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Santa Margarita – the last undammed river in San Diego County

Does Fallbrook need more avocados?

I turned and made my way downriver, stepping as best I could from boulder to boulder.
  • I turned and made my way downriver, stepping as best I could from boulder to boulder.
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Q: Who wants to build dams across the Santa Margarita?

A: The town of Fallbrook, the Marines, and a number of politicians.

Q: Is this really such a great idea?

The Santa Margarita River crosses into San Diego County five miles northeast of Fallbrook, flowing southward out of steep, wild hills and into a sparsely populated canyon. Even in a year of heavy rains it is only a thirty-foot-wide stream at this county line, fifteen miles from its headwaters (it widens to no more than a few hundred feet where it empties onto the coast on the Camp Pendleton Marine base, twenty miles away). A tall cottonwood tree marks the county boundary — or at least, as near as one can gauge its location without a surveyor’s lasers and telescopes — and across the river from the cottonwood stands an old windmill. I stood a hundred yards downriver from that windmill one afternoon not long ago, watching it spin in the breeze. After a while the wheel slowed and finally stopped, and in the warm, still air the only sounds were bird songs and the rushing water of the river itself. It was a brief, magical pause in the afternoon; soon the wind picked up, the windmill started turning again, and the moment was gone.

Cal Thomas: “I put in the water system and dug the holes for the trees, too.”

Cal Thomas: “I put in the water system and dug the holes for the trees, too.”

I turned and made my way downriver, stepping as best I could from boulder to boulder and wading in the knee-deep water whenever it became necessary. The river was surprisingly, enjoyably warm. Violet-green swallows swooped low overhead to investigate me, and where a nameless creek flows into the Santa Margarita from the east I heard an acorn woodpecker’s raucous call. After a mile or so the river bent eastward around a wide gravel beach, and when it straightened out, it again became a series of shallow channels densely overgrown with sycamores, willows, and poison oak. The only way I could see to get through this stretch was to choose a watery lane and slog down it; you sink hip deep into the sand once in a while and hope for the best. Countless coyote tracks glistened in the mud along the banks, and I recalled that only a few weeks earlier a mountain lion was found not far from here. Although this particular cat had been illegally shot, skinned, and declawed, it testified in a pathetic way to how wild parts of the Santa Margarita still are. For its entire twenty-five-mile path through San Diego County, the river is undammed, and it is widely considered the last river in Southern California that is still in its natural state.

At last the many channels combined to form a river again, but the willow-lined banks were still impassable, and I trudged on down the center of the stream. A frog as big as a baseball floated by, eyeing me with seeming interest as the current swept it along, and here and there I came upon half-submerged branches that were vibrating wildly, as if being shaken by some unseen animal. After another half mile the current quickened, and soon the river was roaring across automobile-sized boulders in a narrow gorge. Farther on I passed a stately grove of willows and sycamores, tall and straight as royal palms, and then the river made one Final, sweeping turn and passed beneath the first of two bridges near Fallbrook.

Evelyn Ashton: "Is this the only place we can store water?”

Evelyn Ashton: "Is this the only place we can store water?”

By the time I hauled myself up the river bank near the bridge (and cleaned off my mud-caked sneakers, which no longer resembled shoes), the sun had dipped behind a ridge. I looked around in the fading light; 1 was standing at the base of a steep, brush-covered hill, and less than a quarter of a mile away was a rocky knoll. According to legislation currently under review in Congress, these two hills would form the ends of a 185-foot-high dam that would rise like a wall across the Santa Margarita. The Five-mile stretch of river I had just walked would disappear beneath a 612-acre reservoir, whose water would go to kitchen faucets and avocado groves in times of drought.

An artist’s concept of the proposed dam hangs in a frame on the wall of the Fallbrook Public Utility District’s headquarters on Mission Avenue in Fallbrook. The artist drew his version of the dam on an actual photograph of the site, and the result is a strikingly lifelike depiction of a huge earthen berm across the Santa Margarita. A cement spillway, like a slide for some giant child, curls down the dam’s northern side, and behind it the blue water of the reservoir snakes into the distance toward the county line.

