SANTA CLARITA — A group of environmentalists joined forces in Santa Clarita Tuesday to send a giant, litigation-wrapped Valentine to the Santa Clara River.
As the sound of passing traffic on bordering Interstate 5 whizzed past, representatives from the Wishtoyo Foundation-Ventura Coastkeeper, Friends of the Santa Clara River and the Center for Biological Diversity gathered near a section of dry Santa Clara riverbed to announce that the three organizations are suing the United States Army Corps of Engineers for permitting practices that have allegedly damaged and continue to damage the river.
Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not be reached for comment.
“This is about acknowledging the truth,” said Teresa Savaikie, a coordinator for the Santa Clara River Alliance, on Tuesday. “In short, the Army Corps of Engineers destroys all that makes a river a river … This is Southern California’s last major, living river — home to more than a dozen rare and endangered species.”
The corps of engineers is responsible for issuing specific types of construction permits. One of the corps’ operating principles is to seek “ways and means to assess and mitigate cumulative impacts to the environment; bring systems approaches to the full life cycle of our processes and work,” according to information released by the corp.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey and Col. Alex Dornstauder, district engineer of the corps’ Los Angeles district, are the three defendants listed in the suit, according to the Unites States District Court for the Central District of California. The suit alleges that the corps has failed to carry out “its statutory duties under the National Environmental Policy Act;” and pinpoints alleged problems with the logistics of specific developments.
Mati Waiya, executive director of the Wishtoyo Foundation and Chumash ceremonial leader, is a Native American whose ancestors have long lived in the region. Waiya, who sports long, dark hair and a bone through his nose, performed a blessing near the river after the announcements had been made. “The relationship we’ve had for thousands of years with this river is what we call history,” he said. “It’s a moment in our minds, or hearts and our spirits.”
The river has also spent more than a moment on a list of American Rivers’ Most Endangered Rivers for 2005. Last April, American Rivers, an environmental organization, and its affiliates announced that the river is endangered because of new developments along its edges.
Savaikie noted that the hardening of river banks, which usually entails paving river banks to make way for development, severely retards rivers by altering their flow and disrupting wildlife patterns.
Efforts to change the ways in which policies have shaped development have done little, if nothing, to stop the damage, Waiya said. “For so many years, we tried to get involved with a system of policies and regulations,” Waiya said, addressing a crowd of onlookers. “It’s almost like broken treaties — and these treaties belong to you … We shouldn’t compromise in the name of making a profit.”
Over 95 percent of California’s rivers and wetlands have been lost and other valuable cultural resources destroyed, Savaikie said, and the Santa Clara is home to rare fish, plants and animals that once thrived in the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers — all of which no longer function naturally.
“We watched over the years with great concern as one development after another has been approved,” said Ron Bottorff of Friends of the Santa Clara River, who added that permits are required to “dump dirt into the river, harden banks and build homes.” Bottorff said larger buffers between new developments and the river are needed if the river stands to maintain any of its natural integrity. “We’ve often argued for buffers of 500 feet, but typical buffers are more like half of that.”