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Earth Day Thoughts at Sycamore Canyon

I heard the water splashing long before I saw its fall.

The sound — a clear, thin cascade — drew me east as I walked the gravel-rough horse trail paralleling Thompson Creek diversion channel in northern Claremont. Streaming west in the concrete bed was a slow flow from the previous day's rain: I knew more about how these waters traveled to the Pacific than I did about their source.

The deep ditch drops away from Thompson Creek dam, cuts along the base of the foothills before turning south into Pomona, where it swings past Ganesha Park and Cal Poly-Pomona, and then pushes past La Puente, City of Industry, and Avocado Heights. The channel converges with the San Gabriel River near the 60 and 605 freeway interchange.

From that confluence, it is a relatively straight shot to the sea. But not so the movement of water into this artery-like construction, one branch of which I hoped to trace that early weekend morning. The splish-splashing I heard signaled I was close to Sycamore Canyon and the unnamed creek that over the millennia has given shape to the rough floor through which it trickles and the manzanita-choked walls that rise above.

Crossing the short bridge that leads over the Thompson Creek ditch and into the canyon's mouth, I was struck that as a landform there is nothing particularly unusual about the 144-acre site, one of hundreds of wedged-sized ravines that give contour to the San Gabriel foothills.

As best anyone knows, nothing of great significance has happened at this spot, either.

Sycamore Canyon would have remained undistinguished and indistinguishable had not its upper folds been bulldozed and flattened for the construction of Claraboya. To domesticate the ridgelines and outcroppings that surround its high-priced homes, its residents planted non-native trees, shrubs, and grasses, all heavily irrigated. The increased density of woody vegetation turned the crests of these once-golden hills emerald, a chromatic shift that spelled trouble in the fall of 2003.

Late that October, a firestorm erupted across Southern California, one of which, the Old-Grand Prix-Padua complex, torched 170,000 acres along the southern flank of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, killed six people, destroyed more than one thousand homes, and cost over $50 million to suppress.

Among the many neighborhoods that were evacuated in advance of the rapidly moving fire was Claraboya. The precautionary move was a good thing: Sycamore Canyon became a swirling cauldron, shooting flames up a ladder of vegetation to engulf residences above.

The Padua fire was so destructive that Sycamore Canyon was sealed off for the next ten years, but last month it reopened after a multi-year reclamation project that, once complete, will give Sycamore Canyon a better chance of recovering its indigenous habitat.

If successful, this regenerative strategy may mark a significant turning point in our understanding of what water means in, to, and for Southern California.

So it occurred to me after tramping about a mile along the canyon floor and the retraced my steps, following the creek's low-pitched gurgle to where it drained into a pipe that sluiced it toward the Thompson Creek channel - and from which that morning it spilled so musically.

The difference between the restored creek bed and the concrete ditch is not simply that one is natural and the other engineered. It's a little more complicated to acknowledge that these two systems actually are intertwined yet also reflect differing conceptions of our role in managing water in the semi-arid Southland.

The Thompson Creek channel is designed to capture runoff and flush it to the ocean as fast as possible. Its developers did worry about how ecologically sound the upper reaches of its watershed was. Theirs was a technocratic impulse and imperative.

The restoration of Sycamore Canyon is every bit as managerial in its motivation. Foresters, ecologists, and landscape designers have rearranged hillside and creek bed, selected which tree species should be logged and which should be cultivated, and used goats, chainsaws, shovels, and hammers to build a model terrain.

The difference between these visions lies not in tools but in intent. Shaped by the history of damaging floods, mid-20th-century engineers argued that moving water as a danger or a waste; to control the former and get rid of the latter was built into the complex web of dams, ditches, and channels that gives shape to modern Los Angeles.

Yet this rigid plumbing system also robs the land of its health. By diverting water away from local aquifers, by straitjacketing once free-flowing rivers, it disables these natural systems and the ecological communities that depended on them.

Hurt too is the public's health, a claim that is tied to an all-encompassing ecological ethic planted with each sycamore seedling on this small patch of ground inside the Thompson Creek watershed.

"We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us," Aldo Leopold argues in Sand County Almanac. "When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." Essential to that feeling of respect is accepting that our use "is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

In Sycamore Canyon, Claremont is trying to get it right.

Char Miller teaches in the Environmental Analysis program at Pomona College, is author of the just-published On the Edge: Water, Immigration, and Politics in the Southwest, and writes a weekly column for, where a longer version of this column first appeared.

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