Fallbrook dam (artist's conception)

Fallbrook dam (artist's conception)

The Fallbrook Public Utility District has wanted to build this dam for nearly sixty years. The site was actually selected in 1925, but for decades lawsuits and countersuits over water rights in the region prevented the district from building anything on it. Finally, in 1968, it began to look as if Fallbrook would get its dam. That was the year the secretary of the Navy, the secretary of the interior, the U.S. attorney general, and the Fallbrook Public Utility District’s board of directors ended their own seventeen-year legal battle over water rights to the Santa Margarita by signing a “memorandum of understanding.” What was understood was that in the future, two dams would be built on the river, one on the site near Fallbrook and one on Camp Pendleton, thus dividing the river’s water equitably between the utility district and the Marines. The agreement also designated the federal bureau of reclamation to construct and operate the two dams.

Two major hurdles remained; legislation had to be passed by Congress that would authorize the bureau to build the dams; and Financing had to be worked out and authorized by Congress, too. Neither hurdle was ever cleared. Former Republican Congressman Clair Burgener, among others, repeatedly introduced bills in the House of Representatives that would have authorized the project, but those bills, in the lingo of contemporary politics, “died in committee” before ever reaching the House floor for a vote. One of the reasons for this may have been the project’s swelling cost: $50 million in 1968 and $96.5 million in 1975, the last time the bureau did a thorough financial analysis.

Fallbrook dam site

Fallbrook dam site

Now the cost is estimated to be roughly $200 million, but Senator Pete Wilson and Republican Congressman Ron Packard recently introduced bills in the Senate and House, respectively, that would authorize construction of the two dams. Opponents call it a pork barrel project that would destroy the most pristine river left in Southern California. But proponents say the dams will provide insurance against water shortages that loom in San Diego County’s future, and are worthy of the federal government’s attention and money. “The attitude of people up here is that the feds have prevented us, one way or another, from building our own project for years,” explained Gordon Tinker, general manager for the Fallbrook Public Utility District. “So now it’s time they gave us some help.”

Tinker, an intelligent man with thinning dark hair and full, ruddy cheeks, was hired by the district three years ago with instructions to get the dam project rolling. He has taken his charge seriously; he is not only outspoken in his support for the project but travels frequently to Washington, D.C. to talk to influential congressmen and bureaucrats about it. (During a four-day period in February, Tinker attended twenty-one meetings in the nation’s capital to lobby for approval of Fallbrook’s dam.) Using an impressive sheaf of projections, charts, and statistics that he pulled out of an office drawer one morning a few weeks ago, he painted a grim picture of Fallbrook’s water supply in the wake of the defeat of the Peripheral Canal. The district buys all of its water from the county water authority, which in turn purchases about ninety percent of its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The Met’s supply of Colorado River water will begin to dwindle when the Central Arizona Project begins operating in 1985, and its overall supply could shrink further if Los Angeles someday loses a portion of the water it currently diverts from Mono Lake (a loss that Los Angeles would likely offset by buying more water from the Met.) It is an outlook that will leave Fallbrook highly vulnerable to water shortages, Tinker said.

Gordon Tinker: “If we have wet years like this one, we’ll have plenty of water."

Gordon Tinker: “If we have wet years like this one, we’ll have plenty of water."

“If we have wet years like this one, we’ll have plenty of water. The real hazard is back-to-back dry years. We’ve been buying more water from the county water authority than we’re [legally] entitled to, and in a drought situation, that surplus of theirs simply won’t be there. Where are we going to get the rest of our water?”

Tinker pointed out that two-thirds of the district’s water is used for agriculture, most of it avocado and citrus groves. “People up here are nervous; they know that in a drought the water will go to people before it goes to crops,” he said. “We’ve only got a two- or three-day back-up supply [in a small local reservoir]. The dam would give us a reliable supply and the carry-over we need to get by in a dry year.”

