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Dumping Ground to Playground? : Group Proposes Lakes, Trails for Devil's Gate Reservoir

May 21, 1987|ASHLEY DUNN | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — Trekking across this flat section of brush-covered wilderness at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains is like stepping into some weirdly desolate vision of world's end.

The sun beats down with a harsh intensity in dry months, glittering off an assortment of society's garbage: broken beer bottles, discarded car parts and bottle caps.

The ground is covered with a rocky, ocher-colored silt that has washed down from the mountains, mixed with scattered patches of gravel, broken concrete pilings and boulders.

Oddly, this area, wedged between La Canada Flintridge and Altadena, just north of the 210 Freeway next to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is marked on most maps as a cool, blue expanse of water.

In reality, the only trace of moisture during most of the year is found dozens of feet below, in ground water that is polluted with carcinogenic organic chemicals.

This is Devil's Gate Reservoir--in reality, a bit of environmental hell.

But after decades of neglect, a group of residents, with the help of two well-known environmental artists, Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison, have begun planning the transformation of the reservoir into a 240-acre recreational area and outdoor artwork.

Ernie Messner, head of the Devil's Gate Multi-Use Advisory Committee, which is spearheading the rejuvenation effort, said the plan is still in its embryonic stages and that nothing definite has been decided.

Armed with $70,000, including $50,000 from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, $10,000 from the city, and $6,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Devil's Gate Committee began brainstorming sessions this year.

Several promising--and not-so-promising--ideas have already cropped up.

One idea is to turn the reservoir into a year-round lake for sailing; another involves building a series of natural pools, arranged like a string of pearls, with water falling from one to the next.

One admittedly harebrained scheme would turn the 88-foot spillway of Devil's Gate Dam into a colossal slip-and-slide, with teen-agers cascading into the arroyo below.

Thomas K. Underbrink, a city Water and Power Department engineer who is serving as project manager, said that while the ideas may seem a bit quixotic given the condition of the area, the payoff for the city in recreation, flood control, water conservation and water quality could make them very real possibilities.

"Suddenly, people have discovered Devil's Gate," Underbrink said. "It's like, hey, we got this pristine--well maybe not pristine--nearly pristine area over here."

The grand plans for Devil's Gate Reservoir seem out of place for the remote section of the city that Messner called "a lost environment which time passed by."

On most days, the only people around are a few joggers, horseback riders and--judging from the number of bottles and cans--partying teen-agers. "It's not exactly a place people would want to go now," Messner said.

But at one time, the reservoir did fill an important role in flood control and water conservation.

The dam was completed in 1920 as part of a network of flood control dams. Its job was to impede the flow of water during the rainy season and add to the ground-water level by allowing the water it trapped to seep into the soil.

Although it was never meant to be a recreation area, Norm Bradley, a county engineer who supervised the dam from 1962 to 1976, said many people used to fish for catfish and trout when the reservoir was full.

Other people, Bradley said, found the remoteness of the reservoir ideal for less laudable purposes.

"A lot of people would drive over at night and throw things in," he said, adding that pulling out stolen motorcycles became a spring ritual for county employees when there was little water behind the dam.

The importance of the dam decreased after a regional survey in the late 1970s declared Devil's Gate unsafe in the event of a major earthquake. As a result, the dam no longer is allowed to hold water for any prolonged period.

"I mean, it's not going to collapse, but it's structurally not the strongest either," Underbrink said.

The county has largely stopped maintaining the area around the dam and no longer has a full-time keeper at Devil's Gate, said county public works engineer Robert Kroll.

Messner stumbled upon Devil's Gate four years ago when he was working as a state land acquisition lawyer and drove by while working on other projects.

But he recognized its recreational potential only after driving into the reservoir while following a garbage truck about to make an illegal dump.

Given Top Priority

Messner's lobbying for Devil's Gate eventually caught the attention of the city and other groups and was targeted as a top priority in the city's plan for the future, called Pasadena Renaissance.

The most ambitious plan is to fill the reservoir with runoff from the mountains and water pumped from the Metropolitan Water District so that it can be used as a lake for sailing.

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