The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday offered four alternative proposals for preserving part or all of a large, ancient Indian burial ground found last month in the middle of a flood control channel in Ventura County.
But officials in Ventura County, which will have to pay for the project, said three of the plans are too expensive and that the fourth is impractical for the Chumash cemetery, which was unearthed by a team of archeologists from California State University, Northridge.
The plans, prepared by a Mississippi firm that specializes in waterway research, are designed to preserve the skeletal remains in the channel, a top concern among Chumash descendants who contend that removing Indian bones from graves violates sacred tradition, Corps spokeswoman Carol Wolff said.
The cemetery is in Calleguas Creek near Point Mugu, where 16 skeletons were found before the CSUN dig was halted Aug. 4 because so many human remains were being found. Dozens and possibly hundreds more skeletons are thought to be buried in the vicinity, CSUN archeologist Mark Raab said.
Primary Chumash Cemetery
The site is believed to have been the primary cemetery for a Chumash provincial capital that flourished in the area from about the 3rd to the 18th Century.
The report by the Vicksburg-based Waterways Experiment Station listed as options for saving the burial ground:
Rerouting the flood control channel around the cemetery, at an estimated cost of $3 to $5 million.
Building a small dam into the channel’s floor just downstream from the cemetery. The wall would rise several inches above the floor and extend six feet into the ground, just below where the bones are situated. Costing an estimated $250,000, this option would be designed to drastically reduce the velocity of water flowing above the graves to ensure that erosion does not wash the bones into the ocean, said Jim Hester, one of the researchers who worked on the project.
Covering a 500-square-foot section of the channel where the cemetery is situated with sand, filtering cloth and large, jagged rocks. This work, designed to protect the graves from erosion, would have to be repeated every 10 to 20 years. The cost is estimated at $1 million.
Covering just a 15-square-foot section, where the 16 skeletons were found, with the same method. The cost would be only $3,000 to $5,000.
‘No Precedent to Help Us’
“The trouble with all of our options is that we don’t know of anyone who has had to deal with a situation like this before, so we have no precedent to help us,” said Doug Shields, another researcher on the project.
“We just don’t have the test data on how well those options work . . . It might all be a practice in self-delusion.”
Gerald Nowak, director of the Ventura County Flood Control District, said his office is studying the alternatives and will meet with several Indian and state and federal officials in coming weeks to decide what action to take.
With the rainy season approaching, a decision will have to be made soon if officials want to preserve the cemetery, Nowak said. The flood control channel carries a lot of water during the winter, and the levies have burst twice since 1980, flooding nearby farmland.
“It’s a bad situation, and the rub is that I’ve been told state and federal money are out of the question,” Nowak said. “That leaves it up to the county, and we don’t have the dough.”
Nowak said the only project the county can afford is the one that would cover the 15-square-foot part of the cemetery. But he ruled that out, saying, “If we’re going to do the job, we’d want to do a complete job.”
The “only viable option,” he said, is the one involving the small dam--called a grade stabilizer--sunk into the channel downstream from the graves. “But even that costs plenty of money,” he said.
There are other options, Nowak said, such as digging up the graves and transporting the remains to another location for reburial or simply leaving the area unchanged and hoping the winter rains don’t wash the bones away.
Leaders of three Indian groups that have called for preservation of the burial ground could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Archeologists have favored extracting artifacts buried with the bodies for study and leaving the skeletons in place.