On a recent visit to the Santa Ana River, Jan Vandersloot peered over the steep concrete embankment. If there was a river down there, he sure couldn't see it. Covered by tons of sediment, the stretch of the river through Costa Mesa now sustains an environment where migrating birds, including an endangered species, seek refuge. Willow trees tower 40 feet high.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now wants to clean up a 3.6-mile stretch of the river from its mouth at the Pacific to just upstream from Adams Avenue. Activists such as Vandersloot, however, see a golden opportunity to let the river revert to its natural state and allow some of the wildlife habitat to remain.
"People have been calling this a concrete box or a channel, and I want to call it a river again," said Vandersloot, a Newport Beach physician and president of Ocean Outfall Group.
He advocates dredging a channel in the middle of the riverbed and leaving the riverbank regrowth intact.
At a recent community meeting held by the corps, residents from both sides of the river -- which separates Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa -- expressed dissatisfaction with the corps' lack of maintenance, as well as Vandersloot's proposal. They fear the heavy growth of vegetation and trees that have taken root since the river was dredged in 1990 could create a flood threat in heavy rains.
"I feel all that overgrowth will act as a dam," said Jack O'Meara, a longtime Costa Mesa resident. "And I don't want to see it ending up in my frontyard."
Earl Gunnerson, a Huntington Beach resident, said he has tried to find out why the trees and other vegetation have been allowed to grow on the riverbanks. "The birds? Well, let me ask you, where were the birds before all this? Let them fly back to where they came from," he said.
The corps plans to remove about 700,000 cubic yards of sediment from the river, wiping out what activists say has become a valuable riparian habitat. The work will restore the soft bottom channel to its proper depth and yield fresh sand for beaches in west Newport Beach. The rest of the sediment will be dumped at sea.
The corps still needs approval from the state Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state water officials. The project could begin in August, though the $4.3 million needed to pay for dredging has not been appropriated.
Originally, the project was scheduled for last month but was delayed after an endangered bird, a least Bell's vireo, was spotted in the area.
The bird was a male and there were no signs of nesting activity, said Laura Crum, a Fish and Game environmental scientist.
The bird's discovery, she said, was enough to convince the department that if the corps removed the habitat, it should make up for the loss, perhaps by improving an upstream riparian environment. Negotiations with the corps continue, Crum said.
"We aren't saying they can't take [the habitat] out, because residents are arguing on both sides of this issue," Crum said. "But we're saying that if it goes out, then the corps has to mitigate the loss by enhancing the river somewhere else."
Why the corps deferred river maintenance for so long, allowing sediment and debris to accumulate after each rainy season, is a subject of debate.
Corps officials say they don't know the answer, but flood control and other agencies that deal with corps projects say the Santa Ana River dredging was a low priority and had difficulty getting funding, especially after $1.2 billion was spent on improving the river. The mammoth river project was launched in 1990. The corps widened the river's mouth, raised its concrete banks, built the Seven Oaks dam in San Bernardino County and is now raising the height of Prado Dam in Riverside County more than 28 feet.
Though sediment removal is one of the last corps projects on the river, it is vital to protecting lives and property for nearby residents, said a corps spokesman. Dredging will also lower the river by several feet, bringing it back to its original capacity to protect against a 170-year flood, said Fred-Otto Egeler, a corps spokesman.
Keeping habitat for wildlife and recreation is a noble idea, but that isn't the corps' mission, Egeler said.
"We need to remove it for the safety of those residents in the area, and also for those downstream," he said. "Life and property are more important."
Egeler said the river won't be dredged during the nesting season, and the corps will provide some compensation for the loss of habitat.
Using bulldozers to wipe out native and nonnative species in the river is wrong, said Lewis MacAdams, chairman of the board of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, a nonprofit group that promotes restoration of natural habitat along the river.
The overzealous use of bulldozers and concrete is reminiscent of the corps in the 1950s, MacAdams said, which had the flood control philosophy of "getting the water to the sea as fast as you can."
His group lobbied Los Angeles County elected officials to persuade the corps to reconsider, or at least modify its approach to dredging. As a result, MacAdams said, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky intervened and the corps used chainsaws to cut trees down rather than bulldozers, helping minimize the ecological damage.
"The corps likes to say it has a new image, but the corps' Los Angeles office is the mother church of the concrete cult," MacAdams said. "They were never able to prove that cutting down every tree in the river was a flood control benefit."
Corps officials have not finalized how dredging will be done in the Santa Ana River. But the priority is to remove as much as possible to increase the capacity of the river, which reduces the threat of flooding for nearby communities, Egeler said.
In 1983, a storm overwhelmed many flood control channels, swamping about 1,000 homes in Huntington Beach and surrounding areas and causing an estimated $48.5 million in damage. A 1997 storm forced more than 300 Huntington Beach mobile home park residents to evacuate.