Expert’s Fixes Run into Back-to-Reality Obstacles

Carl Nelson stands in a Laguna Creek diversion basin for run off from a 25-year storm. A debris line in the fence indicates water levels from the Dec. 22 flood. Photo by Ted Reckas

If Laguna Beach had taken expert advice nearly 40 years ago, turned aside for lack of community consensus, there would be no flood damage today, according to an expert appointed to a special flood control task force by the City Council last week.

Carl Nelson, retired chief of Orange County’s public works department and former manager of county harbors, beaches and parks, said fixing the flooding in Laguna Canyon takes a simple two-step solution even today:  extend the concrete conduit that starts at Main Beach and now ends at the city Dog Park up to the intersection of Laguna Canyon and El Toro roads and add rain-retention basins where side canyons meet the highway.

If funding could be obtained, particularly in these hard-pressed times, Nelson believes the work could be done in phases and would have little or no impact on traffic or downtown access. Even so, he pointed out, an upstream project “wouldn’t be 100 percent adequate,” without the key component of flood retention basins, a prospect that environmentalists hear as a red alert.

A report written by Nelson in 1973 listed eight alternatives to solve Laguna Beach’s topographical tendency to washout every 10 years or so.  “Any one of those eight would have been the solution,” he said, “but the money wasn’t there.”  Even when money was offered, $9.7 million by the county and the Army Corps of Engineers, for a piecemeal project to widen the underground storm drain downtown, the City Council sunk the plan in 2002 based on environmental concerns and its business-disrupting consequences.

Not fixing the flooding problem in Laguna Canyon, said Nelson, is one of his career’s biggest frustrations.  For him, volunteering as an advisor to the task force is an attempt to take care of some unfinished business.  As for funding, he said the Army Corps of Engineers has the ability to provide funding for small high-need projects under a certain dollar amount in an expedited process.

Nelson combines a unique set of attributes, having graduated from USC with a master’s degree in civil engineering and for years been an Audubon Society member.  After working for the state highway department, Nelson later became the county’s public works director and oversaw flood control as well as harbors, beaches and parks projects.  “I really liked that,” he said.  “It played into my environmental bent.”

Some of the projects he worked on required developers to provide park space, like Salt Creek Beach Park.  Other projects required designs that encouraged wildlife and included hiking and biking trails. He and his wife, Donna, regularly observe the migrating Canadian geese that stop-over near the intersection of the old and new Laguna Canyon roads that meet in Irvine.

Nelson now intends to reintroduce one of the eight alternatives he wrote about 30 years ago, extending the upstream conduit from the Dog Park to El Toro Road, to the newly established 11-member task force.

The new segment, he added, would not conflict with the existing creek.  “Believe it or not,” he said, “despite the flooding, there are probably some residents along the way who want to keep the bubbling brook.”  The conduit could even be located on the west side of Laguna Canyon Road, even further from the stream.  “The existing stream would carry the first floods so you would retain the natural environment of the old creek,” Nelson added.  “The larger flood, what we call gully-washers, would go into the conduit.”

After 40 years in the field, Nelson knows that engineering flood-control solutions based on calculating peak water volume and topography often run up against other immoveable forces, political, fiscal and environmental constraints that can prove even more difficult.  Some say his plan is a civil engineer’s pipedream.

City Manager John Pietig said any flood mitigating proposals first need review by the task force to determine town, environmental and financial impacts. Financing Nelson’s suggestion, he said, would need careful consideration. Nelson anticipates that. “If the county parks department could see the benefit of more small basins, if flood control had some money to augment that or if Caltrans were to see the benefit of keeping the road open, there might be the political will to spend the money,” he said.  “I realize none of the parties have any money to spare.”

Maintaining the beauty of natural resources is equally as important as resolving flood control and damage issues raised after Dec. 22’s 100-year flood, said Derek Ostensen, president of the Laguna Canyon Foundation, which supports the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. The latest loss estimates to 184 homes, businesses and public structures stands at $12 million.

“It’s important that any project balance our sensitive natural resources and not create visual blight,” said Ostensen.  “Our canyon is a stunning and irreplaceable community resource that took several decades and more than $50 million to preserve.” Ostensen said he’d like to see lay-outs of water-detention basins and their locations before taking a position.

Considering the state’s current financial crisis, Nelson isn’t optimistic about funding, but in a fiscally fit world, he thinks it’s a perfect project for state funds.  “They have a lot of interest in keeping highways open; that’s their main job,” he said of Caltrans.  “Laguna Canyon Road was closed for several days here.  That’s unacceptable in modern urban communities.”

Everyone is painfully aware that people bought and developed homes and businesses in the canyon floodplain beginning decades ago when the area was unincorporated and without building restrictions. “And we can’t take most of that back,” Nelson said dryly.

“When there gets to be a bad enough situation, the powers that be rise up and do something.  The cost of the remedy just keeps going higher and higher,” he said.  “All I can do is offer insight and avenues to pursue.”

Aside from costly infrastructure solutions, Nelson will suggest that canyon property owners who live beside the creek take action by getting muddy and dirty, again.  “It’s important to keep the stream clear,” he said, suggesting that canyon advocates routinely trim trees and remove debris. “The debris that comes off the natural watershed causes bridges to get plugged.  It would be a giant grassroots movement but that’s what committees are about.”


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