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California and the West

San Jacinto River's Wild Days May Be Numbered

Environment: Officials say channel project would curb floods. Critics point to a different trend elsewhere.


NUEVO, Calif. — On a winter morning the San Jacinto River bed is abuzz with the warble of meadow larks and the flash of red-winged blackbirds. This river valley is a relic of California's past, flush with birds, covered by grain fields and dotted with endangered plants exquisitely adapted to its flood-prone soils.

"It is the last of the coastal valleys that's not filled with the hustle and bustle of us," said Tony Metcalf, president of the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society.

That's largely because the river's vagaries have kept development at bay. Now, as Los Angeles and Ventura counties pay tens of millions to restore once-wild waterways to their natural states, Riverside County is considering spending similar sums to do the opposite: dig a channel that would tame the San Jacinto River.

Landowners and county officials say the rustic setting belies an equally antiquated flood-control system that puts people and property at risk and limits growth in the flood plain.

Environmental officials and activists protest that "channelizing" the river could jeopardize the endangered plants, flood a nearby wildlife refuge and clear the way for subdivisions to pave over wildlife habitat. It's an ironic idea for a county whose rural areas serve as a refuge from city sprawl, they say.

"I think that our area is going to change from a very rural, low-key kind of community to basically a suburban area," said Debbra O'Brien, a local homeowner and conservation chairwoman of the Friends of Nuevo Committee. "We are destroying the natural environment that we live in."

The group represents many property owners in the rural area east of Interstate 215 between Riverside and Temecula.

The river now travels across the valley through 200-foot-wide irrigation ditches, spilling onto adjacent land during floods and swamping a mile-wide swath of the valley floor.

The floods nurture a complex web of plants and animals on the valley floor. They also drench nearby communities, stranding residents and impeding emergency services, said Trip Hord, a representative of the San Jacinto River Property Owners' Committee.

Officials have kicked around plans to line the San Jacinto River since the mid-1970s, but are pursuing the project in earnest now as part of a countywide planning effort. Landowners in the flood plain would be assessed an estimated $40 million on property tax bills to pay for the channel.

"The idea is to reclaim a flood plain and make it developable," said Dusty Williams, assistant chief engineer of the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

If the plan is approved, the 4,800-acre flood plain would be open to business and housing development, including warehouses, business parks and light manufacturing, with much of the land going to residential tracts at two to four homes per acre, Hord said.

As families seeking affordable homes stream into Riverside County, landowners are poised to meet the demand, he said. "Riverside County is a very popular market for single-family homes."

Flood control would also protect existing residents, said Debbie Lauda, a 25-year homeowner and county spokeswoman for Friends of Nuevo. Unlike O'Brien, Lauda says channelization is essential; she evacuated her home during torrential rains that nearly stranded her and her two young children 20 years ago.

"We have to look at the issues of habitat and conservation, but not at the expense of homes and human life," she said.

The move counters trends in other parts of California and the country to restore waterways' natural flow.

The Los Angeles River, long a glorified gutter, is undergoing restoration that will eventually remove concrete from its banks and restore green spaces. Last year, state park bonds earmarked $83.5 million for that project, plus $10 million to $20 million for restoration projects on the San Gabriel River.

The California Coastal Conservancy urged removing golf courses, farms and gravel mines from the banks of the Santa Clara River in Ventura County last year, while a $2.5-million habitat conservation project will preserve land at the river's headwaters, 100 miles away in the Angeles National Forest.

"Now we have another river that is not channelized, and we have the opportunity to learn from Los Angeles' mistakes and not entomb this river," said state parks Senior Ecologist Geary Hund. "Riverside County is trying to do exactly what L.A. is trying to undo."

Williams said the river channel would not be a concrete eyesore, but a 300- to 500-foot channel with earthen walls. The channel would start at the Ramona Expressway near the San Jacinto Wildlife Area, where engineers would raise the roadway, forming a dam to funnel water 11 miles downstream.

Environmentalists say that, regardless of aesthetics, the channel and development would disrupt the river's hydrology and habitat.

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