I-5 near the river mouth

I-5 near the river mouth

The federal help Tinker refers to includes not only the bureau’s expertise in dam building, but the government’s apparent willingness to come up with a majority of the $200 million needed for the dams. Current plans call for Fallbrook to reimburse the government for twenty-nine percent of the total cost of the project; the department of the Navy would pay for forty-eight percent, and the remaining twenty-three percent would come from the bureau’s own budget. For its contribution Fallbrook would receive about 4500 acre-feet of river water annually (an acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, enough water to supply a family of four for a year), and Camp Pendleton would get about 7000 acre-feet. The Marines would also continue to pump 4000 acre-feet of river water that trickles into groundwater basins on Camp Pendleton every year; the project is designed to preserve but not increase this amount. Even when taken together, these figures do not add up to a great deal of water — the Fallbrook Public Utility District alone used more than 12,000 acre-feet in the 1981-82 fiscal year, and the county as a whole used nearly 500,000 acre-feet. But as Tinker pointed out, the main goal of the project is increasing local water storage space. The De Luz reservoir on Camp Pendleton would have a whopping 100,000 acre-feet of storage capacity, and the Fallbrook reservoir could store 36,150 acre-feet, enough to provide the district with a two-year back-up supply.

Evelyn Ashton just shakes her head when she hears arguments like that. “A $200 million dam project is a very, very expensive way to store water,” she says. Ashton is conservation chairman for the North County’s Buena Vista chapter of the Audubon Society, but she is also an avocado grower, and for ten years has been on the Fallbrook Planning Group (which advises the county board of supervisors). When I met her in Fallbrook recently, she immediately drove me out to look at some of the areas that would be inundated by the Fallbrook dam. "The Santa Margarita is the last [undammed] river in the county, so my attitude is, is this the only place we can store water?” Ashton told me on the way. ‘‘The river is a heritage, too. Once it’s gone, it’ll never come back.”

We drove out of town on wooded De Luz Road, and crossed the river on a low cement bridge that looked as if it had been underwater itself not too long ago (‘‘Twenty inches of rain since January,” Ashton noted). On the northern bank we turned left and drove up a steep hill to a place overlooking Sandia Creek, which flows into the Santa Margarita from the north. We could hear the stream rushing below us, but it was hidden from view by a dense tangle of oaks and sycamores. “This is a beautiful canyon,” Ashton said matter-of-factly.

“I’ve seen plenty of water in the creek in August, so it is indeed a year-round stream. There’s a small falls upstream a ways. It’s almost like the Sierra Nevada up there."

Ashton said the two reservoirs would cover twelve of twenty-eight miles of the Santa Margarita and eight miles of connecting streams. Sandia Creek would be one of the casualties because it joins the river just above the site of the Fallbrook dam. “If this project is built, it would destroy twenty-two percent of all the riparian habitat left in San Diego County,’’ she asserted. The narrow but lush bands of vegetation along streams are by far the most productive areas for wildlife in the arid west; 200 species of birds and thirty-six species of mammals (including bobcats and beaver) are known along the Santa Margarita. There are other environmental concerns surrounding the project, too; one is the debate over the river’s possible contribution to the dwindling supply of sand on county beaches. Some experts claim that no sand from the Santa Margarita reaches the coast at all, having settled out in flat spots upriver; others say that sand from the river most certainly does reach the coast in years of major floods, and in quantities that makes the Santa Margarita the major contributor of beach sand of all the streams along the northern coast of San Diego County.

Camp Pendleton dam site

Camp Pendleton dam site

The federal fish and wildlife service is currently working to update a 1968 environmental impact statement on the dam project. Along with a feasibility study on the latest economic costs and benefits of the dams, it is expected to be completed this fall. But meanwhile, the bills that would authorize the project have already been introduced in Congress, creating the possibility that the government would agree to build the dams before anyone knows what they will cost. “Why are they rushing it?” asks Phil Pryde, an official with the San Diego chapter of the Audubon Society and chairman of the county’s recently formed water independence task force. “It’s not as if we need the dams built six months earlier [in the long run]. If the project is defensible, if it really is justifiable, they can sit back and smile when the reports come out in the fall. ...”

But Otto Bos, Pete Wilson’s press secretary, insists that “given the real serious need for water in that part of the county, the merits are on the side of going ahead. Any time there’s a major project of any sort, there’s always going to be some opposition. . . . But there are some hard [truths] about water in San Diego, and one is that we need it, and we’ll always need it. Two is that it’s expensive, and it will be growing increasingly expensive, and the longer you wait, the more this water is just going to vanish into the ocean. . . . Pete was presented with all the facts on this project; he feels it’s financially feasible, that it has been thoroughly analyzed — there’s been almost thirty years of analysis, from the environmental [aspects] to the economic [ones] — and it’s time to proceed. ” Gordon Tinker is even more blunt. “You’re liable to get punched out if you tell someone in Fallbrook to wait until the studies are done. We’ve been waiting for years and years; it’s absurd we’ve had to wait this long. If we drag our feet and it takes Congress two more years or so before they consider it . . . someone will say our studies are out of date and have to be done again. It’s a never-ending merry-go-round.”

