Our River, Our Story: Environmental Justice and Conservation in the Santa Ana River Watershed

By Megan Brousseau, Inland Empire Waterkeeper
How a group of women, under the umbrella of a federal program, organized to change one river, after years of official neglect, to a place for cool clear water and for human beings.
The Inland Empire Waterkeeper is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which Robert Kennedy, Jr. launched in 1999 to uphold the Clean Water Act in the United States and to advocate globally on behalf  of rivers and coastlines. The mission of alliance is to ensure swimmable, drinkable, and fishable waters for all, everywhere, and we achieve that goal through programs of advocacy, education, research, restoration, and enforcement. 

The Inland Empire is made up of Riverside, Orange and San Bernardino counties, through which flows the main stem of the Santa Ana River – it rises in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, cuts through the Santa Ana Mountains and empties into the Pacific between Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa. The watershed spans 110 miles from crest to coast, drains more than 3000 square miles, and is home to over 200 species of birds, 50 species of mammals, 13 of reptiles, and 7 different types of fish. 

The IE Waterkeeper monitors the Upper Santa Ana Watershed while Orange County Coastkeeper, which is our parent organization, monitors everything below the Prado Dam, a flood-control reservoir located before the river enters Santa Ana Canyon on its way into Orange County. What the Coastkeeper organization, founded in 1999, came to realize after many years of hard work, was that its efforts were moot if it did not address water quality issues in the upper part of the watershed, encouraging environmental stewardship and controlling contamination upstream.  In 2005, the Inland Empire Waterkeeper was born.

The riparian system we oversee is rich in biodiversity. Renowned biologist E.O Wilson once referred to this area as one of ten biological hotspots in the world. Why is that? If we think about the flora and fauna that reside here, many of the species are either endangered or threatened, including the Santa Ana Sucker, so named because, other than a few places in the San Gabriels, this fish exists nowhere else on this planet but in our Santa Ana River. We have many other endangered species such as the Least Bell’s Vireo. These birds often fall prey to cowbirds, who are predatory and not only eat the eggs but lay their own in their place so that the poor, unsuspecting Least Bell’s Vireo raise their young, adding insult to injury. And then there is a plethora of the most amazing wildife that you can imagine, from black bears, mountain lions, and bobcats in the mountains to great white egrets, great blue heron, and turkey vultures in the urban environment. 

But let’s go back to that pesky animal: humans. Specifically, the 4.8 million people living in the watershed. Humans are what I’m here to talk to you about today, and the Santa Ana River has a long and varied past that has been shaped by the people who live in its watershed. 

In fact, let’s talk about one person in particular--Ruth Wilson. A go-getter, Ruth co-founded and served as the president of the League of Women Voters. She was a good friend with a local journalist, Martha McLean. Once Ruth’s presidency was over--she had a whopping three days to rest--she received a phone call from her good friend Martha, who told her that she’d rested long enough and asked her if she was up to the challenge of saving a river. She was, as always (and even to this day, at 91 years old) up for the challenge. Wilson, McLean, and Kay Black started the Tri-County Conservation League in 1966 and used their organization to lobby against the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans to channelize the Santa Ana River. The Engineers are a much friendlier, kinder bunch these days, but at the time, Martha McLean--who was, as a journalist, often privy to the information before others, and thus discovered that the Army Corps intended to channelize this river--set these female whirlwinds in motion. 

If the Army Corps had succeeded, the stretch of the Santa Ana River in the Inland Empire would have resembled the Los Angeles River and the portion of the Santa Ana River below Prado Dam. “We were successful in organizing public opinion to SAVE THE SANTA ANA RIVER from the Army Corps’ plans to build the same ugly concrete box for it they did for the Los Angeles River,” Wilson remembered. But although the Corps did not get its way, its indifference to the health of the river set a precedent for the community’s attitudes towards the Santa Ana River, as the stretch within Riverside County has largely been closed off to community access for many years.

We do know that the community accesses the river. I grew up and spent most of my life in Riverside, and I met and fell in love with my husband along this river, so I know that the community does use it! However, government agencies in the area have various reasons for discouraging the community from accessing the river, reasons such as: perceived  threat of ) and the public’s negative perception of the river as being “sewage water” because of the proximity of treatment facilities to the river.


Many of the communities that border the river are primarily Spanish speaking.  No Spanish-language signage was in place, and there are no public facilities to accommodate the people who visit the river. What has happened is that this beautifully diverse area has become a scary-looking place where no one is supposed to go. As we started to figure out how we could raise water quality in the Santa Ana, the first thought was that we should get people swimming there to force governing agencies to work to improve the water quality of the river. But we couldn’t just tell people to go and jump in the water.
We decided that we needed a multi-faceted, grassroots approach to the problem, an approach we’ve named ENCOR. The acronym, which stands for “Every Neighborhood Caring for Our River,” shows that we see this project as the second act--or encore--of the work of those three women warriors’ work. I really believe that to ensure the longevity of  water quality improvement projects in the upper Santa Ana River is to give the river back to the people and to give people reasons to have a vested interest in it.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever been to Riverside in July, but it is often around 110 degrees. Many of the communities bordering the river are very socioeconomically disadvantaged, many below poverty level. If it were 110 degrees outside, if you don’t have a way to get to the beach and if your house doesn’t have air conditioning, where would you go to get relief from the heat? Many people would turn to the nearest river to cool off during the hottest months of the year. 

We realized that through outreach events, such as Swimmable California Day, we could have a tangible place where we could bring together agencies, NGOs, the public and the press to start talking about the issue at hand. We couldn’t just jump right in, so, with the help of students and faculty of Pomona College, we decided to start monitoring the water quality along four areas of the Santa Ana River. What we found was that we found that our sites were already very close to EPA water quality standards--we could, in good faith, say to the people who were already swimming in the river that it was okay to swim in the river. We also understood that we had something to bring to the table when we tried to reach out to agencies and governing bodies that had not been encouraging recreation in the Santa Ana River.

We needed to have something to talk to the elected officials about, which is why we needed to start conducting human-use surveys showing who is already in the river; and focus groups, which would  find out what people want from their river, if they want to be in it, if they are using it. Our goal has been to compile this data and use it to get elected officials on board, showing the agencies that people are using it and that their use is good for them and for the river.
What you come up with are amazing days like Swimmable California Day -- July 25 of each year -- which the California State Assembly has recognized as a statewide celebration of the importance of clean, swimmable waterways. You’ll see a lot of pictures of happy faces here because these people have most likely lived in the Inland Empire their entire lives and never been allowed in the river. In this photo, you can see Riverside’s mayor, Rusty Bailey, smiling and playing with his children and wife in the river. He was happy to tell the TV cameras that the Santa Ana River is safe and healthy, and that we’re going to make it even better. 
We can only do so, however, if we can get the community to have a vested interest in this river and this watershed, and then educate people on how they should care for it. This is the key ingredient to restoring the river’s health. It will not matter how much technology and money that government agencies devote to improving water quality in the Santa Ana Watershed. They will only be putting out small fires when they need to address the root of the issue, which is the human dimension.
We’re starting from the bottom up: we’re giving this river back to the community and teaching them how to care for it because we know that the story of this river and the problems that it has today begin and end with its people.
© Megan Brousseau, 2014