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Of woolly mammoths and farming

Environment: Chloride debate just the latest in Santa Clara River’s 10,000 years of conflict

Posted: June 14, 2010 11:00 p.m.
Updated: June 15, 2010 1:29 p.m.

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As the glaciers melted about 10,000 years ago, torrents of freshly melted ice and snow were sent rushing down the Santa Clarita Valley.

Was that water free of chloride — the naturally occurring component of common table salt now pitting downstream strawberry farmers against local upstream tax-strapped homeowners?

Answer: Not so much to concern anyone worried about contamination.

Mammoths and saber-toothed cats that roamed this valley and later experienced trouble with tar pits in Southern California had become extinct by the time the glaciers melted, paving the way for a variety of unique fish and fowl to enjoy pristine Santa Clara River water.

The purity of the post-glacial water pretty much provided the benchmark for federal legislators who defined uncontaminated water in 1972 when they hammered out the Clean Water Act.

Basically, the water enjoyed by all Americans should be free of all contaminants — as if it were rainwater, according to the act.

Since the ice age, however, a lot has ended up in the Santa Clara River, providing a spicy, if not salty, history.

Thirst for water
The Santa Clara River flows from the snowy peaks in the San Gabriel Mountains, east of Agua Dulce, 116 miles to Ventura and the Pacific Ocean.

Glacial water quickly turned to mountain water brimming with steelhead trout once as fat as house cats. Then came the turn of the century and a series of water-diverting dams was built.

The longest free-flowing river in Southern California, winding through desert, mountain and grassland, the Santa Clara is home to hundreds of unique plants and animals. Among them are lizards, birds and fish, including the hardy, but endangered, unarmored three-spine stickleback.

The river ends in a watershed at the ocean, covering much of Oxnard and Camarillo across 1,600 square miles in Ventura County, one of the most natural watersheds on the Southern California coast.

Three 50-mile creeks serve as primary tributaries adding to the river — Piru, Castaic and Sespe. The San Francisquito Creek in Santa Clarita also adds water to the mix, although residents riding bikes and walking dogs on adjacent paseos see only sand and shrub.

Its groundwater, salty or not, has satisfied thousands for 10,000 years.

The Chumash, who were in Ventura County before the Spanish explorers, since the glaciers melted, lived off the naturally abundant fruit growing in a fertile valley.

True farming began, as writer John Krist writes in his book “Living Legacy: The Story of Ventura County Agriculture,” at the San Buenaventura Mission in 1782, near a large Chumash village.

Settlers to the area learned quickly that just about any variety of crop would flourish with the right type of irrigation.

Before the start of the 19th century, growers at the mission built a 7-mile aqueduct in the Ventura River Valley made of rocks and adobe bricks, Krist notes in his book.

The thirst for imported water in Ventura and the need for aqueducts, dams and reservoirs is no different now than it was then.

California weather has taught all farmers in the state that times of severe drought are followed by times of flood.

Between 1827 and 1916, more than a half dozen devastating two-year droughts challenged the resilience of California farmers, based on statistics compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey in a water-supply paper published by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Cattle grazing in the Santa Clara Valley ended abruptly with the drought of 1863 and 1864. Three years later, lemon trees were introduced as a crop in Ventura County.

What cattle ranchers survived the ‘63-’64 drought were further challenged with another two-year drought 12 years later.

As railroads and ports appeared at the start of 1900, people flocked to Ventura County for a chance to be prosperous farmers; land along the lush banks of the Santa Clara River attracted many.

A front-page article in The Signal dated Feb. 21, 1919, with the headline “Facts About The Avocado,” reflects just how important our downstream farming neighbors were to our community.

The article noted that avocados — one of the two crops identified as “chloride sensitive” two years ago by a consortium of farming interests called the Ventura County Agricultural Water Quality Coalition — became dormant if they received “scant or no irrigation late in the fall.”

Although there was no mention of chloride, the 1919 article observed: “Culture and soil requirements are the same in general as for the orange.”

The need for imported water was growing.

Flood and drought
It was that need that prompted William Mulholland to visit the San Francisquito Canyon in 1911 and decide to build the St. Francis Dam there as part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which he also designed and built in 1913.

At the time, the 233-mile waterway was the longest aqueduct in the world, bringing water from the Owens Valley in Central California to the city of Los Angeles.

In 1926, the St. Francis Dam was completed with a reservoir capacity to hold 38,168 acre-feet of water.

In a report compiled on March 24, 1928, by George Newhall Jr., the then-president of Newhall Land & Farming Company, said of the dam’s water: “Sufficient to cover 38,000 acres or approximately 60 square miles with water one foot deep. To picture this amount of water, think of a river or body of water 10 feet deep, 1 mile wide and 6 miles long; or 20 feet deep, 1/2 mile wide and 6 miles long.”

Then, on March 12, 1928, the Santa Clara River swelled unexpectedly because of what is still considered the greatest civil engineering disaster in the 20th century.

On that day, 450 people died when the St. Francis Dam collapsed. The loss of life was the second worst in California history; only the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire claimed more lives.

The Santa Clara River became a killer with more than 12 billion extra gallons of water hitting towns downstream, including Castaic, Fillmore and Santa Paula.

Victims both upstream in the Santa Clarita Valley and downstream in Ventura County shared in one of California’s worst tragedies.

Tragedy followed tragedy as the Great Depression hit. By the 1940s, every drop of water suddenly became precious.

Ventura County farmers built a variety of structures to divert Santa Clara River water over a wide area through a network of ditches and flumes.

