Sunday, August 19, 2001  Pasadena Star News


The fall of Rubio Canyon

Lack of oversight leads to environmental tragedy

By Becky Oskin
Staff Writer

ALTADENA -- The plan seemed simple.

Replace 80 feet of damaged water pipeline in Rubio Canyon, a remote cleft in one of the world's most rugged mountain ranges.

Two government agencies with the power to prevent environmental disaster based their approvals on this schematic.

But the engineers in charge woefully underestimated the cost and scope of Rubio Canon Land and Water Association's pipe replacement project.

With no one questioning the details, the project passed the layers of laws and regulations meant to protect the environment from misguided construction projects.

And the lack of oversight led to a debacle that buried three waterfalls and historic structures associated with the Mt. Lowe Railway -- listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- under tons of sharp granite boulders.

Cheap Altadena water for 115 years
Rubio Canon Land and Water Association has delivered pure mountain water to its Altadena customers since 1886. The tiny nonprofit's seven employees serve 3,100 customers.

Water from Rubio Canon makes up 10 to 30 percent of the company's annual supply, said Jan Fahey, president of Rubio Canon's board of directors. "It's our best and cheapest water supply."

The company's network of 4-inch pipes in the Angeles National Forest is a record of humanity's efforts to tame the San Gabriels and a record of its failure.

Flood and fire have long since destroyed the turn-of-the-century hotels and railways that once drew thousands to Rubio Canon.

Only through constant vigilance do the pipes remain.

Known for its waterfalls and shady glens, Rubio Canyon can also roar with 50-foot floods that fling boulders like so many skipping stones. To protect against floods, much of the water company's pipeline sits high on the steep canyon walls, anchored by bolts and thin steel cables.

But the anchors are little use against frequent landslides and rock falls, and pieces of rusty pipe litter the canyon floor.

Earthquake damages pipeline
When the 1994 Northridge earthquake shook loose landslides throughout the San Gabriel Mountains, Rubio Water employees discovered the worst damage at a natural landslide above Chasm Falls where the pipeline had been damaged before.

Hoping to finally stabilize the slide and protect the pipe, Rubio Water sought Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money for repairs.

Temporary patches kept the water flowing for four years as funding requests made their way through the FEMA bureaucracy. Rubio Water gathered reports and evaluations from geologists, engineers and archeologists before the project won approval from FEMA and the Forest Service.

Had those reports accurately estimated what would happen in Rubio Canyon, it's likely both agencies would have rejected the project outright.

Review system fails
The first study, a geologic reconnaissance report, describes the slide area as "a large, fractured outcrop exposed above the pipeline down about 300 or 400 feet to the canyon bottom."

The outcrop -- large, angular blocks of granite ranging in size from 6 inches to 6 feet - precariously perched on a near-vertical slope. Any work below it could dislodge the boulders and send them tumbling down the canyon wall.

Then Perliter & Ingalsbe, a Burbank-based company, was hired to design a permanent fix for the landslide.

The engineers came up with two solutions: stabilize the landslide or reroute the pipe along the other side of the canyon.

Rerouting would be more expensive and difficult than simply replacing the pipe along its old path; keeping the same route would have less environmental impact than blazing a new trail through the national forest.

The report recommended blasting out a 5,000-square-foot area of overhanging rock and installing about 10,000 square feet of steel wire mesh to prevent future slides.

The new pipe would nestle in the heel of an 80-foot-long bench, 2 to 3 feet in width and height, providing protection from rock falls.

In its January 1996 report, Perliter & Ingalsbe estimated construction would cost about $30,000. The firm did not predict how much debris would be created by blasting and benching, nor did it detail how to get construction equipment to the roadless canyon site.

The lack of specifics should have alerted the FEMA engineers who reviewed the report, said Alan Manee, a former FEMA and state Office of Emergency Services (OES) employee.

"It's our responsibility to see if it's an adequate report," he said.

A project on public land in a remote canyon should have raised red flags, said Manee, who investigated the Rubio Canyon project for the OES.

"(FEMA) shook out projects into three groups: 'Obviously needs environmental review,' 'probably needs environmental review' and 'maybe needs some environmental review.' This would have rapidly gone from 'maybe' to 'Oh my God' to 'Jesus, look out, we're in trouble here,' " Manee said.

