A River Will Run Through It

Orange officials okay plan to build homes in Santiago creek streambed

Photo by James BunoanOrange hasn't got the technical firepower to handle developers—there's not a single hydrologist or geologist on the city's staff. Still, it's surprising officials didn't have the street smarts to say no to a proposal to build 180 homes in the path of a river atop an abandoned sand-and-gravel mine.

"I've lived here for 50 years," says David Piper, an Orange resident who lives just off the southeastern corner of the mining site that was, until recently, run by the Sully-Miller company. "It is appalling what the city is trying to do down there. It will be a disaster."

For the past three years, Fieldstone Homes has been planning to build the community on the old but true path of Santiago Creek, which runs from Irvine Lake to the Santa Ana River. The creek was diverted in the 1960s to make way for mining operations but—as with all things hydrological—still seeks the path of least resistance.

The problem, as the County Flood Control District knows only too well, is that the Santiago Creek's new channel is less than 50 years old, while its ancient channel dates back many centuries. In fact, a 2000 County Flood Control District map shows Santiago Creek running down its original channel—directly through Fieldstone's proposed homes. The map clearly reflects the Flood Control District's respect for the creek's natural inclination.

Piper has taken numerous state and local officials for tours of the site as part of his lobbying effort against the project. He knows the area well: as a boy, he used to walk home along the creek when he had to stay after class and missed the bus. He vividly recalls Sully-Miller miners dumping so much silt into the area that the creek's path narrowed and then shifted north.

Photographs included in the Fieldstone environmental reports dating back to 1928 show how mining narrowed the channel and forced it northward at a 90-degree angle, away from large silt ponds. The photos also show, as Piper confirms, that the stream has slowly but steadily been returning to its old channel.

"Believe it or not, this berm used to be, oh, 60 feet wide," says Piper, standing on a silt berm no more than two feet wide. "They used to drive dump trucks down it. Now it's almost completely eroded away."

Fieldstone denies any such erosion, or even streambed alteration. A Fieldstone hydraulic and sediment analysis from August 2002 inexplicably claims, "Photographs show that there has been very little change in the location of the channel." Another Fieldstone report on erosion baldly states, "Photographs indicate no significant erosion has occurred through the Sully-Miller property."

Fieldstone also denies that the site's placement within the inundation zones of the Villa Park Dam and the Irvine Lake Dam—which is also shown in the project's environmental documents—is a problem.

"Development in the hypothetical inundation zones is not at all unusual," says Fieldstone spokesman Philip Bettencourt. "If the Villa Park Dam broke, the flow of water would extend to the Mall of Orange. I don't know of any credible official that gives credence to these arguments."

Unlike the dams, Bettencourt's rationale holds no water, says Shirley Grindle, an Orange resident opposed to the project. "These homes are in the inundation zone, not the flood-plain zone," she says.

A former county planning commissioner, civil engineer and campaign-finance-reform advocate who's spent the past few decades hounding county and Orange officials over various bad development plans, Grindle is horrified at Fieldstone's callous attitude.

"'Inundation' means to overwhelm," she said. "It means destruction. The water may be low and slow-moving when you're far downstream, but not when you're this close. You just don't build homes this close in the paths of dams."

Even if both dams remain sound—and there's no evidence they're anywhere near bursting—the site still faces flooding, despite Fieldstone's assurance that no homes lie in the 100-year flood zone. Santiago Creek has a history of flooding. Even in dry times, the creek carries some runoff to the Santa Ana River. When it rains, the water rushes through so fast it strips vegetation. Many times in the last century, the swift waters roared over its banks, swamping nearby homes. In 1969 alone, three big storms turned the creek into a fast-moving river. In a couple of hours, the creek's width grew from 50 feet to more than 125 feet. So much water and debris backed up at the old Santiago Creek Bridge that county flood control officials blew it up. U.S. Marine Corps helicopters dropped junk cars along the streambed as a barrier to save nearby homes.

The county never rebuilt the Santiago Creek Bridge, instead adding a new bridge at Katella Avenue, which forms the Sully-Miller site's western boundary. Successive storms wiped out that bridge twice; engineers finally erected the current, far stronger bridge.

Grindle remembers the floods and destruction wrought by Santiago Creek. She, like Piper and a host of other residents, wants the city to junk the Fieldstone plan entirely.

"There should be no homes on that site," she says. "The whole site is basically a streambed. That's why there was sand and gravel there in the first place. Remember, Mother Nature always wants to flow through natural corridors. I can't believe the city is considering this project! They're really dreaming if they think these homes will stay there."

 
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