A River Runs Through Us

Patrick Mitchell tells the story of the Santa Ana River

The Santa Ana River was once tagged the most dangerous river in the West, a waterway that fueled the county's agriculture industry, but also now and then wreaked havoc; it fed orange groves and killed the people who picked them. In 1938, rain fell and the river swelled over its banks, killing 38 people, most poor Latinos. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers stepped in to tame the river for good. Today, it's more or less a sewer pipe (draining an urban area from the San Bernardino Mountains to its mouth between Newport and Huntington beaches) and a potential roadway.

Enter Patrick Mitchell, senior naturalist with Santa Ana's Parks, Recreation and Community Services Agency. His new Santa Ana River Guide: From Crest to Coast—110 Miles Along Southern California's Largest River System is an entertaining, informative read that's part travel guide, history, encyclopedia, biography—and part activist tome for those who dream of a Santa Ana River restored to its natural state.

Mitchell's clearly in love with the Santa Ana. He describes in simple, elegant prose an Orange County childhood during the 1970s when the river teemed with fish, reptiles and birds, and families camped on the riverbank beneath cottonwood trees. College took Mitchell away, but there he learned about riparian restoration and dreamed of putting "willows in place of concrete" in his hometown river.

But another ecological emergency distracted Mitchell from his plans—the 1990s construction of the San Joaquin Hills toll road. In retrospect, he writes, the decision to join in the ultimately unsuccessful battle against the toll road was a distraction, "my greatest mistake as an environmental advocate. Not that the toll road should have been allowed—it was ultimately built anyway—but I now understand that the natural and human communities along the Santa Ana River also deserved someone to stand up in their defense."

From here, Mitchell leaves the personal stories for a detailed description of the Santa Ana, from its origins as a cold mountain stream in the San Bernardino Mountains, through the Seven Oaks and Prado dams that keep the turbulent river in check, through Riverside and Orange counties, all the way to its man-made mouth. Mitchell stops to profile the various parks and historical landmarks along the river's trail, from wildlife refuges to city parks. There are detailed maps of the river's watersheds, along with descriptions of the various ecological reserves and parks that draw their beauty from the Santa Ana. Mitchell even slips in asides on the river's various flora and fauna, such as the endangered Delhi Sands Flower-Loving fly.

Mitchell's description of the Santa Ana's genesis in the San Bernardino Mountains seems miraculous—or maybe impossible—to those of us who've seen only the lower river: "When you see wild trout jump through cascading and frigid water of the upper river," he writes, "you develop an understanding of the river's importance."

Mitchell says the Santa Ana has been "forgotten by all but a small group of visionaries who could see, buried beneath concrete and confined between levee walls, the potential of this river to again be the center of life in the region." If you think this is self-congratulation, you'll likely forgive Mitchell, a man emerging as the John Muir of our region's long-neglected Mississippi.

SANTA ANA RIVER GUIDE: FROM CREST TO COAST—110 MILES ALONG SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA'S LARGEST RIVER SYSTEM BY PATRICK MITCHELL; WILDERNESS. PAPERBACK, 246 PAGES, $15.95. AVAILABLE AT THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED, 2202 1/2 N. MAIN ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 826-8727.

 
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