West of I-15

West of I-15

But Evelyn Ashton and other critics of the project suggest that the strategy to authorize the dams and afterward determine their costs and benefits could be deliberate. The legislation introduced by Wilson and Ron Packard makes Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt the sole authority to decide whether the dams are justified, whether they are economically feasible, and even how much of their cost Fallbrook will be made to pay back. Watt is an outspoken proponent of pro-development interests, and there is little doubt with which side his sympathies would lie in the case of the Fallbrook dam, no matter what the figures say about the advisability of the project. “For a long time things were just in status quo,” Ashton told me as we stood on the hillside above Sandia Creek. “Now it’s like, oh-oh, this nightmare might become a reality.”

It is impossible to stand on a hilltop in or near Fallbrook and not see avocado groves. The Fallbrook Public Utility District serves one of the top avocado-producing areas in the county, and probably in the world; roughly eighty percent of the district’s 8000 cultivated acres are planted to this buttery green fruit. One of the reasons the Fallbrook and De Luz dams will be built by the bureau of reclamation — rather than, say, the county water authority or the Met — is because of these avocados. The Reclamation Act of 1902 provides for the use of federal funds for dam projects when agricultural interests will benefit.

Fallbrook’s avocado growers say they need more than their current three-day back-up supply of water because a lack of moisture can mean disaster for their trees, particularly those that are only a few years old. For many years the growers have lived in dread of a prolonged drought or an interruption of their water supply from the county water authority (which in turn relies on the Met). Their worst fears were realized in 1977, when landslides knocked out the Met’s Colorado River aqueduct for seven days. By the third day, when the back-up supply in Fall-brook’s Red Mountain reservoir was nearly gone, the local farmers were told pointblank by the county not to use any more water on their groves.

Cal Thomas remembers that crisis vividly; his avocado trees were just two years old in 1977, and he did what a lot of other growers probably did when faced with the certain loss of their trees: he watered them anyway. A tall man with a ruddy complexion and a thin, silver mustache, Thomas, now seventy-seven, is a former executive for Mobil Oil. He retired to Fallbrook in 1975, and cleared his ten acres near the Santa Margarita himself with a tractor. “I put in the water system and dug the holes for the trees, too,” he said, adding, “I didn’t want the rockin’ chair to get me. ”

Thomas says the seven-day crisis in 1977 woke him up to the fact that Fallbrook’s farmers are, as he likes to put it, “sittin’ on a powder keg” in terms of their back-up water supply. He began writing letters to government officials and speaking to civic groups, trying to stir up interest in the Fallbrook dam. Thomas estimates that in the decades Fallbrook has tried unsuccessfully to get its dam built, millions of dollars’ worth of water has disappeared uselessly down the Santa Margarita and into the ocean, and he told me it ‘‘very definitely” bothers him when environmentalists put the value of the river higher than the value of its water to local residents and farmers. ‘‘Our natural resources have to be protected, but they have to be used for the benefit of mankind, too. If environmentalists had their way, no lakes or rivers would be developed at all. They’re thinking of just themselves, not their fellow man.” Indicating with a sweep of his hand the green, chaparral-covered hills that surround his property, Thomas said that plenty of additional land near Fallbrook could be planted to avocados if there were enough water available.

But Evelyn Ashton complains that more avocados aren’t desirable — not only for environmental reasons, but for economic ones. Ashton and her husband own thirty acres of avocado trees, and she said,‘‘They don’t even pay for themselves now, and the price outlook doesn’t look good.” There is such a glut of avocados currently that growers are being forced to sell them below cost, and there are already a lot of young groves planted that aren’t yet producing fruit, she explained. (Thomas himself said that this year his avocados cost him twenty-eight cents each to produce, yet the best price he could get from a packer recently was twenty-six cents.) ‘‘They’re saying we need the dam for agriculture, but does that mean we need every hill in the county for avocados?” Ashton asked rhetorically. ‘‘It’s a specialty fruit, not a staple like potatoes or wheat. How much bigger does the avocado industry have to be?”

