San Gabriel Valley Tribune

San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Article Published: Thursday, September 04, 2003 - 9:22:51 PM PST

Rubio Canyon to get temporary road
Forest Service finds way to clean up debris
By Becky Oskin, Staff Writer

Rubio Canyon
Reporter Becky Oskin looking at about twenty thousand of cubic yards of debris dumped in Rubio Canyon. (Staff photo by Walt Mancini)
ALTADENA -- Ending five years of rancor, the Forest Service said Thursday it will build a road within the sinuous length of Rubio Canyon and haul out some 35,000 cubic yards of rock and debris that covered the watershed after construction blasting.

"This is the quickest way for the canyon to heal and has the least impact on the environment,' said Angeles National Forest Supervisor Jody Cook.

Once famous for the Mount Lowe railway and 10 spectacular waterfalls, Rubio Canyon, a shady glen above Altadena, is now notorious for the construction debacle that buried five waterfalls and a portion of the historic railway beneath tons of rock blasted from the canyon wall during a 1998 water pipe replacement project.

The $485,000 project for the Rubio Canon Land and Water Co., a nonprofit water company with about 3,000 customers, was funded in part by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after an earthquake-caused landslide knocked out a water pipe in 1994.

The Forest Service's decision on a cleanup plan for the canyon comes after two years of environmental assessments and public meetings.

"This is a good next step. I'm cautiously optimistic,' said Paul Ayers, a trails activist and attorney who has closely followed the Rubio Canyon process.

Construction won't begin immediately for one thing, the rainy season is on the way, said Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Peterson. There's also a 45-day appeal period for the decision notice.

But the major hurdle will be winning easements from property owners who live at the canyon's mouth near East Loma Alta Drive, Ayers said.

There are at least four private landowners there, as well as Southern California Edison and Los Angeles County, which operates a debris basin south of Loma Alta.

"It's going to have an impact on people in the area, but you can mitigate that and it's temporary,' Ayers said.

No agreement has been reached on who is at fault for the environmental devastation or who will pay to restore the canyon.

In 2002, Congress set aside $1 million to remove the debris and mitigate environmental damage in the canyon. The Forest Service has indicated it holds the water company responsible, while the company counters the work was performed with Forest Service approval and oversight.

"The liabilities are a separate issue and weren't addressed in the decision notice,' said Forest Service spokeswoman Kathy Peterson.

Lawsuits were filed between Rubio Canon and its contractors, Zaich Construction of Northridge and Sylmar-based Tite Enterprises.

"Our actions at this point are still pending,' said Jan Fahey, chair of Rubio Canon's customer board. "I think we haven't really decided where we go from here.'

The Forest Service considered many cleanup options before choosing the temporary road and dump truck method.

Forest Supervisor Cook said the preferred choice will have a minimal visual impact on the canyon and allow it to return to a natural state within a few years.

Removing the debris via helicopter was discarded because of cost it would take five to six months of daily flights and danger from flying heavy buckets of rocks over nearby power lines.

Mule train and human chain were also thrown out, for reasons of time (at least a year or two), impact and organic pollution.

Blasting a permanent road into the canyon walls was dropped because it would cause nearly as much damage as the construction project the cleanup is meant to fix. A new road also would leave a permanent scar visible from afar, as is the bright beige rock face left from the water company's project.

A conveyor belt was briefly discussed, but tossed out because it would require building a road anyway, and would fill the canyon, leaving little safe room for workers.

High pressure water cannons were cut from the list for lack of sufficient water in the area and the potential for environmental devastation.

And finally, simply leaving the debris pile in place was abandoned because it could take more than 50 years for the rocks to move downstream, or they might move all at once in a flood, devastating anything in their path.

Becky Oskin can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451, or by e-mail at

Copyright 2003 San Gabriel Valley Tribune
Los Angeles Newspaper Group