Wednesday, July 20, 2011

What's Eating Strawberry Creek? The battle over a scenic gem heats up -- again

[Summary: For years private owners have quietly taken control of Idyllwild’s most visitor-friendly feature, its sylvan creek that meanders through town. Now, in a move that mirrors global struggles over the world’s most precious resource, they’ve begun to aggressively deny visitors and locals alike access to this community gem. The author's family cabin in Idyllwild was built by his grandfather in 1939.]

There was water, water everywhere, in Idyllwild this past weekend. I’ve never seen the creek running this fresh and full in July. And the foliage was so tall and so green down in the lush bed of Strawberry Creek I could hardly make my way down from our family cabin to town, a traditional 15 minute walk on normal – that is to say, drier – years.

At about the half-way mark, however, the trail got worse. In fact, it vanished. And as I paused, I also noted a disturbing and recurrent, if not new, violation of the streambed. It came at a point about a half-mile south of Town Hall. Suddenly about three-quarters of the water in Strawberry Creek, the babbling brook that runs down the southern side of Idyllwild and historically has given the town its bucolic backbone, was diverted past a fence into a property marked with “No Trespassing” signs.

“Ah, they’re back,” I said to my wife. “Those stream thieves, they never give up.”

I’ve been fighting this particular diversion since around 1962, when my cousin Chris and I came scrambling down the Creek, headed to town for our usual midday chocolate-covered frozen banana, only to find a backhoe digging a new channel and piling up a levee that blocked the old. The rest of the summer we tore down at night what they threw up during the day. But when the end of August came and we had to go to school, the bastards won. They claimed the Creek.

But out battle had an effect. We got into a wrangle one day toward the end of summer with the owner and his backhoe operator, who became furious at our ten-year-old’s eloquence and moral inflexibility. They made threats, which we duly reported to our fathers. Other land owners downstream got involved once they discovered they no longer lived alongside a stream but a dry ravine. Half the flow of the Creek was re-directed.

As the years went by, I’ve watched with pleasure as Nature completed the job we started: silting in the south branch, returning to the natural northern channel. Until today. It was my first visit in a year and a half, and the Stream Thief had done a lot of damage. Peeking through his barbed-wire topped chainlink fence, I could see he had a fancy upscale resort thing going on with our stolen Strawberry Creek. I could see chaise lounges, fairy lights, a bridge that would not have looked out of place in a Jane Austen novel. I could also see permanent intake hoses running into the Creek and what looked like an irrigation system hooked to a pump.

And so, here we go again.

It’s always about the water in Idyllwild, and it always has been. If they wish, Californians with a good memory or else a love of classic film can reference the movie “Chinatown” – about the theft of water from Northern California to fuel land development in the San Fernando Valley – or else recall the James Bond film with Daniel Craig, “The Quantum of Solace,” thinly based on the World Bank’s disastrous attempt to privatize the water supplies of Bolivia. Wherever you go in the world these days, it seems people’s water supplies are under siege from commercial interests.

Idyllwild shouldn’t be in a position to lose its Creek. It’s a mountain town blessed with a stubborn and proud community spirit, most recently tested in the 2005 Esperanza Fire that killed five local firemen. Since its shift from logging and cattle to tourism in 1901, it has kept a sense of itself as a place where nature is the main draw, unlike frantic Lake Arrowhead and tourist-strip Big Bear to the north, across the Cabazon Pass. Without a nearby lake to call its own, a big part of that draw is Strawberry Creek. You’d think they’d take better care of it.

Unfortunately, Idyllwild doesn’t own its Creek. As late as December 2008, in fact, Idyllwild couldn’t even be sure it had any right to its water – which was the source for every house and business inside the Idyllwild Water District. The IWD had to admit that no copies could be found of the initial 1900 agreement and the State of California had to admit it didn’t have any record, either. Since then the IWD has been drilling like crazy. Lucky they’ve been blessed by three of the wettest winters on record.

Thanks in part to this loose oversight over its most precious bodily fluid, Idyllwild has drawn national attention as a flashpoint in the “water wars,” what Alex Prud’homme calls the most important environmental struggle we face today in his new bestselling book, The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century.

