Oh So Sad: Why the Deaths in Washington Are a Wake Up Call for Southern California

 

With the tragedy of Oso, Washington, still in the news, and bodies still being unearthed as I write this, I can’t help but recall CURE’s first-ever project back in 1997: a massive effort to ensure that the residents of Rancho Cucamonga have adequate

OSO-MUDSLIDE2-512x341px protection from flooding and mud flows. After years of work, and despite belated acknowledgement from government officials that CURE's concerns about increased risks of flooding in the Deer Creek watershed were justified, nothing has been done yet to prevent the kind of devastation caused by massive debris flows.

 

Back then, CURE demanded that an independent safety study be conducted before the City of Rancho Cucamonga allowed a 40-foot high levee to be demolished to make way for a new housing development. Accepting the Army Corps’ assertions that an upslope debris basin built in the 1980s would protect the public, and believing the Corps’ position absolved it from liability, the City allowed the levee to be graded.

 

The City went ahead despite technical studies sponsored by CURE and others proving that the Corps’ debris basin was less than one tenth of the size it needed to be to protect the area from catastrophic flooding and/or mudslides. You can read the story of CURE’s campaign to stop the demolition of the Deer Creek levee here, here and here.

 

In 1997, before the Katrina Hurricane, local homeowners couldn’t imagine that the Army Corps might have actually built a grossly inadequate debris dam, and government officials were completely unwilling to cooperate with sponsoring an independent safety study, despite evidence from some of the world’s leading flood hydrologists that the undersized debris dam could not handle the historic rainfall on these watersheds – and that people would almost certainly die within minutes of it failing.

 

Click here for a copy of the April, 2000 report by the leading engineering firm Exponent, which concluded that the Deer Creek Debris Basin is too small to contain potential debris flow from a 100-year storm.

 

NYT ad re Army Corps-Deer Creek-335pxIn 2000, Senators Boxer and Feinstein asked that before the levee was demolished, the Corps participate in a National Academy of Science study of the safety and adequacy of flood protection infrastructure, but the Corps and local flood agencies still refused. Only after the Senators pressured the State of California to convene a task force did the State Department of Water Resources (DWR) admit that the dam’s actual size was less than a third the size the Corps claimed.

 

Click here for a pdf copy of the State’s letter conceding that the dam is undersized, followed by a response from CURE.

 

Click here for a pdf copy of the 2002 DWR Task Force Report on the Deer Canyon Debris Basin.

 

Though CURE acknowledged and appreciated the State’s efforts, its findings were based on a perfunctory review that fell far short of the thorough analysis needed -- and worse, after issuing the DWR Task Force Report, the State never undertook any action to solve the problem.

 

Most shocking, however, was that no elected officials were willing to slow down home building in consideration of the reality that many peoples’ lives could be completely destroyed because they happen to live in the path of possibly massive mudslides. This is because so much money was to be made with the housing boom. Bruce Karatz, former CEO of KB Homes (who was later indicted for other reasons) bragged to Forbes magazine in 2002 about how many millions of dollars were being made building homes in Rancho Cucamonga. Yet KB and other home builders had received extensive documentation including the State of California’s findings before they built those homes.

 

This last week, the nation watched as rescue workers and families tried to dig out bodies with their bare hands in Washington State. Even as this blog is written, the vast majority of bodies have not been found. The mudslide happened within minutes -- if not seconds -- and no one had time to escape the deluge. Nor was any of this a surprise. The area of Oso, like Deer and Cucamonga Creeks, was prone to mud and debris flows throughout the 20th Century.

 

Another sobering similarity regarding Deer Creek: there will be no warning and no escape when tens of millions of tons of debris devastate lives and homes in Cucamonga.

 

Please click here to for background information about the history of floods in Rancho Cucamonga.

 

Only now as the tragedy unfolds is the public asking whether the government should have allowed homes to be built at Oso in the first place. Private property interests and the pioneering belief that man can control nature inevitably makes Americans feel both entitled and invulnerable. But building in flood-prone areas no longer economically sustainable -- as the federal debt reaches trillions and FEMA no longer can provide affordable disaster insurance. Beyond that, how could insurance ever compensate for the precious lives lost or ever truly rebuild shattered communities?

 

Now that the economy is beginning to bounce back, the City of Rancho Cucamonga and County of San Bernardino will once again start issuing even more building permits under Cucamonga and Deer Creeks. In light of the now blemished reputation of the Army Corps after Katrina and the devastation we are witnessing in Washington state, CURE asks: Isn’t it high time we -- concerned residents, businesses, elected officials, and community-based nonprofits -- have the foresight and courage to demand a National Academy of Sciences safety study -- and place a moratorium on new building until it is completed?

 

In the shadow of Deer and Cucamonga Creeks are thousands of homes, schools, an international airport and a wonderful life style offered only in California’s sprawling suburbia. The families living in Oso also probably thought they were incredibly fortunate to live in such beautiful surroundings, until, of course, they lost everything -- including their lives or the lives their precious loved ones.

 

CURE extends our prayers to those survivors. We hope their tragic losses will serve to encourage elected officials do what is right.

 

And CURE renews our almost 20 year request that federal, state and local officials take action on Cucamonga Creek and Deer Creek to prevent even more people’s lives being placed at risk. CURE advocates:

 

1.  No more building, until either

  • a National Academy of Sciences or other independent technical study certifies that the Deer Canyon debris basin is adequate protection from a 100-year type storm, or: 
  • the Deer Creek levee is rebuilt.

2.  That all remaining open space in the Deer Creek-Day Creek Alluvial fan remain untouched -- both to preserve wildlife habitat and to act as the precious groundwater recharge designed nearly a century ago.

 

-- Posted by Marylinda H. McKeith, April 4, 2014

 

Needed Now: A Sea Change

 SS Sunrise-bw-4x3

Several news outlets have recently published articles on water in the Imperial Valley but, quite tellingly, none even mentioned the Salton Sea. As a consequence of the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), a water transfer deal forced on the Valley a decade ago, very little water now flows to replenish the Sea, exposing a salty, silty lakebed prone to launching masses of toxic particulate matter into the air with each gust of wind.

 

California is on the brink of an ecological disaster threatening the economies of Coachella, Imperial and beyond and everyone seems to feel either powerless to stop it -- or oblivious. But if the threat continues to be ignored, Inland Valley snow birds, golfers, developers, and concert goers will be in for a rude awakening when the area stinks and skies are polluted with contaminated dust from the dying Sea. Moreover, agriculture is a multi-billion dollar mainstay of the region, and pollution flying off the shrinking Sea could very well affect the survivability of winter crops.

 

While Imperial County, environmental groups, and many committed government employees have admirably worked to save the Sea, warring water bureaucracies have squandered millions of dollars while the Sea continues its steep decline. The final nail in the Sea’s coffin is about to be hammered in 2017, when so much water is diverted from the Sea that it will be past the point of no return. Fish and bird species will die; and the region will be inundated with unhealthful air pollution and noxious odors such as in September 2012 when Salton Sea stench wafted all the way to Los Angeles and Ventura counties. The 2017 tipping point is the direct consequence of the agreement to transfer water from Imperial to the Coachella Valley Water District and San Diego.

 

This was not meant to happen. In 2003, when the QSA was all but dead, the State of California stepped in to backstop the Salton Sea remediation, promising to pay for all costs exceeding the first $133 million and to develop a Restoration Plan by 2017 to mitigate impacts of the agreement. Apart from a pittance here and there, the State has failed to meet its obligations even as the Sea nears its tragic demise.

 

The urgency of this situation requires immediate action of the sort that tackled major infrastructure issues of the 20th Century and built the Panama Canal.

 

CURE urges the following immediate steps:

 

• A high-level, federal appointee whose SOLE responsibility it is to sift through the decades of technical data and to develop a science based Marshall-like plan prioritizing what must be done immediately to stabilize the Sea and what can be accomplished long-term to preserve our economy and environment. That plan must be accompanied by a realistic budget rather than the paltry sums currently allocated. Federal leadership is essential, because the reality is that the scope and cost of averting this disaster exceeds what local interests can manage. As matters stand today, the patchwork of efforts are uncoordinated and scattershot in terms of prioritization and timeframes.

 

• A “time out” for the 2017 water transfers which divert even more water from the Salton Sea. These diversions will exponentially reduce the flows that keep the Sea on life support today. Even if any of the current ideas like Geothermal or the Sea-to-Sea canal were approved and financed, none can be implemented in time to prevent the 2017 meltdown. The only true option at this point is for CVWD and San Diego to call a “time out” on taking their full 2017 allocation. To instead continue issuing “will serve” letters for more housing starts ignores the reality of how saleable those houses will be in the middle of the stench and toxic dust storms. However important the construction industry and real estate development may be now, this growth model will quickly come crashing down when people stop vacationing or buying homes here.

 

• The state of California must come forward and fulfill its financial responsibility to the people, farms, and businesses of the Valleys. The California Legislative Analyst has warned that the failure to act now will simple increase the costs immeasurably with each passing year.

 

• We need the help of philanthropic organizations like Gates, Annenberg and Ford to focus on the threat of food insecurity, pollution related illness, poverty, and environmental degradation here and now -- not in a foreign country. The community outreach, organizational skills and social infrastructure that these entities can bring to the solution are critical and almost completely lacking at this time.

 

• The business sector should fund updated economic studies evaluating the true cost of a dead Salton Sea to the real estate, tourist and golf industries in Coachella. Similarly, USDA and the State Department need to take a hard look at domestic food security as California farms increasingly fallow land to grow houses instead of food. Relying on imported crops carries many of the same risks as relying on imported oil, with the same potential for social upheaval if shortages occur.

 

CURE has a 15-year history of championing on behalf of the Salton Sea and the communities affected by its accelerating decline. CURE’s predictions – once ignored – have now come true. It is time for this issue to receive the serious public and private commitments essential to averting a grim economic and environmental future for this region. Though time is extremely short, it is not too late for a true Sea Change.

 

Preserving our Past Secures our Future

 

I moved to the City of Riverside a few years ago. My friends were amazed. “Isn’t that place full of redneck conservatives!? And what about the smog and congestion?”

 

Located about half way between Los Angeles and Palm Desert, Riverside is the capital of Inland Southern California. Most people drive right past us in often heavy traffic on the 91 Freeway. It turns out that Riverside is progressive, transparent, and has a deep commitment to historic preservation, including an emphasis on conserving our agricultural lands. Unlike most California cities, our founders acquired water rights more than a century ago securing water now and for generations to come.

 

Several times over the last 40 years, Riverside citizens enacted initiatives that “down-zoned” thousands of acres of land in the heart of the city to remain as agricultural open space. The express purpose was the creation and maintenance of a so-called Greenbelt to prevent urban sprawl, increased traffic, higher utility rates, and the deterioration of the quality of life for Riverside residents. These initiatives amended the municipal zoning codes and cannot be changed without a vote of the people.

 

In the 1970s, citrus was globally competitive and farmers in the Greenbelt could make a good living. That no longer is the case, and many Greenbelt farms have become nurseries or lain fallow. Moreover, the City has not allocated the funds mandated by the initiatives to maintain the Greenbelt or to maximize public access to it through bike paths, horse trails, or parks. The result is that the Greenbelt today is underutilized and deteriorating rapidly.

 

On March 19 and 20, the City is sponsoring a two-day conference called “GROW RIVERSIDE: Citrus and Beyond” to identify ways to maximize the true assets that the Greenbelt offers now.

 

Greenbeltweb

 

But what does GROW RIVERSIDE mean?

  • Grow more housing as some developers are lobbying the City Council to permit?
  • Grow higher value crops to make the farms economically viable?
  • Or grow the public investment in the Greenbelt to ensure it attracts more tourists and is utilized by more than just those who live there?

These are the tough questions that our current City leaders are willing to grapple with – in the open – as they realize the connection between preserving our past and protecting our future.

 

CURE is a major sponsor of the Grow Riverside conference, because we want to serve as a catalyst for creative, out-of-the-ordinary ideas on how best to solve these new 21st century challenges. The CURE Challenge will award scholarships to students who develop pragmatic proposals for preserving our agricultural roots in a way that allows for economic sustainability.

 

What I like best about Riverside is that it is a community where people care and can look beyond short-term profit at long-term solutions. Conferences like Grow Riverside facilitate the critical thinking so absent in today’s polarized politics and so essential to developing sound public policy.

 

Urban farming and “farm to table” programs are all the rage in New York, Chicago and West coast cities. Ironically, these progressive ideas have their roots in my hometown – Riverside. Next time you are driving down the 91, get off at Adams Street and take a look. 

 

-- Posted by Malissa McKeith, March 9, 2014

 

The Price We Pay

 

Last week, many of us paid estimated taxes. In California, this is particularly painful since our state has the highest tax rates in the nation. California also has the strictest environmental regulations. Both factors are often cited as reasons by businesses choosing to locate elsewhere.

 

Recent avoidable disasters in West Virginia and Texas should remind us, however, of the value high taxes and strict regulations provide to the larger society. Unlike West Virginia, California does not permit unlined above-ground chemical tanks to be located up-gradient to major municipal water supplies or to go uninspected for decades. Nor do we have fertilizer manufacturers located next to senior housing as we witnessed in Texas.

 

California has gone a long way to significantly improving environmental protection when it comes to toxic material handling and disposal or citing of hazardous businesses. And, though there may be too many levels of bureaucracy, our laws are enforced, leading to greater compliance and avoidance of catastrophe.

 

California has its issues. In most places, public transportation is non-existent, resulting in a car-centric society with congestion and air pollution. We also lack a comprehensive water management plan that balances agricultural production against the growing demands of urban areas. And, as the housing boom starts again, local jurisdictions will inevitably allow building in locations prone to fire and flooding.

 

These problems are not simple to solve; however, pervasive and persistent “silo” attitudes and bureaucratic thinking do not bode well for our future. Governor Brown needs to appoint non-partisan blue ribbon commissions to develop blueprints for our future, and rather than shelved, the recommendations of such committees need to be implemented regardless of politics. Otherwise, future generations will bear the health and environmental consequences of today’s short-sighted planning; and though those consequences may not appear as spectacular as what we saw in Texas and West Virginia, they can be equally deadly if ignored.

 

 -- Posted January 20, 2014

 

 

How One Person Makes A Difference: A Tribute to Donna Lee Andrews and Jane Warner

 

The passing of Nelson Mandela reminds us of how one person can make a tremendous difference to everyone’s future. This year, CURE lost two wonderful friends, and California lost two extraordinary leaders.

 

DONNA LEE ANDREWS (1960-2013) was a pioneer in environmental justice, particularly involving equity in transportation 

Donna-Andrewsprojects. An attorney and community activist, Donna  was one of the most politically connected women in Los Angeles. She was president of the Lee Andrews Group, a public relations firm specializing in environmental advocacy and legislative consulting. She was also active in scores of community service and civic endeavors -- among them: former board vice president of the National Association of Women Business Owners; board parliamentarian of the Greater Los Angeles African American Chamber of Commerce; a decade as Commissioner for the California High Speed Rail Authority. Donna also served on City of LA's Infrastructure Advisory Committee and the Coalition for Clean Air. As the Los Angeles Wave newspaper commented, Donna was “a wonderful, gracious, genteel, erudite woman… Unlike most of the people in this city with whom we are forced to interface, Donna Lee was the real deal. She was worth your time and attention and was a positive force to be around.”

JaneWarner3-150px

 

 

JANE WARNER (1957- 2013) was the Executive Director of the American Lung Association in California. Jane managed a staff of committed public health advocates and her dedication and hard work elevated ALAC to a new force in California’s – and the nation’s – struggle for clean air. During her four years as ALAC’s vibrant leader, Jane battled Big Tobacco to protect the health of children and families, and worked to halt oil industry efforts to weaken clean air laws. Her ALAC colleagues considered Jane a “true visionary.” ALAC’s tribute to Jane emphasized that she “was forthright and fearless in her commitment to making a difference in the lives of others, and she deeply inspired those she met with her energy, generosity, determination and warmth…The fact that Californians breathe some of the dirtiest air in the country only made Jane work more tirelessly to advocate for cleaner fuel standards and less cars on the road. From kids with asthma to adults coping with emphysema and chronic bronchitis, Jane was on their side, a true advocate and friend….”  Other tributes recalled Jane’s passion, compassion, wit, determination, and intellect.

 

Both Jane and Donna touched my life and the lives of so many people. At a time when I felt it was difficult to expand CURE while running a law department, their support and inspiration fortified my resolve.

 

Jane and Donna’s untimely deaths have set back the cause of environmental justice, and filling the void they leave will not be easy -- but is critical. These fine women were catalysts for change in the spirit that CURE promotes: they worked hard to increase communications between disparate interests to build a safer and healthier society for everyone. As with Nelson Mandela, we will greatly miss Jane and Donna, but their efforts and legacy will live on and serve as a reminder to all of us to try harder in 2014.

 

If you would like to volunteer on CURE projects or write a guest blog on an issue of environmental concern, please contact us. Happy Holidays to all and best wishes for a healthy 2014.

 

-- Malissa McKeith, posted December 17, 2013

 

 

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