They sucked so much groundwater out of the area that Ventura itself fell by nearly two feet, allowing seawater to rush into the area.

The need for imported water intensified. Then tragedy struck again.

Southern California farmers experienced the worst drought since the Depression from 1943 to 1951, according the same U.S. Geological Survey.

Four years later, the United Water Conservation District, a partnership of Ventura farming interests, built the Santa Felicia Dam to capture and store snow-melt runoff in Lake Piru, which was “blended” with the water in the Santa Clara River.

It also built a pipeline to El Rio to increase the amount of river water it could put back into the aquifer there.

A year later, with the help of Congress, the Casitas Dam and reservoir were built.

Then the rains came.

‘A tired snake’
In January and February 1969, the Santa Clara River tore valley communities apart — literally.

Three prominent bridges were washed away, including the Soledad Canyon Bridge, the Bouquet Canyon Bridge and a railway bridge on Highway 126, as back-to-back storms hit the area.

Homes were destroyed, the asphalt on roads was washed away, residents were rescued by helicopter.

One article in The Signal dated Jan. 22, 1969, called the river “a tired snake (which) was filled with currents of raging muddy water,” comparing it to the “raging Colorado.”

The floods statewide claimed 60 lives and caused about $400 million in damage.

Mud, rock and dirt were swept downstream by the heavy rains, according to The Signal, until the Santa Clara looked “like the Mississippi River.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a report titled “Proposed Plans of Improvement for Flood Control and Allied Purposes, Newhall-Saugus and Vicinity,” put the local 1969 damages at $3.4 million.

In 1972, with the urging of Larry Wade of Newhall Land, the Corps wanted to build a concrete network more than 28 miles long, with channels and levees along the Santa Clara River from Oak Spring Canyon west past Interstate 5, according to writer Carl Boyer in his book “Santa Clarita.”

That was the same year that the federal government moved to protect water for every American — upstream and down.

“To the best of my knowledge, that plan (for a concrete network) did not go through,” said Dan Masnada, general manager for the Castaic Lake Water Agency, which supplies Santa Clarita residents with about half their water. “It would have meant concrete lining everywhere,”

In 1978, in accordance with the Clean Water Act, the Santa Clara River was deemed to be allowed no more than 100 milligrams of chloride per one liter of its water.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board set the limit based on “background water quality conditions at the time,” according to Steve Maguin, general manager and chief engineer of the Santa Clarita Valley Sanitation District, in his report this month to the city of Santa Clarita.

By the mid-’80s Ventura farming interests saw their aquifer vanishing and further intrusion of seawater into their crop land.

In 1986, after the aquifer under Ventura County collapsed, allowing further intrusion of salty seawater, the United Water Conservation District built a pipeline to deliver water to strawberry and avocado farmers so that they wouldn’t have to pump groundwater.

In 1991, the same group built the Freeman Diversion — to funnel swelling storm waters of the Santa Clara River from the river to help fill groundwater basins.

But, while many groups upstream and down were trying to guide Santa Clara River water, the river suddenly joined a contemporary list of other waterways around the world when it sustained a devastatingly oily setback.

Modern problems
On Jan. 17, 1994, an oil pipeline owned by ARCO Pipe Line Company ruptured during and following the Northridge earthquake.

It was the largest oil spill to have ever occurred near the city of Santa Clarita.

About 190,000 gallons, or 4,600 barrels, of crude oil found an open drainage ditch and flowed into the Santa Clara River, where it was carried for 16 miles.

A Natural Resource Damage Assessment assessed the Santa Clara’s damage and implemented a plan to restore the river and its banks.

Three years after the spill, a consent decree was signed by federal, state, and Ventura County agencies, along with ARCO, and lodged a cleanup settlement of $7.1 million.

River protection didn’t stop there.

In 2008, The Nature Conservancy and California State Coastal Conservancy initiated the McGrath land deal as part of a larger effort to create a river parkway along the Santa Clara River in Ventura County for protecting and restoring the river’s floodplain in a move to protect 141 acres — its plant and animal life — as well as protecting “agricultural fields,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Denise Steurer in the conservancy report.

Other cleanups such as removing perchlorate from groundwater, have proven just as costly in Santa Clarita.

If chloride is making the Santa Clara River salty, then perchlorates — to some extent — are as well.

Perchlorates are the salts derived from perchloric acid, feared by many to be harmful for human consumption.

Although they occur naturally, perchlorates were also left in the ground from the manufacturing of rocket fuel and explosives in central parts of Santa Clarita.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, right up until the Vietnam War, Whittaker-Bermite made munitions and exploded rocket fuel on the property on the banks of the Santa Clara River, near Soledad Canyon Road.

Unhealthy levels of perchlorate seeped into the groundwater.

In 1997, agency officials shut down two wells on the south fork of the Santa Clara River, near the intersection of Magic Mountain Parkway and San Fernando Road, after significant levels of perchlorate were found in the water there.

Through costly efforts undertaken by the Castaic Lake Water Agency to rid groundwater of perchlorate, those wells re-opened last year.

Now, cleanup attention is on chloride.

Santa Clarita’s sanitation district is expected to build a $210,000 reverse-osmosis plant to take the chloride out of Ventura-bound water in the Santa Clara River, a cost that would be passed on to ratepayers.

The district is holding a public hearing July 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Santa Clarita City Council Chambers.

If history has told us anything about the river, a debate over its water will be wild and woolly.

Next in the series: The ‘upstreamers’

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