Pasadena Pushes Proposal to Restore Devil's Gate Area


City officials pushing for an ambitious restoration of the desolate Devil's Gate area of the Arroyo Seco are betting $1 million that they can interest other government agencies in the project.

The city has approved $1 million for engineering, recreational and economic studies this year. The results could lead other government agencies to make the first significant contributions to the $80-million to $90-million restoration plan, which has been in the planning phase for years. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has pledged to reimburse the city up to $200,000 for the studies.

Thomas K. Underbrink, the city's water engineering manager and director of the Devil's Gate project, said renewed interest has come in recent months from MWD, the U.S. Forest Service and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

"Everybody is working on Devil's Gate now," said Ernie Messner, a Pasadena attorney who heads the city's advisory committee on the project. "Two and a half years ago, the county (flood control officials) didn't even want to talk about it. Now they've taken a real interest."

Centered around the Devil's Gate Dam at the northern end of the Arroyo Seco, the project embodies the vision of city officials and local environmentalists who want to resuscitate 250 acres of long-neglected landscape at the craggy base of the San Gabriel Mountains in northwest Pasadena. Devil's Gate partisans attribute its decline to the silt- and debris-filled dam and to years of neglect and environmental abuse by the community.

Plans developed over the past several years call for extensive work on the arroyo's northern end, above Devil's Gate Dam, near the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and just north of the Foothill (210) Freeway. The project, which would be funded through a variety of public and private sources, would incorporate improvements in flood control combined with water conservation, wildlife habitat restoration and recreation.

The idea is to restore the canyon to its long-lost pastoral glory, one whose beauty inspired Pasadena's Arts and Crafts intellectual, artistic and architectural movement at the turn of the century. Plans call for extensive improvements in biking, hiking and equestrian trails, and the creation of a small, stocked fishing pond. Oak Grove Park, a county-operated park on city land west of the dam, would be included in the larger Devil's Gate landscape.

Even if Pasadena does not manage to interest other agencies in picking up part of the tab, Underbrink and Deputy City Manager Edward Aghjayan maintain that its Water and Power Department has sufficient capital improvement funds to do some of the work. The exact amount of money required will be determined in the economic study now under way.

Regardless of who pays for it, the biggest incentive for restoring the area would come in the form millions of dollars in water profits from expanding the area's natural aquifer into a massive water storage facility, Underbrink and Aghjayan said. Aghjayan said the city could earn $7 million in revenues annually from the water storage--enough to recoup much of the cost of the entire restoration project in a decade.

If other agencies helped fund the project, they could share in the profits, Underbrink said.

Although it has yet to appropriate any large sums of money for the restoration, there is support for the project on the city's Board of Directors, City Director Rick Cole said.

"The view is that it'll pay for itself," Cole said.

However, he noted that specific funding proposals have yet to be determined. He said a first step would be creation of a multijurisdictional agency to oversee the project. Underbrink said that could happen within the next year.

Cole said he and City Manager Donald McIntyre plan to bicycle to Devil's Gate this weekend with other city officials to take a look at the area's potential.

"It's finally reached a critical mass now," Cole said. "It was kind of a dreamy idea five years ago, and now it's turning into an increasingly compelling imperative."

First, however, the city must clean up the area's four contaminated wells. Work on the decontamination, funded partly by JPL under a recent agreement with the city, is set to begin this spring.

Once water pollution cleanup efforts are completed in the next few years, officials propose using the Devil's Gate underground aquifer as a vast storage area. Rain runoff and water imported from Northern California and the Colorado River would be directed underground. As much as 400,000 acre feet of water (worth $50 million at today's wholesale winter rates) would be stored there and then distributed to water suppliers throughout the region. One acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, is considered a sufficient yearly amount for two families.

Metropolitan Water District officials are intrigued with the possibilities of using the Devil's Gate area for underground water storage. "That could be of regional benefit," said Robert Williams, the district's engineer in charge of its involvement in the project.

Other interested parties include county flood control officials.

"There's tremendous interest from us," said Donald Nichols, division chief of hydrology and water conservation in the county's Public Works Department. Nichols said Pasadena "may be engaging in a little wishful thinking" on how much water can be stored underground and to what degree that would help finance the improvements at Devil's Gate.

Regardless, he said, "We have money, and we're prepared to recommend to the Board of Supervisors that those funds be expended" for improvements to the dam, if the current engineering studies show it is warranted.

The county attention stems from new concerns about its dam there. Silt and debris cascading from the San Gabriel Mountains have filled the reservoir to the point of ineffectiveness, and the county is looking into the feasibility of cleaning it out as part of the project.

Part of the Devil's Gate proposal entails possible repair of the dam, which in the 1970s was determined to be seismically unsound. Plans also call for the possible excavation of millions of cubic yards of sand, gravel and rock in the reservoir, which under normal weather conditions contains no water.

A few companies started quarrying operations in the Devil's Gate reservoir several years ago, but have not been overseen with any particular concern to restoration of the arroyo, Messner said.

If the city's plans are realized, the quarrying would come under more intense environmental supervision. A place called Butterfly Hill would be created in the middle of the current excavation grounds. The hill, a mound of earth surrounded by water in the center of the reservoir, would improve the ecology, Messner said. The water around it would attract not only insects but a whole range of animals and birds that once thrived in the arroyo but cannot survive under the circumstances.

"There are no natural enemies to this project," Underbrink said.

In decades past, though, enemies existed in the form of public neglect and outright environmental abuse, Messner said.

"To tell you how far things have come," Messner said, "in 1984 the city (officials) just kind of shrugged their shoulders and had no interest at all. In 1990, they're spending $1 million on this project."

The surge in interest started five years ago, when a citizens panel recommended that the city move ahead on the project. In 1988, the city funded an environmental study of Devil's Gate. .

Underbrink said proposals for improving the Devil's Gate area have come and gone during his 26-year career with the water division. But, he said, the growing appreciation he's witnessing now is substantially different.

In fact, downstream from the Devil's Gate site, an experimental reforestation project already has begun. Local environmentalists last week planted 100 seedlings, and plan over the course of the project to plant hundreds of thousands more.

The environmentalists, as they speak of global-warming research implications, hope to persuade scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the UC Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to study how the new trees may influence the Pasadena environment.

"We can make it a really important scientific project, and applications can be made all over the world," said Tim Brick, a founder of an environmental group, the Arroyo Seco Council, which helped plant the trees and has made the Devil's Gate project a priority.

Devil's Gate represents an important link in the entire arroyo ecosystem, stretching 950 acres from the Angeles National Forest to South Pasadena, Underbrink said. The Arroyo Seco is a narrowly shaped, winding expanse of riverbed, manicured and untamed parkland, and developed areas that include the Rose Bowl. Traversing the length of Pasadena's western edge, it is slightly larger than New York's Central Park.

Underbrink has a goal of dedicating the Devil's Gate restoration on July 4, 1993. When completed, city officials say, it would represent a major boost to Pasadena's use of parkland.

The arroyo has long been a place of inspiration for artists, settlers, tourists, poets and even a President. Theodore Roosevelt, on a visit in 1911, is said to have remarked that "this place would make a great park," according to accounts handed down in city documents over the years.

Seventy-seven years later, a city study of the lower arroyo said: "This river path has been used through history as a source of food and material, an exploration route, a corridor for wildlife and outlaws, a source of jobs during the Depression, a place to refresh the mind and body."

Even a year ago, though, Messner said, he wasn't sure if the Devil's Gate project would ever be a reality. "I'm very optimistic now. Pasadena is doing well and . . . really trying to protect the environment."

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