Our last newsletter contained an article about a public meeting on January 26 put on by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in partnership with OC Public Works. We indicated the meeting would be about a proposal for Santiago Creek Improvements based on the notification residents living near the Creek had received. The proposal was not well received by the approximately 100 residents who attended in person or by Zoom. They definitely did not see the USACE proposal as an “improvement.”
This project was authorized by Congress based on recommendations made in 1988 and its goal is to reduce flood risks in the event of a 100-year flood. Much of the work has already been completed, except for the final part involving Santiago Creek from the Villa Park Dam, past the 5 Freeway to the Santa Ana River. The January 26 meeting mainly focused on proposed changes to Santiago Creek from the 5 Freeway to the Santa Ana River.
The meeting was conducted by Mike Padilla, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District. He made the attached presentation and then took questions and public comments.
View the January 26 USACE presentation.
Most of the attendees were from Floral Park, West Floral Park and Fisher Park. The proposed project also passes through Riverside and Casa de Santiago and would also affect those neighborhoods. Members of the audience had several concerns about the USACE proposed project:
- The project includes removal of vegetation including trees next to Santiago Creek. The project involves digging out the bottom and both sides of the Creek and leaves no room for most of the mature trees existing there now. Many of these trees are at least 75 years old and 50 feet tall.
- Part of Santiago Creek is recognized as a bird sanctuary and supports numerous birds including owls and hawks as well as other wildlife. This is one of the few areas of naturalized green space remaining in Santa Ana. The USACE indicated they don’t focus on habitat preservation.
- Questions were raised about the project not including provisions for rainwater capture even though there are huge concerns about water conservation in California that maybe weren’t as evident 40 years ago. It wasn’t lost on anyone that the design team was from Chicago. The USACE speaker said their only goal is to get stormwater safely asap to the ocean and that conserving water is outside their jurisdiction.
- Actual construction work would involve more than a year with chainsaws cutting down trees, bulldozers scraping out everything in the Creek and hundreds of trucks hauling rocks, dirt and cement through City streets. Construction work would be a huge disruption for everyone living along Santiago Creek, but the scope of construction would also affect the entire City.
- There was a serious flood in Santa Ana along the Santiago Creek in 1969 but it was apparently caused in part by human error. Failing to anticipate the extent of rain, flood control engineers didn’t start controlled releases of water from reservoirs until it was too late. Suggestions were made to develop or strengthen controlled release procedures to address flood risks instead of tearing out Santiago Creek and turning it into a cement rip rap flood control channel.
- There were also speakers who came from the City of Orange further up Santiago Creek who were aware of the USACE proposal over a year ago. Their counter-proposal letter to the USACE is attached. Their main argument against the flood control project as currently designed is that there are more environmentally friendly and also more cost-effective ways to accomplish Santiago Creek flood control objectives. Preserving and creating additional green space further up and adjacent to the Creek would create safety valves for excess stormwater. The temporary wetlands created during periods of high rain would also allow water to percolate into the ground to replenish groundwater supplies and help purify the water.
Read the November 12, 2021 letter to the USACE from community groups in Orange.
Funding for the current USACE proposal is estimated to be in the $120 – $130 million range and actual costs may be as much as $182 million. These cost estimates do not take into account the monetary value of all the trees that would be removed and lost habitat (there are metrics for this) as well as additional externality costs that would be imposed on Santa Ana residents. The cost estimates also don’t take into account the lost opportunity costs from excess water routed to the ocean that could otherwise be retained. Risks from a 100-year flood event need to be mitigated and the safety of Orange County residents is always the major concern of federal, state and local government. However, If there are other ways to accomplish the same 100-year flood risk reduction goals and also allow for preservation of mature trees, natural habitat and a bird sanctuary in Santa Ana, now is one opportunity to convince the USACE to consider those alternatives.
Members of the Fisher Park Neighborhood Association board and other residents have met with our Ward 3 Councilperson Jessie Lopez who is committed to protecting Santa Ana’s natural environment and supporting residents’ interests. We have also discussed preservation of Santiago Creek with representatives of Supervisor Vicente Sarmiento (OC Second District) and reached out for advice and assistance to Orange County Coastkeeper, Sea and Sage Audubon, the Endangered Habitats League, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and The Tree People. Residents of other neighborhoods along Santiago Creek have also been reaching out to their representatives for assistance in saving Santiago Creek. These requests for assistance to encourage the USACE to revise its preliminary flood control plan to make it more environmentally friendly and reduce negative effects on local residents are making progress.
Attached is a letter from Congressman Lou Correa indicating his intention to work with all parties to revise and improve the USACE plan. This is great news.
Read the 3/29/23 letter from Lou Correa.
As the USACE continues the process of updating its designs and also preparing additional legally required environmental compliance documents, it’s great to have our political representatives supporting us. But we still need to continue monitoring developments to ensure any new flood control plans are balanced and appropriate. There should be additional opportunities for formal public input to any updated USACE project plans. We will keep you advised when we know more.
In the meantime, please contact the Fisher Park Neighborhood Association board for more information and/or if you would like to participate in efforts to help save Santiago Creek. It also wouldn’t hurt for you to directly contact your political representatives from Santa Ana, Orange County, the State of California and the US Federal government and provide your input on the USACE’s current proposals.