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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Dredge the Santa Ana River

November 16, 2003

Nature often finds a way, even after man's clumsy interference. That's what scientists are counting on when they reopen the Bolsa Chica wetlands to the ocean, after it was closed off decades ago to make for better duck hunting.

It's a different story in the case of the lower Santa Ana River, where nature has been particularly rough and the Army Corps of Engineers has set up concrete levees and made plans to raise dams. Its job there has been not to improve hunting but to protect the thousands of lives and homes along the river's vast flood plain. That has to remain the chief goal. Environmentalists seek to protect an area of the river that has sprouted a riparian habitat, but in the name of safety, engineers should go ahead with plans to dredge the bottom of the river. The plants will come back, and future river managers can look for ways to encourage nature spots along its banks.

It's easy to see how Orange County residents, most of whom weren't here then, could be ignorant of the devastation caused by the 1938 flood along the Santa Ana.

The trickle that usually meanders down the river swelled into an 8-foot wall of water that tossed cars around like toy boats and smashed through bridges as though they were made of toothpicks. Nearly 60 people died, at a time when few people lived in the area.

That flood led to the construction of Prado Dam and over the last decade, as development near the river created new dangers to life and property, $1.3 billion in concrete levees and additional dam construction. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was unwise to allow so much building in a flood plain, just as planners might now rethink the wisdom of building in brushy fire zones. But it would be more foolish now to put thousands of lives and billions of dollars in property at risk.

Despite the concrete walls lining the river, willows, mulefat and other moisture-loving plants have cropped up along a 3.6-mile stretch of river bottom, which remains unpaved. Those in turn have attracted birds, including at least a visit from an endangered least Bell's vireo, and the attention of environmentalists who want the corps to dredge just the middle of the river, leaving the edges wild. Engineers reply that the massive flood-control effort always has called for the river bottom to be lowered in this section for the entire project to work.

Orange County needs both riparian habitat and protection from devastating floods. The engineers have the say in this round. The Santa Ana River will never be a protected wildlife refuge like Bolsa Chica, but it can provide some limited nature areas. It took only seven years or so for the current plants to create a new environment. New plants will sprout in the lowered river bottom. Though they must never be allowed to take over the river bottom, creating new flood hazards, the county flood-control agency, which will take over management of the river, can and should allow small riparian communities to survive, along with the massive subdivisions that have been built up along the river.

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