Ashton is one of many critics of the dam project who are convinced the water from it won’t really be used for agriculture — not for long. It will fuel new population growth that will gradually replace the district’s avocado and citrus groves. ‘‘I don’t have any proof, but I mean, do you need proof? All of San Diego County is in the same position. It’s the same position Orange County was in twenty years ago [with its orange groves]. Agriculture to houses — that seems to be the way things go in Southern California.” A twenty-acre grove of mature avocado trees in Fallbrook is already worth about $15,000 to $20,000 per acre, and the value of single-acre groves can climb as high as $70,000. Ashton said the rising prices have led many avocado growers and other property owners to split their land in the last few years; an acre worth $40,000 can be split into quarter-acre home sites that will sell for about $30,000 each. Can land that valuable remain undeveloped for long? she asks.

Ashton conceded that she is one of the few people in Fallbrook opposed to the dam; ‘‘the chamber of commerce wants it, the farm bureau favors it, and most landowners do, too, because their property would increase in value,” she said. ‘‘Fallbrook wants a beautiful lake so the houses overlooking it will have a view. A lot of houses up here were sold on that promise. Ours was. ” Henry Nowicki of nearby Pauma Valley is another avocado grower who is convinced Fallbrook’s groves are destined for residential development. Nowicki, who owns twelve acres at the foot of Palomar Mountain, formerly managed the Minuteman missile program for TRW, and is currently the chairman of the water resources committee for the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club. ‘‘A lot of growers are holding onto their land for development purposes,” he pointed out. ‘‘Hell, that’s what I’m doing. It’s a good tax write-off — you can’t beat it.” Nowicki explained that because his grove is a small business, he can deduct from his tax bill the cost of capital improvements like new trees, a water system, or a tractor. His new pickup truck is another ‘‘business expense,” and under some circumstances, growers can even write off the cost of building and maintaining a house, he said. If he loses money once he sells his avocados, the amount he loses is another tax deduction. ‘‘As a taxpayer and a farmer. I’m beginning to object to the taxpayers paying for these big water projects,” Nowicki complained. “Meanwhile, the [local and corporate landowners] buy their land for nothing, write it off for a few years, grade it, and sell it for a fortune. ”

Gordon Tinker insists that a larger local water supply will actually slow population growth in the district rather than attract it, by creating a stable atmosphere in which the growers can plan for long-term production. Without the dam’s water, Tinker says, “people will continue to come, and they’ll plant houses instead of groves.” But this view is not widely held; Tinker, in fact, is virtually the only proponent of the dam who argues it. “We’ve overplanted avocados,” acknowledges Linden Burzell, general manager of the county water authority. “But Fallbrook is [someday] going to be a solid bedroom community.”

Burzell is in favor of the dams because he expects the authority to strike a deal with the Fallbrook Public Utility District in which the water stored in the Fallbrook dam would be shared throughout the county in times of drought. Pointing to the blue splotches representing reservoirs in a huge wall map of the county in his office recently, he said, “We’re the most dammed-up county in the state. The only streams that aren’t dammed are the Santa Margarita River and Pamo Creek [there are plans to build a dam on the latter, too]. . . . Sure, building a dam is a darn costly thing to do. But we’re beginning to compare the [construction] cost not to what we pay for state water now, but to the costs of building alternative facilities. Statistically, we haven’t been able to get our supply from the Met as dependably as in the past. The practical solution now is, any time you’ve got surface water running into the ocean, if you can utilize it . . . you do it.” The Met is counting on local water agencies to build such facilities in order to offset the upcoming loss of Colorado River water to Arizona in 1985, he added.

But the Met has also been exploring other ways to compensate for the loss of its Colorado River water, and one proposal has piqued the interest of nearly every water official in Southern California. Under that proposal the Met would line with cement miles of dirt irrigation canals in the Imperial Irrigation District (the largest user of Colorado River water in the state), in return for the water that currently is lost through spillage and leakage. Two separate estimates, one by the state, put this water savings at about 430,000 acre-feet annually. In the past, the wealthy farmers of the Imperial Irrigation District have resisted efforts by outside agencies to tamper with their water system in any way; but a recent article in the Los Angeles Times noted that officials from the Met and the Imperial Irrigation District are now “optimistic that a deal can be struck” in which the Met would line the district’s canals and purchase the water saved. Preliminary estimates of the costs of this work range from $150 million to $300 million, and the bureau of reclamation is now undertaking a detailed study to determine the economics of the project more precisely.

