From muddy waters, clarity

By Ann Christoph

For days during the Christmas holidays the Canyon Road was closed, and many of us in the rest of the city had little awareness of the tragedy that was playing out in that creekside world. Then came the news of the flooding and damage to homes, studios, schools and businesses. Now the community has stepped up with donations and labor to help in the clean-up and repairs.

Charlie Quilter, pilot and canyon resident, reported a successful work day on Saturday with Mission Hospital donating back hoes and trucks, and many community volunteers working away. Progress is being made, but the losses will be a long time in recovery.

Can we keep this from happening again? It’s tempting to search for a grand solution to the Canyon flooding, and projects including large channels, dams and basins have been studied and rejected in the past. Quilter insists reasonably that an answer is to be found in many small fixes that can be implemented incrementally, “If we can sustain the political will to follow through.” He remembers that in the past when the sun starts shining and the mud has been cleaned up, everyone has moved on to the next topic, leaving the complex canyon problem unresolved.

Laguna Canyon is a dramatic and dynamic landscape, and intrinsically that drama and beauty come with their own risks. Many of the homes and buildings that make up the canyon neighborhoods have been built in the flood plain, very close to the creek, and below side canyons that become waterfalls in a storm. Complete protection from damage is probably not feasible, certainly not without huge expense and destruction of the beloved scenic canyon setting.

Yet, Quilter has been thinking about a compendium of improvements that can accomplish marked progress in the situation. In the days after the storm, he flew over the canyons and made some observations. In the upper canyon watershed there was run-off from the wilderness park, but not in destructive amounts. However, it appeared that some of the recently constructed basins off to the side of the Canyon Road may not have been as effective as they could have been. The largest flood impact it seemed to him came from the El Toro Canyon watershed that received run-off from the developed areas–Club Laguna, Laguna Audubon and Aliso Viejo. The retarding basin near the 73 toll road was not up to the task. Is there a way to increase the capacity of that basin or add another naturalistic water catchment area

Along Laguna Creek there are so many streamside conditions that impede the flow of water, causing ponding and flooding. The size of this portion of the creek is inadequate for a huge flow, but it could carry more water safely if it were comprehensively managed.

Protecting the houses over the long term may require elevating them similar to some of the more recently constructed buildings along the canyon.

Then there are the inlets along the road that are not large enough to receive the flow, or become blocked with debris. Separately, there is the issue of the downtown flooding—management versus construction of the major facility at Broadway.

The city, Caltrans, county flood control and parks are all players in the development of a flood management approach, and implementing it.

We could get started with a task force of citizens and representatives of the agencies, exploring the potential for improving the conditions along the creek, the engineering evaluation of the existing facilities and how they can be improved, potential for improved management, and possible grants.

Will it happen? We will have to remember the canyon situation even when the sun is shining, and we will have to be persistent

Former mayor Ann Christoph is a landscape architect.

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