Driving east at dawn, I swear under my breath as I pull off the 60 just north of Mira Loma in Riverside County, California. After days of cool weather, dust ferried on the hot desert wind is turning the early morning light from rose to chartreuse. Crisp spring days have given way to the haze and heat of the inland summer. I don’t mind the temperature but the dust is a drag.
On Van Buren at 6 a.m. I drive among semis and service pickups; I pass rail yards, truck depots, a WalMart, In-N-Out, a 99 cent store, a taqueria. The scenery is typical of counties east of Los Angeles, where industry is increasingly devoted to moving 40 percent of America’s imports from ship terminals at Long Beach and Los Angeles to points east –Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, New Mexico. Warehousing and transport may fill the public coffers, but they come at a price: when the weather is dry and windy the air fills with diesel exhaust and dirt from denuded lots. Piles of pallets and railroad ties, containers, engine shops and workaday strip malls coexist matter-of-factly with a few remnant pastures. On this April day I note how the late-season rains, paltry as they were, have left the fields a tender green and yellow from mustard blooms and clover.
Driving further, the strip malls and container yards give way to a wide basin with a broad view at the Van Buren Bridge. A canopy of trees spreads out below; a vein of water catches a glint of the sun emerging over a ridge. Swallows nesting underneath the bridge bob and dive in the air. Turning eastward on Jurupa Boulevard I pull into McLean-Anza Narrows Park in the City of Riverside. The park is on a hill with a view of the surrounding region– cottonwoods, alders, pepper trees, and willows in the foreground, the San Gabriel Mountains to the west, the San Bernardinos in the north and the summit of Mount Rubidoux a mile and half to the east.
Intersecting the north end of the park, bordered by a chain link fence, is Santa Ana River Trail, one of the southland’s great bike paths—a zero-car, nearly-unbroken thruway that skirts the river for 20 miles from Waterman Avenue in San Bernardino to Arlington Avenue in west Riverside. My bike is in the back; I’ll take a ride later. My initial destination, though, is the other side of the fence, the wide and woolly forest that banks the Santa Ana River.
The fence is a serious one. It’s six feet tall and full of scary signage. The first posting warns that there are coyotes in the area. “Give them distance and respect,” the sign warns. I listen for a moment, and with some delight I hear the the yip-yipping of a pack of coyotes hunting somewhere beneath the trees. Like the sign says, I respect them. I’ve always considered coyotes to be dogs who simply couldn’t deal with capitalism. I appreciate their commitment to living off the grid. I look up to see a pair of red-tailed hawks circling in the sky. One dives for prey on an embankment below. It rises again on the thermals, hovering as it banks in strong winds.
I walk west along the bike path skirting the fence toward the multiple arched train trestle that crosses the river. More signs warn visitors that the fence is there for a good reason: “BOUNDARY: RIVERSIDE COUNTY WILDLIFE CONSERVATION AREA. Warning: natural features may be hazardous!” Another says “DANGER! PELIGRO! Unsafe water. Agua peligrosa. STAY OUT OF THE WATER. MANTENGASE FUERA DEL AGUA.”
Warnings from the Riverside County Regional Park and Open Space District aside carry little weight. At a point out of the sight line of the parking lot, the freshly-built fence is severed and pulled back. They cannot keep us out: this is the people’s beach, a white sand embankment in the shallows of the river where on any given day in the hot summer, families come for respite from the parking lots and warehouses and cramped apartment buildings.
This Tuesday morning at dawn, I have the place to myself. The sign isn’t all wrong—the water here can be dangerous. In a flood, this river turns from a pleasant stream about 15 inches deep to a roaring river that can cover the quarter-mile channel with all its trees in a matter of a day or two. In one record storm in the last century before modern flood control structures, a river gage at this spot marked the flow at 317,000 cubic feet per second. That’s a third larger than the mighty Columbia River and some twenty times the average flow of the Colorado River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared it the biggest flood threat west of the Mississippi. Even with flood controls, including a mammoth 550-foot tall earthen dam upstream, in the rainy winter of 2005 the river was so high that it consumed its sandy banks at points, carrying away a house or two and forcing evacuations of whole neighborhoods in Corona and Yorba Linda.
Figure 5 The Seven Oaks Dam, completed in 2000, is a 550-foot flood control structure for the Santa Ana River. It is near Highlands and Mentone.
The river is my new obsession. For a decade, I lived in Southern California amid the big box stores and the freeways, always feeling that the geography worth exploring was always at the urban periphery: the beach, the mountains, the desert. At some point, though, I got curious enough to figure out what catchment I lived in. Once I found myself in the Santa Ana River basin, I felt compelled to visit. I learned that the river is Southern California’s most copious flow—twice the Los Angeles River and about three times the San Gabriel River. Surprisingly, for river that few in the area can even put on a map, the Santa Ana supplies almost half the water we use in the inland region. Its absence in our minds has partly to do with its hide-and-seek nature: it flows above ground in some places and below ground in others. Its lack of status, however, also has do with our imagination of Los Angeles as the center and us as the periphery. Visiting the river changed all that for me. I decided I lived in a place, too.
In these days of little rain, the county is likely unworried about floods but still anxious to keep people away from the river. From the point of view of park managers, the river is pure liability. The space can’t be controlled so well as tended lawns and regulation playgrounds. The water should be clean enough for us to kayak and fish and wade in it. Our federal laws mandate this. But storm drains and unplanned settlements (i.e. day laborers and others without homes) scare the managers, as well as the thought that some of the upstream cities discharging wastewater might not be eliminating all the germs and the litter, as they are supposed to. Fears about the river’s quality are misplaced, though. Last year, groups of students and I worked with the Inland Empire Waterkeeper on testing the water for indicator microbes. For a river that runs through an urban area with 4.8 million people, we found it was in decent shape. In dry weather the water met the state standards for wading and swimming about half the time, and came pretty close the rest of the time. With stricter regulations ahead for stormwater management and recycling, places like the Santa Ana River could actually become officially clean enough for anyone to take their toddler. (Safety note to readers: just like they tell you for the beach, don’t go in any stream or river for 72 hours after a storm. Trust me, just don’t.)
Figure 6 A view from the people’s beach, Riverside.
The river is a place that over the years that we residents erroneously set apart from our built environment. In the years of citrus empire, the river became a magnificent a machine for delivering water to orchards and towns via the underground basins. In the halcyon post-World War II years of suburban home-building, it became a troublesome flood control ditch that engineers sought to cover in concrete. In the 1960s, though, residents who loved its natural banks and open spaces fought back. The very name of the park I am walking in is for the late Martha McLean, who along with the very much alive and still-tireless community 94-year old activist Ruth Wilson of Jurupa, fought back against the concreting of the river and changed the way the US Army Corps of Engineers managed the river. These woods beside the park are their victory.
Taking off my shoes in the sand, I sigh as I look at the river, my ribbon of blue in a sea of asphalt and concrete. The water is clear and the sandy bottom feels soft and cool under my feet. Looking upstream through the cottonwoods and willows and the bamboo-like arundo (a non-native plant that I know needs to come out but that for the time being looks very nice in the early morning sunshine), I see that I am sharing the stream with an egret and a pair of ducks. They look up, decide I’m no threat, and go back to their business. Overhead, on the train trestle amidst the gang tags and the assorted scribbles is a single piece of advice in block letters: “DREAM.” Like the sign says, I do.
Heather Williams is an Associate Professor of Politics at Pomona College and can be reached at email@example.com.