The 430,000 acre-feet of water that such a project could make available dwarfs the additional 11,500 acre-feet which the two dams along the Santa Margarita river would capture (and if the cost estimates for the former are accurate, it would be available for about the same total price). But Burzell and Tinker said that while lining the Imperial Irrigation District’s canals could be a long-term answer to the county’s water needs, the dams are the only short-term solution. (The Times article said the “first stages” of lining the canals would take three to four years, with the rest of the work to be completed in ten to fifteen years. The dams have a five- to seven-year construction schedule.) Recently the Fallbrook Public Utility District voted to take advantage of a federal loan to increase the capacity of its Red Mountain Reservoir from a three-day backup supply to a three-week supply, but even this, Tinker insisted, is only an interim measure.

‘‘We’ve got to have the water now,” agreed Cal Thomas. “Sure, there will be more people here [as a result]. And there’s no question in my mind the dam would increase the value of my property. But that’s not my main interest. I’m not planning to buy or sell anything. I dreamed of coming down here eight years ago, and I was able to do it. How can I say to the people who dream of coming to Fallbrook now, ‘You can’t have the opportunity I had, because I got here first.’ That would not be America, as far as I’m concerned.”

Just below the site of the proposed Fallbrook dam the Santa Margarita turns sharply south, and flows rapidly through a gallery of willows, oaks, and sycamores to the De Luz Road bridge. The bridge is little more than a low cement path across the stream, and there are black-and-white striped poles embedded in it so that motorists can gauge the water’s depth when the river is running high enough to cover the road. From this point the Santa Margarita bends westward, and then makes a series of switchbacks in a narrow canyon before it straightens out a mile or so farther down on the sprawling Camp Pendleton Marine base.

I visited the site of the camp’s proposed De Luz dam one morning when heavy gray clouds hung low in the sky, and the wind still had the chill of early spring in it. Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Encinias and Master Gunnery Sergeant James E. Hikes were my assigned guides. Encinias drove our Jeep eastward along a paved road to the camp’s new hospital, and then turned off on a rough dirt track. We bounced along for another mile before coming to a deep stream-cut gully in the road that made further travel in any kind of vehicle impossible.

From the gully to the dam site it was only another half mile. We hiked up the road through a dense forest of sycamores and oaks; wild yellow mustard and purple lupine adorned the slopes we passed, and Hikes pointed out deer tracks in a small patch of mud at the road’s edge. Some thirty miles from its headwaters the Santa Margarita has carved a wide valley full of broken woodlands and gently rolling hills, and the area that would be inundated by the De Luz reservoir is said to be the largest chunk of undisturbed riverine habitat left in the county.

Camp Pendleton is currently independent of the county water authority; the base has been able to pump the 4000 or so acre-feet it needs every year from groundwater basins replenished by the Santa Margarita. But this amount of water can only accommodate about 51,000 people, according to Paul Campo, the director of natural resources for Camp Pendleton, and the base’s current population of 47,000 will swell by 3000 to 4000 in the next few years as the Marine Corps shuffles some of its units around. This would leave the base dangerously close to overdrafting its groundwater basins, Campo said, as well as unprepared for a national emergency in which the base’s population could increase to 91,000.

Under the terms of an agreement signed in 1978, Camp Pendleton is eligible for 15,000 acre-feet of water annually from the county water authority, but the Marines have never had to use any of this water, and Burzell said the authority would prefer to keep things that way as insurance against a future drought. “We think the nicest thing that could happen is that [the Marines] would use military funds to handle their own water demand. . . . We could meet a demand today [for the 15,000 acre-feet], but in the middle Eighties it would be another 15,000 acre-feet that we weren’t planning to sell.”

After only a few minutes of hiking, Encinias pointed to a pair of wooden stakes and a bent orange sign fastened to a tree that marked the dam site. We could hear the Santa Margarita but could barely see it through the forest, so I left the two sergeants behind and walked out on an open bluff a few hundred yards ahead. The river below was about sixty feet across, and running fast. Its silt-laden water was brownish, and rising out of it in places were clumps of rotting willows that had washed down during the recent rains. The far bank was dominated by a round hill that would form one end of the 200-foot-high De Luz dam.

