The fall of Rubio Canyon
Lack of oversight leads to
By Becky Oskin
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
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
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
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
Then Perliter & Ingalsbe, a
Burbank-based company, was hired to design a permanent fix for
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)
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.