The Santa Ana River Is Ready for Its Renaissance

The Santa Ana River Is Ready for Its Renaissance
Photo: Melly Lee | Design: Dustin Ames

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. 

I am haunted by waters.

—Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

Dustin Ames
Since the early 1990s, the riverbed through Santa Ana has been a concrete channel
Melly Lee
Since the early 1990s, the riverbed through Santa Ana has been a concrete channel

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Her approximately 110-mile journey begins in the shadow of 11,305-foot Old Greyback: San Gorgonio Mountain, the highest peak in Southern California. Nourished by melting snow and dozens of tributaries, the Santa Ana River drains at the Pacific Ocean, meandering past about 3,200 square miles of San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties, which are populated by some 5 million people. Flowing, trickling, disappearing, yet always there, even if she seems bone-dry in places or little more than a concrete gulch.

In her upper reaches, as with the rest of her course, the Santa Ana is no wild, rushing torrent. Hiking toward her headwaters (she doesn't have just one: five creeks feed her, meeting at South Fork Campground on Highway 38 in the San Bernardino National Forest; in the summer, she is barely wider than Shaquille O'Neal's shoe), you'll pass through gorgeous meadows and thick pine, incense cedar and oak forests. You won't see the river again if you drive down the mountain unless you take Glass Road to Seven Oaks Road, which turns into dirt a few miles west of 7 Oaks Mountain Cabins. But along the way, you see campers along her banks, hikers trekking her trail, bikers navigating her 28-mile world-class single track, and anglers casting for rainbow trout and more elusive brown trout.

Yet it's not until she has tumbled some 20 miles and dropped 4,000 feet that what the Spaniards first called Río de los Temblores (River of Earthquakes) first encounters the one force she both sustains and threatens—and which has tried so hard for so long to harness her: human civilization. For here stands a 116-year-old power plant that diverts most of her water into electricity and Seven Oaks Dam, a massive slab of concrete seemingly wedged between two arid foothills just east of the city of Highland. And not for the last time, the river stops.

But her story does not end.

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It has a great deal of good land which can easily be irrigated. . . . A populous village of Indians . . . received us with great friendliness. . . . Their chief told us . . . that we must come to live with them; that they would make houses for us, and provide us with food, such as antelope, hares, and seeds. They urged us to do this, telling us that all the land we saw . . . was theirs, and that they would divide it with us. We told him that we would return and would gladly remain to live with them, and when the chief understood it, he was so affected that he broke into tears.

—Juan Crepsi, part of the first European expedition to the Santa Ana Watershed in 1769, recalling camping at the mouth of Santiago Creek in present-day Orange

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Orange County wouldn't be Orange County without the Santa Ana River. Its plentiful water, game and vegetation enticed our first human inhabitants, the Gabrieleños, to establish villages thousands of years ago in present-day Fairview Park in Costa Mesa and along Santiago Creek. It nourished the first European expeditions that crossed California, which planted the seeds for settlement by Spanish and Mexican rancheros—and the mission system that interned California's native tribes. It's why a group of German immigrants in San Francisco moved south in 1857 to grow grapes along its banks, eventually naming their home near the river Anaheim. It's why King Citrus flourished, its orange groves providing the economic clout to break from Los Angeles County.

The Saint Anne is the major reason behind the settlement, urbanization, suburbanization, overdevelopment and sprawl of Orange County. It created Balboa Island. Hell, it even helped the United States win a war. Kind of. According to Patrick Mitchell's indispensable The Santa Ana River Guide, flooding in 1847 kept Mexican troops from advancing on American rebels, allowing them to regroup in Los Angeles.

Yet, when asked what they think of the Santa Ana, most OC residents would probably respond, "What river?"

It's something to cross, to idle by in rush-hour traffic. Just an unsightly ditch. We can't swim, jet ski, parasail, motorboat or fish in the actual river, and no one flashes their titties near it during spring break, so it's not a real river, right?

A myriad of organizations disagree. There are groups devoted to finishing 80 miles of paved biking and walking trails that, by 2017, will connect the mountains to the sea. Or dedicated to yanking invasive weeds from the riverbed or creating awareness through education. Or the one led by 88-year-old Doris Gale of Riverside, who has fought for 30 years to keep homes out of an environmentally sensitive area.

"For 40 years, if not 100 years, people have turned away from this river," says Steve Mitchell, who works with the UC Riverside Friends of the Santa Ana River. "But it has such amazing potential, recreationally, biologically and ecologically. And if the Rhine River, which was once called the sewer of Europe, was restored by more than a dozen countries, why can't three counties work together to restore the Santa Ana?"

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