Back in 2002, Idyllwild woke up in the middle of the worst drought in 70 years to find that a single land owner, Paul Black, had set up a pump and hose and was simply draining the Creek as part of a bottled water scheme. The resulting water war drew reporters from The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and my own wife, Mindy Pennybacker, who got there first in The Green Guide. (Mindy wrote an account of her experience in these pages: April 8, 2010: “How Idyllwild’s Water Wars Made Me See Green” Until he fell afoul of the State, which stopped his pirate enterprise, Black enjoyed nearly ten years of seeming immunity from Idyllwild’s leaders, even as he was turning the town into a desert.

Now, right after seeing my Creek diverted, I stumbled into the next front in the water wars: private owners blocking access to walkers. The trail that had been there for at least 75 years simply vanished. As we thrashed through brambles and thorn bushes where the trail had been, we came to a wooden deck with a picnic table. And here was an obliging welcome sign. Not for us, but for guests of the resort up above us, on the top of the Creek valley. For us, the way down to town was effectively blocked.

This right-of-way grab was pretty recent. I’ve been walking up and down Strawberry Creek since 1958, and though there’ve been cases of new landowner who didn’t get the word and tried to throw a fence across the trail, it’s always stayed clear and open, well-maintained, and in constant use. It’s the closest most visitors will get to a nature experience in Idyllwild.

Later, my wife and I turned around and headed back up the Creek, toward Fern Valley. Here, too, the path vanished, submerged in a vast gooseberry patch and hemmed in on the town side by a barbed-wire fence. If we hadn’t recalled the location of the path in winter we’d have been forced to turn back.

All this may sound like a tempest in a streambed, but as the headlines over beach right-of-way battles last week down in Malibu attest, local vigilance is all that stands between us and our own wet feet.

That’s why I went to the Ranger Station in town and asked the resident Smokey the Bear the $64,000 question: “Who owns Strawberry Creek?” His pleasant expression stiffened. I knew he was going to duck and he did, putting in a call to the de facto, i.e., unofficial and not-to-be-quoted spokesperson. I wasn’t surprised or put off by this, knowing how punitive bureaucracies can be to those who don’t have every word cleared from above.

Next I went to the local mountaineering store, and the guy there was more direct. “Who owns Strawberry Creek?” I asked.

“Well, down at The Grotto it’s the meth-head decadent types,” he replied. “Higher up it’s more professional people, so you don’t see as much trouble.”

Not quite the answer I expected, but not unhelpful.

What I gleaned over the next day was what that the Strawberry Creek watershed is less a crazy quilt than a sleeping bag, with the National Forest Service owning the top and the bottom of the drainage and Creek, which leaves the big chunk in the middle, where all the people and houses are, privately held. However, it’s not all left to the moods and whims of owners and flatlanders, because the water is part of the water districts of downstream counties and cities. Santa Ana, San Diego, Riverside: all these have a say in Strawberry Creek’s fate, or, if they don’t, would like one. Arizona and California fought a war over the Colorado River, you might recall, back at the turn of the century. Guns and dynamite! The aftermath gave us the Salton Sea.

The Creek also is subject to environmental oversight, mostly by the State Department of Fish & Game, which considers the effect of any changes or diversions on wildlife and habitat. That’s comforting to know, or would be if all our state bureaucracies weren’t so underfunded and understaffed.

There comes a point, obligatory in thoughtful narrative journalism today, when the writer admits he shares some of the qualities of those he is criticizing. It’s sort of the Copenhagen Syndrome, where the hostages sympathize with their captors and forget to escape. My moment, my sticking of the toe into this river, came as I photographed the streambed and its blockages and diversions. As the photos show, hopefully, the Creek is just gorgeous this year, a true forest primeval. And I have to admit that’s the effect of having the trail blockaded. I also have to admit that I could get used to this, doing without the usual midsummer sight of all the plants and rushes battered down and dead, defeated by the heat but even more by the daily wear and tear inflicted by a couple of hundred tourist walkers and their dogs and children.

There’s only one problem with this vision. The privatizers don’t care if nobody ever walks or even sees Strawberry Creek again. They don’t own the creek, yet they’re taking it away, anyway, piece by piece. And if we don’t raise a ruckus and stop them, one day all we’ll have of Strawberry Creek will be photos like these.

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