FEMA typically performs environmental reviews before approving funding for a project, he said. Their criteria come from NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to consider environmental values and factors in their planning and decision-making.

It is meant to prevent exactly what happened in Rubio Canyon.

Alleged lack of environmental scrutiny
Whether anyone completed an environmental review of the Rubio Canyon project is one of the most contentious points in the finger-pointing battle that followed construction.

FEMA appears to have granted funding for Rubio Water's project without completing an environmental review.

FEMA records show the agency did start an initial investigation into environmental concerns associated with the project.

A FEMA employee drew up paperwork to grant Rubio Water a "categorical exclusion" from NEPA requirements, but the paperwork was never approved or signed.

"If the environmental review had been completed for this project when required, environmental mitigation would have likely been required," Manee said. "This is almost 30 years after the environmental laws were passed. There are no excuses."

FEMA could have prohibited Rubio Water from cutting the bench even if the company found the money somewhere else.

The Forest Service could also have stopped the project through NEPA law.

Because the project took place in a national forest, FEMA had Rubio Water send the engineering report to the Forest Service for its approval.

As required for the Forest Service environmental review, the water company hired an archeological firm to identify historic artifacts in Rubio Canyon.

The firm recommended by the Forest Service and hired by Rubio Water -- The Historical, Environmental, Archeological Research Team (HEART) -- found that all historic features in the canyon were 800 feet south of the landslide.

HEART and the Forest Service archeologist noted only one historically significant artifact within the project area -- the Rubio Water pipeline.

They didn't include the nearby foundation for Professor Thaddeus Lowe's famous waterfall walkway and a dam built to provide hydroelectric power to the Rubio Pavilion, both close to the now-buried waterfalls.

But the limited scope of the project, as defined in the Perliter & Ingalsbe report, led the Forest Service to conclude the project would have no significant impact on Rubio Canyon.

Claims of official negligence
Still, the archeological review showed spectacular negligence, said Glendale lawyer Paul Ayers, who once served on the Scenic Mt. Lowe Historical Committee.

Ayers, who has spent hundreds of hours investigating the project, says the Forest Service approval was based on a report that underestimated how dangerous and difficult it was to work in Rubio Canyon.

The impact of the original plan would have been far less than the final project's results, he said.

"The thing that really burns a lot of people is that nobody went to the people who know anything about this, who spend time up there," he said.

None of the volunteers or historic groups who actively maintain the old railway and historic sites atop nearby Echo Mountain was ever consulted, Ayers said.

The Scenic Mt. Lowe Historical Committee, the Sierra Club, the Altadena Historical Society, the Altadena Land-Use Committee, the Altadena Town Council and homeowners downstream from the debris pile learned of the pipe replacement project in 1998, five months into construction.

Rock blasting approved
In June 1996, the Forest Service approved the Perliter & Ingalsbe report, including blasting, installing wire-mesh netting and bench cutting.

Seven months later, FEMA approved $31,766 in funding for construction. The agency denied Rubio permission to blast or string wire netting, deciding that benching was cheaper and less harmful to the environment.

The FEMA inspector who wrote the approval considered removing overhanging rock that would threaten workers and cutting the bench as mutually exclusive options.

In April 1997, Rubio Water asked permission to blast the overhanging portion of the hillside, but rescinded the request two weeks later.

Instead, the water company focused on finding a company willing to take on Rubio Canyon. Every contractor had to visit the landslide and evaluate the site. Bids ranged from about $250,000 to $750,000.

In December 1997, FEMA approved an additional $240,443 for construction -- the lowest bid Rubio Water received. Specifications in the approval included replacing 200 feet of pipe and cutting a 90-foot-long bench, 2 feet wide and high.

Though the price was almost 10 times the original engineering estimate, no one at FEMA challenged the change in scope.

The money arrived, and Rubio Water assumed the project had passed the necessary environmental reviews.

Construction started April 15, 1998. Four months later, FEMA and the Forest Service started asking questions. But critics say the scrutiny came too late.

By then Rubio Canyon was filled with tons of granite blasted from the canyon walls; at least three mountain waterfalls were buried in a project that spiraled far beyond its original scope.

Tomorrow: The pipe replacement project dumped more than 20,000 cubic yards of debris into Rubio Canyon. How did it happen? Is it possible to restore the canyon, and who will pay for it?

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

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