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Dog's death in storm drain near 'dog beach' raises safety issue

Madi McNaughton was just looking for a calm spot on the beach to play with her three dogs.

They had been frequent visitors to the stretch of sand between Newport and Huntington beaches, known in recent years as an unofficial dog beach where pups can run off leash.

But McNaughton never imagined that a sunny day playing in the ocean could so quickly turn tragic.

The 24-year-old Huntington Beach resident's 3-year-old mastiff mix, Rupert, drowned last Thursday after he was submerged in a storm drain east of the beach.

McNaughton, a veterinary assistant at VCA West Coast Specialty and Emergency Animal Hospital in Fountain Valley, sat with Rupert's body for five hours.

"I was just waiting for him to wake up," she said. "He looked so peaceful, like he was sleeping. It was the worst day of my life."

The day at the beach had started like any other. McNaughton had decided to toss a ball for her dogs and a friend's dog where the water was calm, away from the waves and past the Pacific Coast Highway overpass. She often had seen people with their dogs and children in the area, so she figured she was still safely in the confines of the unofficial dog beach.

She realized later that the boundaries of the beach end at the overpass and she had taken her dogs into a flood channel.

The area is appealing to many people because the water tends to be calmer farther from the waves.

"It may look inviting, but it's still a flood-control channel and it's dangerous," said Orange County Public Works spokesman Shannon Widor.

McNaughton tossed the ball and Rupert bounded to retrieve it, but as soon as he reached the toy, the tide came in and water began pushing the 150-pound dog toward a drain on the side of the Santa Ana River bed.

The drain consists of a concrete wall with an opening at the bottom used to keep storm and tidal waters from overfilling the river.

The current was strong and Rupert was moving quickly, so McNaughton jumped into the water and, unable to touch the bottom, swam toward her beloved dog.

"I grabbed the top of the drain and reached in right as he was going under to grab his collar," she said.

As her left hand clutched Rupert's collar, her right hand gripped the top of the concrete wall.

"My arm was completely stretched out and I couldn't breathe because the water had started going over my head," she said. "I had to let go of his collar because if I didn't I would have been sucked in after him."

She scrambled out of the water and rushed to the other end of the drain to find that it was covered by a metal grate, preventing Rupert from passing through.

"He got stuck," she said. "I stood there at the grate for three to five minutes, just hoping to see some sign of him. I knew there was no way he was still alive. I was hysterical at that point."

McNaughton got Rupert from the Baldwin Park shelter when he was 3 months old. Plagued with mange, elbow dysplasia and degenerative hip disease, Rupert endured surgery after surgery. McNaughton had planned on nursing him back to health and offering him for adoption. But she fell in love with his loving, goofy personality.

Rupert had a penchant for destroying balls and was so excitable that he would whip his tail back and forth with such fervor that it would leave welts on McNaughton's legs.

"He was just a gentle giant," she said. "He was the happiest dog, the best dog I've ever had. He was my baby."

Ten minutes after Rupert disappeared into the tide, his large body washed out of the drain, and animal-control officers, lifeguards and McNaughton's brother lifted him from the water.

"The hardest part of it all was seeing his washed-up body with his head underwater and knowing he was gone," McNaughton said.

For years, signs have been posted near the bike path that runs above the area warning people to stay out of the flood-control channel. But for dog owners walking from the dog beach to the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway overpass, there was no indication of the danger, McNaughton said.

In response to the tragedy, McNaughton posted fliers — featuring photos of her and Rupert — by the drain and along the bike path warning others not to make the same fatal mistake.

County crews also put up orange temporary fencing in the area. In coming weeks, crews will install a more permanent barrier and additional signs to dissuade people from entering the flood channel.

They also are investigating why there was no grate on the side of the drain where Rupert went in, Widor said. The absence of a grate allowed his body to flow inside.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure this doesn't happen again," Widor said.

The Santa Ana River area has received significant attention this year from county and Newport Beach officials, as well as nearby homeowners and those who frequent the area with their dogs.

The issue of leash laws came to the forefront late last year after Newport Beach Mayor Diane Dixon said she was fielding complaints from homeowners about unleashed dogs and unremoved dog waste.

In response, the city conducted an online survey to determine whether Newport residents would favor the city enforcing county leash laws at that beach. Hundreds of people responded, with the majority asking the city to leave the area alone.

In March, after two hours of passionate testimony from dog owners who frequent the spot, Newport's Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission voted unanimously to reject a proposal to have city animal-control officers enforce leash restrictions there. The commission instead suggested the county look into designating the area as an official dog beach.

Dixon, city staff, dog beach advocates and county Supervisor Michelle Steel, whose district includes Newport Beach, began working on a proposal to that effect.

An ordinance to designate the area as the first legal dog beach on county land passed the Board of Supervisors' first reading but stalled in May over concerns from two environmental groups that having unleashed canines in the area could harm two at-risk bird species.

Michelle Cook, communications director for Steel, said at the time that county staff was looking into the groups' concerns and had not yet made a determination.

Dog beach advocate and current Newport Beach City Council candidate Mike Glenn said he expects the issue to head back to the Board of Supervisors in the next few months.

Glenn said Rupert's death could have been prevented with better signage and education about the boundaries of the unofficial dog beach.

"Some people, unfortunately, have been defining the area where Rupert died as dog beach," Glenn said. "This is not the proposed dog beach area."

Glenn maintains that the proposed dog beach area closer to the ocean is safe and should be maintained as an off-leash area for canines.

McNaughton agrees that that beach should kept as is, but she hopes Rupert's death motivates officials to fence off the riverbed area near the storm drain.

"I just want it to be a safe place for dogs and their owners to play," she said. "I still want the dog beach there. All the dogs I've ever seen there are happy."

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN

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