RAINY RIVER: The winter rains have slowed...

RAINY RIVER: The winter rains have slowed the major upgrading of the Santa Ana River channel. But the river, with drownings and even overflowing in past rainy seasons, has been problem-free so far this year, says Terry Medeiros, the county's administrator for the project. . . . "What we hadn't anticipated was a heavy rain after River View Golf Course (in Santa Ana) had been re-sodded," he says. "We thought the soil would wash downstream, but erosion wasn't a problem."

GIVE IT SOME ENGLISH: UC Irvine, known for its science programs, is now earning respect for its low-tech departments too. . . . U.S. News & World Report's annual guide to the country's best graduate schools lists UCI's English program tied at 17th in the nation and its psychology program at 24th. . . . Says UCI spokesman Scott Nelson: "It might surprise some, but we're very highly regarded in almost all humanities."

HOFFMAN WATCH: One of the perks for actress Teresa Velarde of Cypress, who plays a nurse in the new movie "Outbreak," was getting to know its star, Dustin Hoffman. Says Velarde: "He was wonderful to me. But what meant a lot to me was how he treated the extras and the crew. He's a very warm person." . . . "Outbreak," about a deadly virus, opens on 35 Orange County screens today. Adds Velarde, a veteran of South Coast Repertory: "The film doesn't let you down at all. It never drops the ball."

BILLBOARD NEXT? Can you blame Sheri Jones, principal at Helen Stacey Intermediate School in Huntington Beach, for being proud of its 90-member symphony band? Last year it was the only Southern California band to earn a superior rating in all categories at Magic Mountain's Music in the Parks festival. This year the band has its own compact disc, playing pieces like John Williams' "Jurassic Park" theme. Says Jones: "These kids are so good, they're equal in talent to most high school bands."

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