Audrey Vincent remembers it as a miracle. A small band of budding environmentalists successfully fought an attempt 15 years ago to line the Santa Paula Creek bed with miles of concrete.
They won a court order stopping the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from building a drainage basin on the creek and laying the concrete channel as a flood-control measure.
With the injunction in 1975, the plan fizzled. But now, it’s being revived. Pressured by county and Santa Paula officials, the corps agreed earlier this month to re-evaluate the need for flood controls on the creek.
Two decades ago, the project was viewed as devastating to the environment by Vincent and the group that she helped spearhead, Friends of the Santa Paula Creek.
“Santa Paula is up against a national forest,” she said. “To have concrete in the creek was totally out of character with the landscape.”
Vincent, who moved to Savannah, Ga., last year, said she still opposes the project. “My hope is that they don’t do it--it would be a tragedy.”
But the corps’ plan to take another look at the project is good news to Norm Wilkinson, Santa Paula’s public works director and city engineer. To him, flood-proofing the creek is a necessity.
“Half the city lies in the flood plain of the Santa Paula Creek,” Wilkinson said. No other city in the county has more property that is federally insured against flooding.
The potential for disaster is there, he said. The creek flooded in 1969 and 1978, forcing evacuations. Only massive efforts, including the use of bulldozers to clear the channel, prevented extensive destruction.
“There is just no flood protection,” Wilkinson said. The Oaks, a neighborhood on the north end of town, is pictured as an “area of total destruction” on a corps map if the flood-control improvements aren’t made and a massive flood occurs.
Despite the drought, a gentle stream of water flows in the creek. Its headwaters are in the mountains to the north of Santa Paula at an elevation of 6,700 feet. The creek winds alongside California 150 to the north end of the city and then snakes around the east side for 10 to 12 miles before emptying into the Santa Clara River at an elevation of about 250 feet.
Because of its steepness, the creek can generate a tremendous amount of energy when its waters are unleashed, project proponents say. Boulders and rocks dot the yards of Santa Paula property as evidence.
“Just think about how those rocks got there,” Wilkinson said.
Until the early 1900s, the creek’s natural path ran through the middle of town. The channel was moved east of the city, but there’s nothing to keep it from reverting to its old route if back-to-back storms plug the existing channel, Wilkinson said.
The project under re-examination by the corps calls for a debris basin--a damlike structure to catch boulders and trees--near Mupu Elementary School on the outskirts of Santa Paula. The channel would be strengthened for about three miles to the Santa Clara River.
When Vincent and her group fought the project, the plans called for the debris basin to be located near Steckel Park, farther up the scenic canyon. The project, with its basin and concrete-lined channel, was projected to cost about $30 million.
“It was incredibly ill-conceived,” said Vincent, who cited engineering errors by the corps.
The flood dangers were of concern to the group, members said, but it would have been cheaper to keep the creek debris-free so that floodwaters wouldn’t overflow its banks. However, the loss of the creek as a natural environmental habitat was what really drove the group.
“We all had visions of the (concrete-lined) Los Angeles River,” Vincent said. It was at the beginning of the environmental movement, and “environmentalists were wild-eyed radicals,” she said.
The group threw barbecues to raise money and boned up on endangered fish and plants. Donations, often from people who wished to remain anonymous, trickled in, she said.
“We fought a $100,000 lawsuit on $10,000,” she said. The group’s lawyer, Steve Harvey, was a legal rookie, a Santa Paula native who wore cowboy hats and leather-fringed jackets.
Matthew Byrne, a federal judge in Los Angeles, stopped the project with an injunction based on evidence that environmental impacts of the project had not been adequately investigated by the corps.
The project went on hold, and the case became history. Those who spearheaded Friends of the Santa Paula Creek eventually left town.
In the early 1980s, the corps officially dropped the project, citing the cost. But lobbying efforts by county officials have brought it back to life.
What convinced the corps to take another look at the project was the growth of Santa Paula since the project was proposed, said Mary O’Keeffe, a corps spokeswoman in Los Angeles. The re-evaluation will take at least two years, she said. Even then, it is not certain that Congress would authorize funds for the project.
The corps engineers will look at alternatives other than a debris basin near Mupu Elementary School and a concrete-lined channel.
“It’s not, slam-dunk, this will be a concrete channel--it’s unfair to say that a concrete channel is a given,” said Gerald J. Nowak, deputy director of public works for the county Flood Control District.
“I personally favor it,” he said. “I’m not sure anything else will work.”
Wilkinson sees it that way too. “I don’t hold out a lot of hope this thing is going to look like a wild creek when it’s done,” he said.
Local and federal officials insist that environmental concerns won’t be overlooked as the project is re-evaluated, and they hope that the plan would be sensitive to the creek’s ecology.
“We’re always concerned about the environmental impacts,” said Richard Wittenberg, the county’s chief administrative officer. “It’s a matter of weighing the benefits versus the environmental concerns.”
There is no opposition so far to the re-evaluation, officials say. However, Russ Baggerly, senior administrative assistant to county Supervisor Maria VanderKolk, was cautious about the project.
“There are real alternatives to concrete for flood-control channels,” he said. “As the re-evaluation develops, we hope the Board of Supervisors will take an active role in developing alternatives.”
Santa Paula Mayor John Melton said some residents will be delighted that the project may go forward again. Flooding is a real threat to the city, he said.
“You’ve got to control the water,” Melton said, “and without concrete, I don’t think it can be controlled. I hope there won’t be opposition.”
But Vincent’s husband, Richard, who lives in Santa Paula, isn’t sure that the battle is over.
Recalling the fervor of the group that originally opposed the project, Richard Vincent said, “If the corps said yes to the project, I think there would be another fight.”