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The Rocky Road to Restoring a Scenic Area

Accidental avalanche disgorged thousands of boulders -- and almost as many cleanup ideas.

November 14, 2002|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.

Forestry officials agonizing over what to do about an avalanche that has buried six scenic Altadena waterfalls and part of a historic mountain tourist site have to decide whether to spend millions of dollars on a quick cleanup -- or do it slowly, and perhaps for free.

An estimated 50,000 tons of granite boulders dislodged by a 1998 construction accident fill a portion of Rubio Canyon. The landslide has hidden the waterfalls and remnants of the Mt. Lowe Railway, which 100 years ago was Los Angeles' most famous visitor attraction.

The avalanche occurred when workers replacing a 4-inch pipe owned by a private Altadena water company dynamited an overhanging rock and accidentally loosened part of the canyon wall.

The tiny Rubio Canon Land and Water Assn. has a federal permit to draw water from the canyon. Its rickety pipe supplies enough water for about 200 of the company's 3,000 customers.

Experts say Rubio Canyon's waterfalls and concrete structures left from the 1890s remain intact under the landslide debris. The canyon's stream is also flowing beneath the rock pile.

The canyon was the site of a hotel and incline railway station built by promoter Thaddeus S.C. Lowe.

Visitors stopping off in the canyon before taking the incline to the top of nearby Mt. Lowe could view nine waterfalls -- some as high as 112 feet.

The disappearance of six of the falls has angered environmentalists and Altadena residents. At public hearings and through written suggestions, they have buried Angeles National Forest administrators under an avalanche of ideas as to how to clean up the mess.

Depending on the method used, it could cost as much as $6 million to remove the rocks, restore the waterfalls and cover up the huge granite avalanche scar that's visible from 10 miles away.

The use of rock-lifting helicopters has been suggested by some who are eager for the quickest restoration possible. Others, taking a cue from Thaddeus Lowe, have proposed reinstalling narrow-gauge tracks in the canyon and using rail cars to haul out the boulders.

One recommendation urges use of an aerial cable car system. Another suggests construction of a mile-long conveyor belt to trundle out the rocks.

Other ideas are more low-tech. And low-cost.

An Altadena resident proposed that bucket brigades be organized, using volunteers and members of local civic groups and churches to slowly carry out the rocks by hand. "Post a reward for the person or group of persons that bring out the most debris by a certain time," the resident urged.

Several proposals call for the use of inmate labor from jails and prisons to cart out the rocks. Another recommends mules.

"Twenty mules for 10 years might be able to haul out 20,000 cubic yards," figured one resident -- cautioning, however, that this is only "a back-of-the-envelope calculation."

Other economical ideas include leaving the avalanche basically in place.

One suggestion is for construction of artificial concrete waterfalls over the landslide that would be reminiscent of the buried falls.

Another idea calls for simply spreading the debris around the floor of the canyon.

The most economical idea is to do nothing to the rock pile. Advocates of that approach claim that a few major cloudbursts over the San Gabriel Mountains would be sufficient to sweep the 100-foot-deep pile of boulders out of the canyon and into a Los Angeles County debris catch basin south of Rubio Canyon Road.

Forest Service officials say they are intent on somehow restoring Rubio Canyon and its waterfalls.

An Irvine consulting firm that has spent more than a year on an environmental assessment of the avalanche is scheduled to recommend a rock-removal strategy to officials in mid-December. The Jones & Stokes Co. report also will list several alternatives and include cost estimates for each, said Steve Bear, resource officer for the Forest Service's Los Angeles River District.

Bear, who is in charge of the Rubio Canyon project, said his agency expects to decide on a cleanup plan about mid-March. He said the Forest Service feels the Rubio Canon water company should pay for the cleanup.

Paul Ayers, an avid Rubio Canyon hiker and Glendale lawyer who for four years has pressured officials to remove the rocks, said he is optimistic that the canyon's waterfalls can be restored.

But Ayers, who favors the conveyor belt concept, predicted the cleanup will end up being financed by taxpayers, not the water company.

When the accident occurred, the company was using Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to replace a pipe it claimed was damaged by the Northridge earthquake. It hopes the government will again come to the rescue.

If so, the nonprofit company -- which pays about $100 a year for a federal permit to draw water from Rubio Canyon -- will maintain its liquidity.

It also hopes to retain its Rubio Canyon liquid.

As a Rubio Canon executive acknowledged last year, the battered canyon remains the source of his company's "cheapest water supply."

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