A few minutes later we hiked back to the Jeep and headed down toward the river mouth. On the way we passed a group of bored-looking Marines waiting at a bus stop, while overhead a red-tailed hawk wheeled under the dull gray sky. Where the river valley flattens out, an airfield has been built, and rows of dark green helicopters sat on it like huge insects. The rotors of a few were turning slowly. Encinias and Hikes told me that in 1980 the Santa Margarita flooded virtually the entire lower end of this valley, covering major roads and knocking out a railroad link between the coast and the camp’s ammunition storage area in the mountains. One of the major justifications for the De Luz dam is the floor protection it would afford this section of the base; according to Campo, there is $1.5 billion worth of warehouses, barracks, wells and other facilities in the river floodplain, including the airfield. But opponents of the dams say it is ludicrous for the Marines to ask for a multimillion-dollar dam on the basis of flood protection, when every civilian community in the state must follow^ strict guidelines that prevent development in flood plains. The cheapest and best flood protection, the opponents say, is a flood plain free of buildings. “Where are we going to put the airfield? Where are we going to put our wells?” counters Campo. He claims there is no suitable place to relocate most of the existing facilities, and that a cheaper system of earthen levees would simply not be adequate protection in a major flood.

Campo is confident that the environmental “mitigation” that will be proposed for the dam project will compensate for the prime river habitat that will be inundated by the reservoirs. Current proposals include planting willows on the banks of the reservoirs, and increasing the flow of nearby streams in order to create more trees and other vegetation which would in turn support more bird and animal life. Special attention will have to be given to the lagoon at the mouth of the river, too, which currently serves as a nesting ground for the least terns. But most such work is not only experimental, but extremely expensive — estimates for the work needed to mitigate the Fallbrook and De Luz dams run as high as $43 million. Because of this, mitigation is often a casualty of the political dealing and counterdealing that goes on in large development projects, and much of it simply never gets done.

In any case, there is no backing down from the conclusion that the project would destroy the vast majority of the river itself in return for its water. The question is, Is that water vital to the region’s future water supply? If the Met and the Imperial Irrigation District are able to strike a deal that would provide Southern California with an additional 430,000 acre-feet of water, the Fallbrook and De Luz dams will look like a silly investment indeed; on the other hand, if the Met cannot obtain that water from the Imperial Valley or anywhere else, the dams would be cheaper to build now than they would in a few years, and would improve the county’s ability to withstand a future drought. The situation calls for caution, but caution is not written into the legislation currently pending before Congress.

We passed under Interstate-5 on a dirt road, and Encinias parked the Jeep next to an old railroad bridge piling. A short walk brought us to a hillside overlooking the river mouth. The channel was about a hundred yards across, and ended in a shallow lagoon. Terns circled above the water, diving for fish, while behind us traffic roared across the I-5 bridge. The Santa Margarita is not a raging river, or even a particularly large one. It is only the last river in Southern California — a thin, wild strip in the center of a thickly developed region — and it deserves a certain amount of respect just for having survived. One senses, however, that money and politics-are about to bring its long life to- an end.

On May 2, a U.S. Senate water and power subcommittee held a hearing on Senate Bill 805, which would authorize the Fallbrook and De Luz dams. Gordon Tinker and Linden Burzell flew to Washington, D.C. to speak in favor of the project (Paul Campo attended the hearing, too, as an observer), and they heard Senator Pete Wilson tell the subcommittee that the dams are long overdue. The hearing, which recorded virtually no opposing viewpoints, was only the first step in the legislative process; next the bill will go to the full committee, and if it passes there it will go to the senate floor fora vote. Meanwhile, Packard’s identical bill will be going through a similar process in the House, and even if both bills are eventually passed, the whole hearing process will have to be repeated when it comes time for Congress to authorize money for the dams. But in spite of the months of political maneuvering ahead, Burzell was optimistic before he left San Diego for the hearing. “The dams along the Santa Margarita will sail through Congress this year, ’ ’ he predicted. “I think Fallbrook’s time has finally come.”

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