Screaming Trees

Photo by Myles RobinsonNearly five years have passed since the Navy turned out the lights at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and left, which is fine, except they also turned off the water.

It sounds like a good idea—no more layabouts getting drinks out of the hose at taxpayer expense.

But what it really means is this: no one has watered the trees on the base since before Bush Jr. took the White House—June 1999, according to city of Irvine estimates. And if you really want an Orange County Great Park, it would seem there's no better place to start than here, watering some of the base's mighty oaks.

"To be able to have mature, 50-year-old trees in a park, even if you're planting many, many more saplings, still, it gives the entire park added value and a sense of maturity that's just not available otherwise," said Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, a director on the Great Park Corporation Board, which tackled the problem at its most recent meeting.

Full-grown trees are expensive. In a subsequent interview, Agran pointed out that the city of Irvine spent around $20,000 in the 1980s to move a single full-grown oak tree from Irvine Regional Park onto the base, where it shaded the child-care center.

Now that oak and at least 1,000 other trees on the base are threatened by a man-made drought.

"We're looking at maybe 50 trees dead or dying, at a total cost of $200,000, $300,000, $400,000," Agran said.

That number could easily double: members of the park board say the water won't be turned on for at least two months—quite probably longer.

The Navy spokesman was unavailable. But a Navy source who requested anonymity says the trees at El Toro don't actually need water. They're big enough, the source said, to simply tap into the groundwater with their roots—reach down and suck it up.

Maybe that's right. Or maybe, as Agran put it, "It just hasn't been on the Navy's radar screen, and it should be."

While Irvine technically controls planning of the former Marine base, the Navy still owns it. And because of the weird rules governing the behavior of bureaucracies, nobody's sure how to bridge the gap. In the real world, you see a dying tree and you water it; in government, you hold a meeting.

At its February meeting, the board will likely approve hiring an arborist to catalog all the trees on the base. Estimated cost: $56,000. Once everyone knows what's out there, the board can consider sending in a water truck, but that won't happen before late March.

"It would really be up to the Navy if they'd allow it," said Irvine's director of strategic programs, Daniel Jung, who spends much of his work day planning the park. "I'm not quite sure they would allow us on the base."


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