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Water Under the Bridge : Keeper of Sepulveda Dam Retires Amid Surging Pride, Memories

TIMES STAFF WRITER

City folks can only dream of working in the kind of pastoral setting that Fred Bermel came to every workday.

He was surrounded by open fields and farmland. There was a smooth-flowing stream where white egrets and Canada geese gather.

You’d never guess it’s in the middle of the San Fernando Valley.

For 23 years, Bermel has been the keeper at Sepulveda Dam, the centerpiece of the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area. Every day he inspected the floodgates, checked the rain gauges and kicked over the generators that run the hydraulic lifts inside the mammoth concrete structure.

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“It was all cornfields when I came,” said the soft-spoken Bermel. “Woodley and Burbank didn’t come through the basin and there was no park here.”

For many of those years Bermel, now 60, lived on the property in a small house on a sloping green meadow.

“It was good living here,” he said of the now-demolished house. “Except it meant I was on duty 24 hours a day.”

On Friday, Bermel left this oasis. He retired.

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“It’s one of the prettiest dams of them all,” he said, standing on the bridge overlooking the concrete basin ankle-deep with water.

He listened to the water thrash against the barrier.

“In Southern California, we don’t have the big lakes, but if this dam weren’t here, most of Los Angeles, from Mulholland to the ocean, would be under water,” he said as he peered over at the cross-currents formed by the concrete fans that jut out from the dam’s gates.

The Sepulveda Dam is the last sentinel in a network of catch basins and streams that drain the San Fernando Valley, Bermel explained. The dam catches every ounce of water that lands within 152 square miles of the Valley, from creeks, small streams and the Los Angeles River, which starts about seven miles upstream from the dam.

Though the water rarely climbs above a few inches deep, Bermel remembers a day in February, 1992, when the media reported that the water was 25 feet above sea level. While that claim is suspect in his mind, floodwaters did submerge Burbank Avenue and Woodley Boulevard, traditionally one of the first areas to flood in the Sepulveda Basin.

“I don’t know how high the water was, but I know there was a lot of it, because many cars were under water,” he recalled.

And Bermel is as familiar with the concrete basin known as the Los Angeles River just about as well as anyone in the city. He’s driven his service truck through the man-made channel from the dam to Glendale, South Gate and the ocean.

Inside the dam facility are the controls that operate the hydraulic engines used to raise and lower the iron gates, depending on the amount of water rushing toward the channel. On rainy spring days, white-water currents can blast through the gates at speeds approaching 60 m.p.h., Bermel said.

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The veteran dam keeper said he could operate everything manually in case of emergency.

“This is my baby, I’m the only one here,” he said. “I operate the generators and gates so they’ll work when the time comes,” he said.

Bermel’s colleagues describe him as a quiet, private man who gets along well with the visitors and is as dedicated to his job as anyone can be.

“He’s the first man on the job in a disaster or emergency,” said Billy Thomas, the chief of the reservoir regulations section for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the regional dam system. “We’re losing a good man.”

Most people believe, although no one seems to really know, that Bermel is the dean of dam keepers at the Sepulveda Dam.

“Nobody has been here longer than Fred, so no one really knows,” said Thomas, who’s worked there since 1985.

Now that he is retired, Bermel will head for Southern Utah, where he has relatives.

“Maybe I’ll like it,” he said hopefully. “Or maybe I’ll find another location.”

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After all these years, perhaps Bermel will flow like the water he’s tended so long until he finds the place where the water goes to rest.


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