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Pasadena Pushes Proposal to Restore Devil's Gate Area


PASADENA — City officials pushing for an ambitious restoration of the desolate Devil's Gate area of the Arroyo Seco are betting $1 million that they can interest other government agencies in the project.

The city has approved $1 million for engineering, recreational and economic studies this year. The results could lead other government agencies to make the first significant contributions to the $80-million to $90-million restoration plan, which has been in the planning phase for years. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has pledged to reimburse the city up to $200,000 for the studies.

Thomas K. Underbrink, the city's water engineering manager and director of the Devil's Gate project, said renewed interest has come in recent months from MWD, the U.S. Forest Service and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

"Everybody is working on Devil's Gate now," said Ernie Messner, a Pasadena attorney who heads the city's advisory committee on the project. "Two and a half years ago, the county (flood control officials) didn't even want to talk about it. Now they've taken a real interest."

Centered around the Devil's Gate Dam at the northern end of the Arroyo Seco, the project embodies the vision of city officials and local environmentalists who want to resuscitate 250 acres of long-neglected landscape at the craggy base of the San Gabriel Mountains in northwest Pasadena. Devil's Gate partisans attribute its decline to the silt- and debris-filled dam and to years of neglect and environmental abuse by the community.

Plans developed over the past several years call for extensive work on the arroyo's northern end, above Devil's Gate Dam, near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and just north of the Foothill (210) Freeway. The project, which would be funded through a variety of public and private sources, would incorporate improvements in flood control combined with water conservation, wildlife habitat restoration and recreation.

The idea is to restore the canyon to its long-lost pastoral glory, one whose beauty inspired Pasadena's Arts and Crafts intellectual, artistic and architectural movement at the turn of the century. Plans call for extensive improvements in biking, hiking and equestrian trails, and the creation of a small, stocked fishing pond. Oak Grove Park, a county-operated park on city land west of the dam, would be included in the larger Devil's Gate landscape.

Even if Pasadena does not manage to interest other agencies in picking up part of the tab, Underbrink and Deputy City Manager Edward Aghjayan maintain that its Water and Power Department has sufficient capital improvement funds to do some of the work. The exact amount of money required will be determined in the economic study now under way.

Regardless of who pays for it, the biggest incentive for restoring the area would come in the form millions of dollars in water profits from expanding the area's natural aquifer into a massive water storage facility, Underbrink and Aghjayan said. Aghjayan said the city could earn $7 million in revenues annually from the water storage--enough to recoup much of the cost of the entire restoration project in a decade.

If other agencies helped fund the project, they could share in the profits, Underbrink said.

Although it has yet to appropriate any large sums of money for the restoration, there is support for the project on the city's Board of Directors, City Director Rick Cole said.

"The view is that it'll pay for itself," Cole said.

However, he noted that specific funding proposals have yet to be determined. He said a first step would be creation of a multijurisdictional agency to oversee the project. Underbrink said that could happen within the next year.

Cole said he and City Manager Donald McIntyre plan to bicycle to Devil's Gate this weekend with other city officials to take a look at the area's potential.

"It's finally reached a critical mass now," Cole said. "It was kind of a dreamy idea five years ago, and now it's turning into an increasingly compelling imperative."

First, however, the city must clean up the area's four contaminated wells. Work on the decontamination, funded partly by JPL under a recent agreement with the city, is set to begin this spring.

Once water pollution cleanup efforts are completed in the next few years, officials propose using the Devil's Gate underground aquifer as a vast storage area. Rain runoff and water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River would be directed underground. As much as 400,000 acre feet of water (worth $50 million at today's wholesale winter rates) would be stored there and then distributed to water suppliers throughout the region. One acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, is considered a sufficient yearly amount for two families.

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