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A damkeeper’s housework is never done . . .

Fred Bermel is not talkative. That’s probably good. Life is lonely in a zillion-ton sentry box, where Bermel spends much of his time. A gregarious type might have gone bonkers long ago.

For 17 years, Bermel has been the lone keeper of the Sepulveda Dam. A ruddy-faced 55-year-old with silvered hair, he figures on “another seven to 10 years,” before asking the federal government for retirement.

The dam is a sort of soldier, standing tall in the middle of the San Fernando Valley. Like most soldiers, it tends to be ignored when not desperately needed, or else resented as a brutish intruder. The dam just northwest of the intersection of the San Diego and Ventura freeways rises 57 feet high out of the parkland and golf course like a bulldozer at a tea party. The miles of concrete-lined channels that feed its flood-control system form a network of Frankenstein sutures on a pretty suburban face.

The rationale for them sounds almost comical in the usually dry Valley: They’re a defense against too much rain.

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But before the system went to work in 1941, rainfall brought devastation. The now tame river had an annoying habit of carving a new channel with every sizable storm, rolling through houses and fields. Spanish padres complained of destructive floods in the 18th Century. In the 19th Century, floodwaters rolled massive boulders into farming hamlets and swept away railroad bridges.

In 1916, 1934 and 1938, floods washed through truck farms and the first suburban homes. Van Nuys Boulevard submerged like a submarine. What uncontrolled floods like these would do to the densely populated condo blocks of today is sobering to imagine.

Fittingly enough for a sentry, the U.S. Army built and runs the dam, an unmilitary responsibility rooted in Thomas Jefferson’s mistrust of a standing army. As president, Jefferson figured he could prevent the soldiery from bashing republican institutions, then the military fashion in Europe, by keeping them busy at odd jobs like dredging rivers.

Bermel’s tiny office inside the dam is about 6 feet square, painted in Seabee gray. A steel federal-issue desk fills more than half of it.

One floor below is an enormous workroom, basic Fuehrer bunker in style, almost empty except for a relic of the Civil Defense era, a drum marked “SK IV SANITATION KIT supplies 50 persons.”

Below that is five stories of empty, a dank cavern of concrete that feels subterranean despite its height.

“Winter and summer, it’s always the same temperature--too cold,” says Bermel. “You can clap your hands down here and count to eight before the echoes stop.”

No pictures are allowed inside the dam, Bermel said, “because of the danger from terrorists.”

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Can he really imagine Khomeini dispatching a band of murder-eyed fanatics with the words: “We will bring the Great Satan to its knees, brothers; we will blow up . . . (dramatic pause) . . . Sepulveda Dam! (Evil chuckle, evil chuckle)”?

He’s following orders, Bermel replies. That’s usually a wise career move if you work for the Army.

He spends little time in the windowless cell of an office, he says, showing a visitor the spectacular view from the top of the dam. A damkeeper’s housework is never done--painting, hauling trash, chasing out trespassers.

The dam attracts a plague of graffiti-trolls, apparently because it’s the biggest object they can deface, the Mt. Everest of vandalism. He fights them as best he can. He particularly objects to “vulgar stuff about the President and the Vice President--I get that off right away, even if I have to roll 50 gallons of paint over it.”

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And there is always the work of turning on and off the Los Angeles River, sending water down the 43-mile channel to the Pacific. Usually there is only a trickle in the 50-foot-wide main channel at the dam. This week, even after months of occasional rain, it was only 10 inches deep. That can change quickly, he said.

“We get the runoff from 152 square miles. When rain falls on Chatsworth it starts showing up here in 30 minutes.”

Sometimes the concrete river teems with fish. “We get some big catfish in the spring.” When water is released suddenly, fish are left behind, stranded and flopping, along with “rattlesnakes that wash down out of the hills--some of them 6-footers. I don’t go down there then.”

In a heavy storm, the dam holds back runoff that would otherwise pour downstream into Los Angeles. If the dam ever filled to capacity, the lake would submerge the park behind it all the way to Balboa Boulevard, more than a mile away, he said.

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“It’s never even come close to capacity,” he said. But in rainy years, water routinely closes Burbank Boulevard, sometimes stranding motorists who drive into 4-foot-deep water at night. “I call the police and Fire Department to get them out. But it’s been dry lately. We haven’t flooded Burbank Boulevard in at least three or four years now.”

What if the dam filled beyond its capacity?

Some spillways would open automatically, and he’d have to open the gates, which would send “a wall of water 500 feet wide and about 11 feet high” toward the intersection of the two freeways, Bermel said.

“It would probably take out the interchange.” His forehead furrowed. Bermel, a quiet man who seems comfortable in his solitary job, hopes that retirement arrives before any storm like that.

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“Every year, the Army Corps of Engineers gives me an updated list with the telephone numbers of all the people we’d have to call before I did that. There’s about 100 numbers on it now. It would be a whole lot of trouble.”


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