The Santa Ana River Is Ready for Its Renaissance

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?”

Even in Orange County, where it's as dry as a nunnery most of the time and ugly all the time for the last half of its 34 miles, groups are working to spread awareness.

“People just don't realize it's a real river,” says Ray Hiemstre, associate director of programs for Orange County Coastkeeper. “We've been told it's just a flood-control channel, that the water is polluted. And what they do see from the freeway doesn't look good. But what they don't realize is that 85 percent of the river, even in Orange County, is soft-bottom and much more natural than the LA River and other urban rivers.

“There is an urban-river renaissance going on in this country,” Hiemstre concludes, “and I think it's the Santa Ana's time to come back.”

*     *    *

When the levee breaks, mama, you'll have to move.

—Led Zeppelin

*     *    *

The stretch of the river from Seven Oaks Dam to Riverside is strangled and barren. Boulders. The occasional clumps of sad trees. Tagging. A far cry from a photo owned by David Myers, executive director of the Oak Glen-based Wildlands Conservancy, one of the largest private stewards of natural preserves in the state.

“It's a picture of a kid who played hooky from school in 1930, and he's sitting along these rocks in the river in Colton, where he has about 20 steelhead salmon that are 30 inches long,” Myers says. “Ideally, that's what we'd like to see some parts of the river come back to.”

Water trickles during wet months, after it's slowly released from Seven Oaks Dam, but not until the river nears the 60 freeway does it re-energize, thanks, in dry months, to treated wastewater from plants in San Bernardino County.

Bike or hike by, and you'll see families picnicking on its banks or wading in its water. (Yes, most of it is treated wastewater, but it meets recreational water standards. You don't want to chug it, but it's safe for human contact. That said, avoid it after it rains; beaches are closed after storms because of urban run-off rushing down the river.)

It winds through areas including Martha McLean Park, named in honor of the Riverside woman who led a fight in the 1960s to prevent channelization. After leaving Riverside's city limits, it turns into genuine wilderness, in places such as Hidden Valley Nature Center and Wilderness Preserve. A lush riparian woodland teeming with willows, sycamores and alders, its wetlands and bluffs are home to dozens of species of birds, coyotes, deer, bobcats and even the occasional feral pig and mountain lion. It then flows beneath State Highway 71, where the river hits its second man-made obstacle: Prado Dam.

Floods and rivers are part of nature, and the Santa Ana is no different. According to Mitchell's The Santa Ana River Guide, a catastrophic flood in 1862 followed by a two-year drought led ranches to switch from cattle grazing to planting row crops; it finished off Californio culture for good. In 1938, another deluge: a 6- to 8-foot wall of water rushed through Santa Ana Canyon, killing dozens and causing $12 million in damage. You could Huck Finn a raft from Anaheim to Huntington Beach.

The federal government took four years to build Prado Dam. The earthen structure, which makes more sense than concrete in Earthquake Country, didn't end the threat of a major flood, but it greatly minimized the risk. However, after major flooding occurred in Orange County again in 1969, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tagged it the greatest flood threat in the Western United States, estimating 100,000 acres in Orange County could be flooded by 2 to 4 feet of water, with a potential loss of 3,000 lives and $15 billion in property damage. Disneyland could be flooded!

In 1987, the Santa Ana Mainstem Project began. Prado Dam and its spillway were raised, Seven Oaks Dam was built, and the river was channelized, including laying concrete on the bottom of the riverbed from the city of Santa Ana to just south of the 405. The reason? Water takes the path of least resistance, and a channel acts as a giant funnel, preventing the river from overflowing its banks. So far, the project has cost more than $2 billion. Once the final reach is done, shoring up dikes and the riverbank from Weir Canyon to the Prado Dam, the Corps believes it will be ready to, if not fully protect, at least reduce the damage from even the “mother of all storms,” Mainstem Project manager Thomas Bucklew says.


Had Prado been built in 1938, he continues, water would have filled the Prado storage basin to about 50 percent. The existing dam would have released the water at 100,000 cubic feet per second, meaning “almost all the damage in Orange County would have been prevented.”

While important for flood mitigation, Prado Dam neuters most of the river south of it, every drop passing through its outlet works. Yet, the most serene stretch of the river lies above: Prado Basin, with thousands of acres of willows and other trees. Duck-shooting ponds and a regional park lie at its north end, but the basin itself is too environmentally sensitive—from its endangered species to the wetlands constructed by the Orange County Water District (OCWD) to filter nitrogen from the water—for public access.

“The middle of the basin, the deepest part, can be a scary place if you don't know where you are,” says Dick Zembal, natural-resources director for the OCWD.

And it's anyone's guess what might be living here. Zembal has heard of a 6-foot caiman spotted by a dam employee. “There is all kind of speculation about what might be out there,” he says.

