When you think of rivers, you probably don’t think of urban southern California. Nevertheless, rivers played the same role in southern California that they play everywhere else. Their banks were the sites of original settlement, Native American and later Spanish. When most of southern California was rural, they supplied water for irrigation. The first European-built irrigation system in California was constructed by Franciscan friars along the San Diego River. Although not very navigable, southern California rivers were transportation corridors, and quite a few modern-day freeways follow their courses.
Starting in the 1930s and continuing into the 1970s, southern California systematically turned its back on its rivers and streams, encasing them in concrete, burying them in culverts, straightening their winding paths, and allowing development right up to their banks. This started to change in the 1980s, when many cities realized that the best chance of injecting nature into their urban environments lay in restoring their rivers.
The Santa Ana River rises in the mountains of the Cleveland National Forest in San Bernardino County, and flows through three counties to meet the ocean in Huntington Beach. Along the way it passes through suburbs and towns, under freeways and over dams, past golf courses and parks. The three counties through which the river flows--San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange--are home to close to 20 percent of California’s population.
While the last ten miles or so of the River are encased in concrete, most of its 70-plus-mile length is soft bottom, restrained by levees that are set farther back as you go upstream. Citizens in San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange Counties seized the opportunity presented to them in 2005, when the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority helped create the Santa Ana River Trail and Parkway Partnership, dedicated to the creation of a riverside trail and parkway. When complete, this will be a continuous corridor for non-motorized transportation, about 100 miles long. It will link towns along the way to the Coastal Trail and the ocean. Just over 60 miles of the Parkway already exist.
In March, the Conservancy’s South Coast manager, Mary Small, and I biked 65 miles from the city of Riverside to Huntington Beach to get a feel for the existing trail’s condition, its gaps, its usage on a weekday, and its amenities. The entire route ran next to the river save for about a 19-mile gap that had to be navigated on city streets through Norco and Corona. Biking the trail was rather like a train ride--we passed a lot of backyards, aggregate mines, sewage treatment plants, and the like. But there were also long stretches of parkland, coastal sage scrub, and quite a bit of wildlife: rabbits, snakes, hawks, waterfowl (even a cinnamon teal!), shorebirds, and of course, people. There were lycra-clad cyclists training for races, equestrians from Norco (a town given over entirely to horses), people out for a stroll, and urban bike commuters. In the middle of the day in the middle of the week, the trail was quite well used; I imagined it would be busy on a weekend.
Although much remains to be done to complete the Santa Ana River Trail (and the Coastal Conservancy has $45,000,000 in Proposition 84 bonds to do this job), a great deal has been accomplished. The secret to success there is a very well-organized community. All the counties and cities along the route are involved in planning, with construction and maintenance carried out by county park departments. The county supervisors and city councilors are all parties to an agreement that spells out how to conduct the project, and supervisors and mayors give a great deal of their time to work on committees. The alliance has hired a staff consultant, and the Wildlands Conservancy, a private nonprofit conservation organization, provides a great deal of support as well. When completed in the next five or six years, the Santa Ana River Trail will be one of the premier recreation trails in California and a great example of many communities coming together to reclaim part of their natural heritage.
I will clearly need to conduct annual inspections to make sure the project stays on track!
Sam Schuchat is the executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy.