Birthplace: beneath a flood control dam near the mouth of Deer Canyon at the foot of Cucamonga Peak, on the southern slope of the San Gabriel Mountains, in western San Bernardino County.
Year: 1997. The beginning of what would soon become a protracted conflict over flood dangers, unsafe development, environmental degradation, corrupt backroom deals and lack of government accountability (all of which persist today).
The long battle’s inciting incident was simple: With almost no public input, the city of Rancho Cucamonga greenlighted construction of a housing tract just below the Deer Creek flood control basin.
Most troubling: a flood control levee built by the Civilian Conservation Corps — and expanded 15′ in height along its entire length by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970’s — was to be bulldozed to make way for this housing tract. Removal of this levee, larger than most levees holding back the Mississippi River, was to be done with no evaluation of the increased flood risks.
Malissa McKeith, an attorney and homeowner in a neighborhood near the planned development, was uneasy — and shocked – not only at the decision itself, but also at the hasty, uninformed and undemocratic way it appeared to have been made.
With just days before the city council was slated to take a final vote approving the project, Malissa and her mother, Marylinda McKeith, began investigating the situation. They also consulted a flood control engineer, who confirmed there was definite cause for concern: without the levee, not only the immediate area, but many of Rancho Cucamonga’s 120,000 residents could be in danger.
The McKeiths began appearing at public hearings with hydrologists and other experts, urging local officials to conduct safety studies before finalizing further approvals for destruction of the Deer Creek levee. They got nowhere. The City of Rancho Cucamonga refused to conduct any studies, saying the Army Corps of Engineers had already certified the efficacy of the debris basin and dam.
Local planners argued the levee was no longer needed, also citing the Army Corps’ assurances that its Deer Creek debris basin and dam were more than adequate to hold back the deluge of mud and rock that would gush out of the mountains in the event of a flood.
Even when the McKeiths offered to fund an independent study by the National Academy of Sciences, they were stonewalled. Realizing the serious consequences, and anticipating a steep uphill battle that certainly couldn’t be waged alone, Malissa founded CURE, never appreciating it would lead to seismic shifts in her environmental philosophy and career choices.