It will still take years before residents along the Santa Ana River can breathe easier, but after more than two decades of effort, the way was finally cleared in Washington last Thursday to begin building more critically needed flood control protection into the Santa Ana River.
The project should have been approved and funded years ago, considering that the Santa Ana River, which runs from Big Bear Lake to the Pacific Ocean, has been tagged by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the worst potential flood threat in the western United States.
And it will stay that way, flirting with flood dangers and Mother Nature, until the work building a new dam in San Bernardino County, raising the level of the Prado Dam in Riverside County and widening and deepening the river channel in Orange County is well under way.
In Orange County, Army engineers estimated that a major flood could put parts of 10 low-lying county cities under water. As many as 3,000 lives could be lost and damage could exceed $14 billion. That is too big a potential disaster to flirt with for so long.
The breakthrough finally came in the U.S. Senate’s approval of an $18.4 billion energy and water bill that contained $20 million in start-up funds for the estimated $1.4 billion flood-protection project. The White House said the President would sign the bill as soon as it clears a conference committee, where the Santa Ana River allocation, approved by both houses, is expected to remain untouched. Work on the river should then start next spring. It should be given top priority and be completed as soon as possible.
The sun-parched, dirt-dry river looks harmless enough now. But it has breached its banks before in recent years and will most certainly again, engineers say, without the new protections. Extensive development that has produced more rain runoff water has increased the threat in recent years.
It has always been a race against time. The approval of the river plan finally gives residents a fighting chance to escape the flood danger.