In an eight-mile swath of a damaged creek in unincorporated Santa Clarita, the connections between humans, nature, water supplies and survival of a rare fish are frayed by climate change.
“This is a story about climate resiliency,” summed up Kerjon Lee, spokesperson for Los Angeles County Public Works, the lead agency in a multi-faceted project aimed at restoring a badly degraded section of Bouquet Canyon Creek to serve several populations and objectives.
“We are trying to make meaningful changes to protect resources,” Lee said. “But it is also about connecting the water source for communities downstream.”
The project recently received a $12 million grant to kickstart planning and design. The money was granted to Public Works last week by the California Wildlife Conservation Board. Construction is expected to begin in late 2024, according to Public Works.
“This is a large effort and a complicated one,” said Anish Saraiya, planning deputy for Fifth District Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who helped the county acquire the grant.
The project has many interrelated objectives: flood control, habitat restoration, and returning safe, reliable water flow into the downstream wells of homeowners who have been cut off from their water source.
First, the project will attempt to restore the eight-mile portion of the creek partially within unincorporated Santa Clarita, running south from Bouquet Canyon Reservoir which is operated by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), and through the western-most section of the Angeles National Forest.
Wildfires during the past 20 years intensified by climate change have denuded the vegetation in the region, especially on canyon slopes. Rainfall, growing more intense in recent years, caused extensive erosion, sweeping tons of branches, rocks, silt, dirt and mud into the natural creek, creating an impermeable layer that has prevented the creek from transporting water. Even small reservoir releases end up overtopping the roadway, resulting in frequent street flooding, county officials explained.
“Water becomes pooled on the surface of the road,” explained Lee. “It is an important roadway where people live alongside and it is a connector between the city of Santa Clarita and Lake Hughes.”
The project includes removing sediment from the creek while carving out a new design that accommodates reservoir flows as well as natural storms, wrote Steven Frasher, Public Works spokesperson in an email. The plan also includes raising the height of Bouquet Canyon Road by two feet, he wrote.
Second, another goal of the project is to fully restore the creek’s carrying capacity. This will help about 150 homeowners who have not been able to get water from the creek in its damaged condition. Water is supposed to be released at certain intervals from the upstream dam and fill private wells via groundwater recharge.
“All those people who relied on that water still don’t have water,” said Dianne Hellrigel, who started the Community Santa Clarita Hiking Club. “One of the homeowners has a greenhouse where he grew poinsettias and that was part of their income.” Many affected homeowners have had to truck in their water, even to flush toilets, Hellrigel said.
Third, the project will concentrate on restoring the natural characteristics of the creek so it can fully support the unarmored three-spine stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus williamsoni).
The stickleback is listed as a federally endangered species and is only found in limited places in Southern California, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“What we are proposing is not just sediment removal but also habitat restoration,” said Saraiya. “We want to take a comprehensive approach.”
That approach includes embedding root structures made of trees, logs and boulders that provide fish habitat for spawning, Frasher wrote. And slopes destroyed by fires will be restored, using coastal sage scrub in upper regions and annual grasslands in lower areas. Non-native and invasive plants will be removed from the stream and banks.
Hellrigel said she’s even seen trout swimming in Bouquet Canyon Creek.
“Now, there’s a lot of debris, brush and things are a mess. But hopefully, it is turning into a good thing — and the sooner the better,” she said.
Cost of construction and a date of completion were not available.