LOS ANGELES – Amid dense vegetation and boulders at the foot of the Santa Fe Dam Spillway, the Operations Division with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District is clearing tons of litter and debris from a homeless encampment in Irwindale, California.
The use of the Corps' project lands for homeless encampments is prohibited and presents a health and safety hazard to homeless individuals, residents, the environment and wildlife. The dam is adjacent to the 605 Freeway and is maintained by the Corps for flood-risk management.
It is never a good idea or safe to camp in an area that is not a designated campground, especially in a basin below a dam outlet works or spillway, said Corps LA District Senior Ranger Robert Moreno with the Operations Division.
“Dams are designed to hold water and reduce the risk of flooding,” Moreno said. “Flash floods can rush water into the basins, fill it to its capacity and be released through the outlet works and spillways.”
The weeklong cleanup began early May 10 in partnership with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Homeless Outreach Team; San Gabriel Valley Homeless Assistance liaison officers; Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority; and the City of Duarte to ensure the 100-acre area near the spillway was safe and without inhabitants before crews and equipment accessed the site.
Assistance to the homeless within the area was offered in the weeks preceding the cleanup. For additional safety, the operation was supported by the LA District rangers, and Irwindale and Azusa law enforcement officers. Lunch for the all-Corps cleanup crew was provided by the City of Hope, a cancer center; its building overlooks the dam.
The area below the dam was littered with tons of trash, abandoned campsites, empty propane tanks and gasoline cans, and even a daisy chain of electrical extension cords that once provided bootleg power to campsites. The dams are designed to protect life, property and environment, Moreno said.
“Human habitation in U.S. Army Corps’ dam basins or release water areas and outlet works is not safe and should not be allowed,” Moreno said. “Visitors and folks seeking a camping experience should only camp in designated camping areas where folks are allowed to camp.”
The Santa Fe Dam tent camping areas, located adjacent to the dam’s nature center, consist of two sites with about five acres of campsites for organized youth groups. Bicycle and walking paths traverse the edges of the floodplain.
During the week, the District set a new record for debris removal, according to LA District project manager Trevor Snyder, who coordinated the cleanup project with the other agencies for months prior to May 10 and until the last dumpster was filled.
Snyder said that 26 industrial-sized roll-off dumpsters – each with the capacity to hold 40 cubic yards – were filled with trash and removed from the spillway during the cleanup.
We removed 249.6 tons of trash,” he said. “We averaged 9.6 tons per load in the 100-acre area.”
A March 1 cleanup coordinated by the Corps’ LA District at another encampment along the banks of the San Gabriel River saw the removal of more than 100 tons of debris.
With the floodplain cleaned, Corps’ park rangers will keep reminding potential campers about the dangers of setting up below the dam.
“We place signage where issues arise to inform folks where not to camp in illegally or (to camp in) designated camping areas for the safety of the visitor,” Moreno said, adding the rangers provide visitor assistance, interpretation, recreation and resource management through environmental stewardship and through outreach and educational programs, signs, flyers, posters, volunteers, partners and one-on-one personal contacts.
Santa Fe Dam and Reservoir is a flood control project in the Los Angeles County Drainage Area flood control system. The dam’s embankment is a horseshoe-shaped, curved gravity structure, located on the San Gabriel River, south of Azusa. The project was completed in January 1949. The primary purpose of the dam is to provide flood-risk management to the communities along the San Gabriel River downstream of the basin.
A total of 2,553.7 acres was acquired in fee for construction, operation and maintenance of the dam. The Corps reserves 1,271.7 acres exclusively for dam operations. The remaining 1,282 acres are available for compatible purposes with a preference toward recreation. The Corps granted a lease of about 835.77 acres in the reservoir for recreation purposes to the County of Los Angeles.
The LA District’s Operations Division is responsible for the operation and maintenance of flood-risk management projects, including 15 dams and 68 miles of levees and channels across Arizona, Nevada and Southern California. The projects reduce the risk of flooding for critical infrastructure, transportation corridors, residences and businesses.