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Deer Creek

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

CURE was founded in 1997 in connection with the mouth of Deer Canyon at the foot of Cucamonga Peak, on the southern slope of the San Gabriel Mountains, in western San Bernardino County.

Beginning of what the proposed removal of a federally constructed levee A would soon become a protracted conflict over flood dangers, unsafe development, environmental degradation, corrupt backroom deals and lack of government accountability (all of which persist today).

CURE’s questioning of the levee’s removal with almost no public input, the city of Rancho Cucamonga greenlighted construction of a housing tract just below the Deer Creek flood control basin.

The levee, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and expanded 15′ in height along its entire length by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1970’s, was to be bulldozed to make way for this housing tract. Removal of this levee, larger than most levees holding back the Mississippi River, was to be done with no evaluation of the increased flood risks.

With just days before the city council was slated to take a final vote approving the project, the McKeiths began investigating the situation. They also consulted a flood control engineer, who confirmed there was definite cause for concern: without the levee, not only the immediate area, but many of Rancho Cucamonga’s 120,000 residents could be in danger.

The McKeiths began appearing at public hearings with hydrologist and other experts, urging local officials to conduct safety studies before finalizing further approvals for destruction of the Deer Creek levee. Despite ample evidence, the City of Rancho Cucamonga refused to conduct any studies, saying the Army Corps of Engineers had already certified the efficacy of the debris basin and dam.

Local planners argued the levee was no longer needed, also citing the Army Corps’ assurances that its Deer Creek debris basin and dam were more, than adequate to hold back the deluge of mud and rock that would gush out of the mountains in the event of a flood.

Even when the McKeiths offered to fund an independent study by the National Academy of Sciences, they were stonewalled.  

In early 2001, after the Army Corps refused to conduct a reassessment, Boxer and Feinstein decided to intervene directly, asking the State of California to take action on Deer Creek.  After prolonged pressure from the Senators, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) formed a state technical review committee on Deer Creek, charging it with determining whether the debris basin built by the Army Corps of Engineers, in fact, had the capacity to handle a flood of major proportions (i.e., a “100-year flood,” in the language of flood control engineers).

A 2002 report by the Center for Governmental Studies entitled Alluvial Amnesia: How Officials Imperil Communities by Downplaying Flood Risks, concluded that CURE’s founder and president, Malissa McKeith, played a significant role in exposing a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of the government officials involved in key decisions concerning the housing development.

In addition, in a report issued in June 2002, the DWR acknowledged that the debris basin’s capacity was substantially deficient and therefore that “flood and debris volume from a 100-year flood will exceed the current level of protection” for the cities of Rancho Cucamonga and Ontario.

CURE’s campaign, however, did lead to Governor Schwarzenegger convening the California Flood Plain Management Task Force, which visited the Deer Creek debris basin and other vulnerable floodplains at the base of Southern California’s mountains, and concluded that integrated flood management needs to include not only structural improvements, but also open-space buffer zones.

In 2003, a deadly mudslide not far from Deer Creek spurred the creation of the first-ever statewide Alluvial Fan Task Force, which is still in operation today.

Though CURE worked diligently to save the levee and protect the public, thousands of new homes were built under debris basins. Only when the economic downturn came in 2008 did construction stop. No improvements whatsoever were made to the flood control infrastructure; and no additional safeguards or disclosure requirements were put into place to protect and inform homebuyers and homeowners.

Over the next five years, CURE would spearhead a multi-faceted campaign for government accountability – a campaign that would ultimately expose the inherent dangers of imprudent, shortsighted land use decisions along the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains.

CURE brought together teams of engineers, water and flood control experts, citizen advocates, lobbyists, nonprofit advocacy organizations, and lawyers. Appearing at public meetings, and working behind the scenes in Washington D.C. and Sacramento, they repeatedly disputed government officials’ insistence that breaching the levee would not expose residents to potential floodwaters. CURE commissioned several engineering studies and also took the battle to court, filing seven separate lawsuits aimed at saving the levee. Channels designed and built by the Corps were substantially too small, leaving down-slope communities with insufficient protection.

In contesting the plan to build housing project just below the debris basin, CURE asserted that destroying the levee would eliminate use of spreading structures which the Army Corps previously estimated recharged an average 3,300 acre feet of water annually.  CURE also raised awareness about the threat to the area’s rare and endangered wildlife habitat.

The Deer-Day Alluvial Fan is state-designated as Significant Natural Area #110 because the vegetation there is a unique variety of coastal sage scrub called Riverside Alluvial Fan Sage Scrub. This type of habitat is classified as G1 or “Globally Imperilled.” In addition, the California state parks system joined other scientists in identifying the state’s 232 most critical wildlife corridors. One of these – State Corridor #37 — runs through the Deer-Day Alluvial Fan area.Want to add a caption to this image? Click the Settings icon.

CURE’s work finally attracted the support of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), owners 📷of Ontario International Airport, located about eight miles below Deer Canyon. LAWA hired its own flood control consultant, who concluded that the debris basin provided even less protection than CURE’s experts had found. With LAWA’s involvement, the state and county could no longer dismiss the assertions of a small environmental organization and had no choice but to address the science behind official claims about Deer Creek’s flood control capacity.

LAWA’s research confirmed that the Corps’ science was seriously flawed, as CURE had been asserting for years. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, which owned an easement over portions of the levee, also refused to allow its demolition after concluding that doing so was unsafe and could expose Los Angeles to liability.

In the course of its efforts to protect the Deer Creek levees, CURE learned the importance of teaming with other stakeholders. CURE partnered with a variety of environmental protection and public interest organizations, including Taxpayers for Common Sense, the California Environmental Law Project, National Wildlife Federation, Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife.

In the end, CURE and its allies were unable to stop the residential development. The Deer Creek levee was bulldozed in 2001. Over the next several years, thousands of homes and several public schools were built just downstream of Rancho Cucamonga’s flood basins. In the turn-of-the-century, go-go years of insanely appreciating home values, big developers like KB Homes, Lewis Corporation, Toll Brothers and other smaller outfits continued to build near the base of the mountains there.


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