water. The Santa Ana River is essentially a concrete highway for what is charmingly referred to as "urban runoff" (and not-so-charmingly referred to as bacteria-, virus- and carcinogen-filled crap) destined for the beach.
The evolution of the Santa Ana River as a flood-control device sealed its fate as an open sewer; taming the waterway allows rapid development of land that was previously vulnerable to flooding. As the population along the Santa Ana River skyrocketed during the past few decades, there has been a simultaneous increase in runoff and sewage waste entering the river.
The solution, according to LaBedz and others who have studied the natural ecology of the Santa Ana River, is nothing less than a full-scale effort to restore the Santa Ana River's natural ecology.
"The ocean is a completely inappropriate place to send waste," said LaBedz. "The whole paradigm has to shift. All flood-control channels have to be made natural. If we could restore them to the way they were for millions of years—the way Mother Nature intended it—we'd never have this problem. Instead, we've stripped the plants along the riverbed nature provided to filter and clean the water and replaced them with concrete."
To help the river cope with the increasing burdens placed upon it by explosive real-estate development, county officials are spending $800 million on improvements to the river's flood-control system. The money will pay for everything from raising the levels of existing dams and bridges along the river to widening its mouth.
But it appears the most bizarre chapter of the Santa Ana River's history may soon be written. On May 1, county officials announced tentative plans for a new, 11-mile toll road. Its projected course: the Santa Ana riverbed.