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Neighbors Undo El Nino's Creek Havoc

July 14, 1998|JOHN POPE

From his home just a few hundred feet away, Dick Smith kept daily watch as the usually tranquil Aliso Creek became a torrent under pounding rains.

Smith saw familiar bushes, shrubs and 100-year-old sycamore trees uprooted, gentle banks carved into 20-foot precipices and a bicycle path crumble as El Nino gathered force last January.

The area was so treacherous that at one point, Smith recalls, he loaned a hammer to a beleaguered police officer who was caught in the downpour trying to pound cautionary stakes into the ground with his handgun.

When the rains finally stopped, neighbors who had lived for decades along a stretch of Sunlight Creek, the street that faces Aliso Creek, hardly recognized the place.

"It looked like a bomb had gone off," said Antje Hamer, a longtime resident.

And, worse, the residents saw that instead of the dense woodland that had provided a beautiful view, they could now see condominiums they hadn't known existed.

"Now our view was just other houses," said Hamer, who like others had grown to love the closest thing to a forest that many people in suburban Orange County are likely to find.

So, in recent months following the rains, the residents decided to try to replace some of the lost greenery.

In an unusual display of community spirit, nearly every household on the block contributed $60 to $80--some much more--to buy more than 50 white alder and liquidambar trees, most about 5 and 6 feet tall.

As workers from Orange County's public works department cleaned up most of the mess that Aliso Creek had become, which included lining the banks with large rocks, the neighbors began digging holes for the trees.

"In doing this, we got almost 100% participation from the neighborhood, and we don't have a homeowners association to force anything," said Smith, who moved into the housing tract when it was first built about 20 years ago.

The neighbors, about 20 households in all, planted the trees and tied different-colored ribbons around the trunks to designate which homes are responsible for their watering. Since the area has no built-in watering system, the residents can be seen almost every day bringing out buckets and hoses to ensure that their new forest will thrive.

The neighbors also water about 50 sycamore and poplar trees planted by the county to prevent future erosion.

"We lost a lot," said Virgil Pletcher, who lugs buckets of water to the trees across the street every other day. "It feels great to help with the regrowth."

Some of the residents, however, became worried last month when a city inspector paid a visit to check out the project.

Smith, who helped organize the planting, admits that he didn't exactly get permission to plant the trees--not that he knew who to ask. While the county is responsible for the creek and bike path, the land surrounding it falls into a gray area.

Michael L. Gregory, a Lake Forest code enforcement officer who visited the site last month, said he saw no immediate problems with the trees but would ultimately leave it to county officials to decide if the trees are growing too close to the bike path.

Since some existing trees are nearer the path than the new trees, the local green thumbs figure they're safe.

"We're not naive; we know it's not our property--but it is our community," Smith said. "This has been a really fun, enjoyable thing that's helped the community, and we feel good about it."

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