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

*     *    * 

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.

*     *    *

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

*     *    *

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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23 comments
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d.galecsea
d.galecsea

What a beautiful article on the Santa Ana River.  When heavy rains occur, it becomes a torrent; one year taking out an important bridge across the river on Van Buren Avenue which connects the City of Riverside to other communities. During calmer times, during summer months, you may find families swimming in it. Riverside Police have their hands full trying to stop people from camping next to it, since it isn't safe should the river flood.  Many residents hike next to it daily, and wild life abounds. Some day we hope to have that hiking trail reach the ocean, and the land next to the river saved as a wild life preserve for future generations to enjoy.

That is our current fight; to save the land from a Las Vegas developer who has managed to place Measure L on the November ballot, which would allow nearly 2000 houses to be built on the last of the open land next to the Santa Ana River in the City of Riverside.  Once lost, never to be reclaimed.  We can't let this happen! . Doris E. Gale  




rhayashi
rhayashi

Sequoias in Brea and now brown trout in Angelus Oaks. Fact checkers unite and smite these uncircumcised Philistines!  

anthonysanchez1127
anthonysanchez1127

Good read, nice article.  I grew up off of Rio Vista between Lincoln and Ball in Anaheim, and this brought back a flood of memories. First beer...first smoke...throwing our bikes over the fence to get to the riverbed and riding the trail all the way down to the Cinedome in Orange.  The Santa Ana River was a part of my neighborhood.  I had forgotten too, until now.  

keepdapeace
keepdapeace

Great article and very informative. It shows there actually are writers on the OC Weekly that don't have to bash everything they see in the OC. 

mamamia1105
mamamia1105

Great article! Great writing style! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this on a Saturday morning while sipping my coffee. A little local history in the morning never hurt anyone. ;)

Niko Babic
Niko Babic

That river is a spectacle to behold when we have heavy, sustained rains. If we have a decent the El Nino this next year, as predicted, we may be witness to the madness driving over it on the 405.

thesch
thesch

                The story is way buey too long.. only read the first page.. to summarize this shit.. its a long ass river, its as old as your mom, it was build in case it rains next year or the year after that, and it drains into Newport Beach (aka where the raza goes to look for the shit they accidentally dropped in the storm drain).. Hey Mister writer why make a long ass story out of what I just said?  You must have a lot of time on your hands or you get paid by the page..can I get a job there and pay me half of what you make.  I will be happy with McDonald's money.  I can make short stories out of long as shit that most people wont read.

Geof Dail
Geof Dail

Stop trying to make Santa Ana a thing, it's not going to happen.

Din Cobval
Din Cobval

Keep tje cholos and graffeties out

timothynoble41
timothynoble41

Nice story. As late as the mid 80's you could still fish and camp below Prado Dam, off of SR 71. The dirt road is now gated.

jobeers
jobeers

Thanks for the clarification @RAPman!

RAPman
RAPman

From page 2: "It then crosses over the 73 freeway, where the river hits its second man-made obstacle: Prado Dam."

I have yet to see a river that crosses over a freeway. However, the Santa Ana River crosses under Interstate 15 seven miles before flowing through the Prado Dam. The river then crosses under State Route 71, aka the Chino Valley Freeway, 0.6 mile below the dam. Joel, did you down too many beers when you were writing this article?

felixculpa
felixculpa

Beautiful article. You can't recommend Patrick Mitchell's The Santa Ana River Guide enough.

In the middle 60s I was lucky enough to be able to camp about a mile above Prado Dam; it seemed like anywhere but the middle of urban Southern California.

Two corrections: the 1769 chronicler was Crespí, not Crepsi. (Actually he was Joan Crespí i Fiol; most of these "Spaniards" were Catalans). My great-great-great-grandfather was part of this expedition - Mexican, not Catalan.

It's State Route 71 that passes below Prado Dam; SR 73 is the San Joaquin Hills toll road.

jobeers
jobeers

@thesch you should probably learn to write before you get a job anywhere, and you might want to work on being less of an asshole.

jobeers
jobeers

It's already a thing, Einstein.

jobeers
jobeers

@felixculpa thanks for the corrections, and more thanks for not being a dick about it, as others are prone to do. Your great-great-great grandfather was part of that expedition? That's very interesting.

centrifuge909
centrifuge909

@jobeers @thesch 
Why, Gustavo got a writing gig! HEYOOooo....I'm sure he's a nice guy in person!

Great article though, Joel. It was obviously meant for people who enjoy local history. I being one of those people. I wish OC Weekly would run more stories like this.

 
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