*     *    *

Oh, this ol' river keeps on rollin', though

No matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow

And as long as it does, I'll just sit here

And watch the river flow

—Bob Dylan

*     *    *

The Santa Ana River enters Orange County about two miles west of Prado Dam, at Green River Golf Course in Corona, where the longest completed stretch of the Santa Ana River Trail and Parkway begins. With the 91 freeway to your left and a thin ribbon of water to your right, the wet stuff becomes obscured by towering trees. But if you venture a few hundred yards from an interpretive display at Coal Canyon, you'll encounter bluffs where the river silently streams by some 40 feet below.

The trail winds through Featherly Regional Park (you can camp by the river at Canyon RV Park if you have an RV, or rent a cabin for $75), but after you cross the Gypsum Canyon Road bridge, the river again slips from view, obscured by vegetation.

At Weir Canyon, deep in Anaheim Hills, the trees suddenly stop and the most scenic part of the river in OC proper begins. It's shallow, and you see signs everywhere of ongoing water-capturing projects, but it's a paradise for bird-lovers. More than 100 species can be spotted, from stoic white egrets and regal blue herons to cormorants, white pelicans, Canadian geese and ducks.

This placid stretch, which sits right next to the 91, runs about five miles. The bike path cuts back to the south bank at Imperial Highway before coming to Riverdale Park in Anaheim and Lakeview Avenue, where the river stops for the third time and becomes its most critical—for humans.

At Lakeview, water is diverted into the fish-stocked Santa Ana River Lakes, but most winds up in 24 charging ponds ranging in size from 3 to 150 acres. It percolates through layers of sand and gravel, which act as scrubbing agents, before finally being pumped into wells from which cities in North and Central county further treat it before it's distributed to homes and businesses by the OCWD.

Call it a 'roided-up water-farmer, a gargantuan beaver or the overseer of the largest managed outdoor toilet in the U.S., but you can't argue with the OCWD's success. Since its founding in 1932, sparked by diminishing groundwater in the county from farmers overpumping, the agency has managed Orange County's groundwater—something that most of the rest of the state still fails to do.

Treated wastewater is a critical part of its mission, and its bounty rests in a massive underground reservoir below the river, from Lakeview to Ball Road. It can store 500,000 acre-feet, enough to supply all of OCWD's clients for a year, according to recharge planning manager Adam Hutchinson. Treated wastewater from upriver and from the Orange County Sanitation District's state-of-the-art plant in Fountain Valley accounts for 60 percent to 70 percent. The rest is imported from the Colorado River or Northern California. That water is far more expensive ($1,000 per acre-foot, compared to $450 from Fountain Valley and $20 for base flow), so if you think your water rates are high now, just imagine if that aquifer weren't there.


But while Orange County has been blessed with a source of (somewhat altered) cheap water throughout its history and a water district that manages it efficiently, trouble looms on the horizon.

“The reservoir is currently at 350,000 acre-feet less than full,” Hutchinson says. “We are still in our target range, but with the probability of an El Niño fizzling out, we are going to be taking a hard look at how much groundwater we allow to be pumped out of the basin in the coming months, as no one knows how long this drought situation may persist.”

*     *    *

“Where land divides us, water unites us.”

—title of a 1991 speech given by Bruce Babbitt, former Interior Department Secretary

*     *    *

From Lakeview to the mouth of the Pacific Ocean, there isn't much to see in the actual Santa Ana riverbed. It's the most heavily engineered part of the river—and the one most of us see and take for granted.

Yet success stories exist even here. Between Lincoln Avenue and Ball Road, just east of the 57 freeway, lies Anaheim Coves, a 125-acre groundwater percolation reservoir fenced off from the public. Here, the city of Anaheim has installed a 1.5-mile paved trail with interpretative panels, native landscaping and observation areas of hundreds of nesting seabirds. Just south of the Orange Crush is Riverview Golf Course, where soil was removed, levees shored, then the soil returned, creating a piece of land that resembles a natural part of the riverway, complete with frogs and shore birds. Here is where Santiago Creek, which drains more than 100 miles of the Santa Ana Mountains, meets the riverbed inside the golf course after having passed through 34 miles of eastern Orange County, from the Cleveland National Forest to Irvine Regional Park to Santa Ana's ritzy Floral Park neighborhood. It's the river's largest tributary in Orange County.

The Santiago Park Nature Preserve in Santa Ana documents the river's history. Many yearn to preserve more of what is natural and to restore what has been wiped away: steelhead salmon again roaming the upper river, kayaks drifting through Featherly Park. Native habitat in areas entombed in concrete. Joel Robinson, a co-founder of Naturalist for You, a nonprofit geared toward connecting people with local wilderness, likens the concept to bringing “sexy back to the river.”

“There are all these opportunities to restore the river, even if it's just ripping out a piece of concrete and putting a waterfall there, something to help connect people with it, to create more awareness,” he says. “Rivers are usually the centerpieces of communities, but here, it seems the river has never been the central focus. It's almost like we're meant to keep away from it. But it has such potential.”

But restoring it would also take money. Lots of it.

State Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) has tried for more than a decade to establish a Santa Ana River Conservancy. It would be a mechanism, Correa told a group at UC Riverside in July, to help secure funding for ongoing efforts, as well as to spur more. He pointed to the U.S. Army Corps approval in May of a $1 billion proposal to restore habitat and improve recreational access along an 11-mile stretch of the Los Angeles River.

“Right now, nothing like this exists for the Santa Ana River, and if this thing doesn't get done by the time this session convenes [in September], it will never get done,” says Correa, who leaves office in December because of term limits. Earlier versions of the bill met resistance from the Orange County Transportation Corridor Agencies, which has discussed extending the 57 above the river to the 405, as well as people who just feared another layer of bureaucracy (dozens of local, state and federal agencies have some say about what happens in and around the riverbed).

Correa, who calls this the most conservative conservancy imaginable, one that can't levy taxes or use eminent domain, has folded it this time within the California Coastal Conservancy, a group that earns high marks for working with smaller organizations to help secure funds for environmental issues.

“This would bring a lot of prestige and recognition to the river,” says the Wildlands Conservancy's Myers. “It would be like a vessel, and if a vessel is there, money will get poured into it. That would energize all the existing efforts to restore habitat and increase recreational access along the whole river—and really serve as a passport to bring nature into the lives of urban people, many of whom have very little around them.”

But regardless of how badly some people want to see as much of the river restored as possible, there's one thing to keep in mind.


“Hey, if you can figure out how to return a flood plain in the middle of urbanized Southern California back to its natural state, all the more power to you,” says the OCWD's Zembal. “People forget what actually happens in Southern California when it rains, and as unfortunate as it is to have a river like this channelized, there are major portions of it that run by lots of people, and without a channel, those people are threatened.”

That channel blooms in full from south of the Riverview Golf Course to the 405, a concrete trapezoidal stretch of gray. Homes, sporting arenas, factories and retail centers line the banks. And there's little to entice attention as you pass by on the river trail toward the ocean. Homeless encampments under its bridges. Hundreds of off-white splotches covering up tagging and graffiti through Anaheim and Santa Ana.

The Greenville-Banning Channel, a run-off ditch, runs alongside the east side of the river south of the 405, and while it looks gross, it feeds 6 wetland acres at Fairview Park, a 208-acre piece of open space in Costa Mesa. This part of the river also runs past 200-acre Talbert Regional Park. (Tip to bikers and runners: At Fairview Park, there's a wooden bridge that leads to the west bank, but keep going straight. It's quieter, less smelly and leads past 92 acres of restored coastal wetlands, the Santa Ana River Marsh, where abandoned oil derricks still sit.)

Your reward for making it to the end of the trail is Huntington State Beach. Surfers and swimmers cavort in the water; people lay out on the beach or dig for clams in the river's mouth. But even here, the river's complexity manifests. Fresh water constantly has to be injected beneath the Santa Ana's mouth at this point to keep saltwater from intruding into the water table, which would make water in wells in Fountain Valley and other areas too brackish to drink, a major reason why the OCWD was established in the first place. A big chunk of the beach is fenced off for the endangered California least tern for breeding and nesting.

Even as the Santa Ana finally embraces the Pacific, her story isn't over. As the OCWD's Huchinson says, “There is no such thing as new water.” Freshwater mixes with saltwater and drifts into the sea. Clouds form thousands of miles away, returning to unload their rain across Southern California. The water trickles down the mountains, aligning with other streams, gathering strength as it rolls along.

And the Santa Ana River is born anew.

*     *    *

In a bed, in a bed

By the waterside, I will lay my head

Listen to the river sing sweet songs

To rock my soul

—Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead

*     *    *

A middle-aged man stands near the river at Green River Golf Course and remembers back to 40 years ago, when he was a barefoot kid roaming the Santa Ana riverbed about 20 miles upstream in Pedley. Scorching summer days when he chased snakes, discovered secret swimming holes, hacked through a forest of bamboo-like arundo, built forts and unfurled his imagination in a world far removed from air conditioning and TV.

That kid grew up and moved away. For decades, he not only took the river for granted, but he also plain forgot it.

But as he stands there now, after a month of revisiting the river in body and mind, memories spark, unbidden. He remembers friends who have scattered with the winds, adventures never immortalized, parents and older siblings who have passed on.

And as he stands there, contemplating roads taken and not taken, he realizes that this road, his first road, is still there, still flowing. And he realizes he has fallen in love with that river all over again. Not for what it was. Not for what it could be. But for what it is. Now.

No, the Santa Ana River will never be a Kern, Columbia, Colorado or Mississippi river. It does not thunder from vast mountain gorges. Huge barges do not float down its expanse. It is neither mighty nor majestic. But it is a real river. A river that still lives and is ours.

And what we decide—or don't decide—to do with it, may define us in more ways than we think.

“This river is an experiment,” says the Wildlands Conservancy's Myers. “And, really, since it's our drinking water, where we go for our solitude and our inspiration, the experiment is really working upon ourselves. The river is really asking who we are and what is our relationship with it and with nature. And we all need to ask ourselves, 'What does the river mean to us?'”

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