The wandering river: an excerpt from “The Mystery of Cherry Lake” (a work in progress)

by Elizabeth C. Creely

Writer’s note: Sometimes, when you start developing an interest in a topic, you really dont know what youre letting yourself in for. In my case, I said yes to unbridled curiosity about the origins, location, and type of fresh water in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, my two hometowns. In September, I asked my brother about a drainage ditch that we used to play in as children. Because he gave me a thoughtful and provocative answer, I ended up wandering figuratively and physically through a landscape made of county and city reports and PDFs, old USGS maps, Thomas Guides, emails, and an area above the Back Bay called Cherry Lake.

I am still wandering, although the end is in sight. This is an excerpt from a longer piece called “The Mystery of Cherry Lake,” which will hopefully be up as an entire first draft by the end of December. Like the lake in question, the origin of this essay-in-progress is a mystery to me. When did it start? When I asked my brother Jim a question? Or have I been thinking about Californias fraught relationship with water—and wanting to find a subject to grab ahold of and shake out the answers to my questions?

There is no mystery to Cherry Lake itself. There is only the nature of nature and the reasons that nature changes.

Map of the Santa Ana River drainage basin

Map of the Santa Ana River drainage basin

The Santa Ana River has changed its bed several times, like rivers do, and the clearest evidence of this is what it left behind. The river now flows through a water-gap between the Chino Hills and San Gabriel Mountains to the north and the Santa Ana Mountains to the south. The mountain ranges create a sort of montane parentheses. Inside the brackets of this parenthetical formation is an alluvial plain and coastal plateau that the old villages of Fairview, Harper, and Polloreno (now Costa Mesa, more or less) clustered on after 1880.

The Santa Ana River, nowadays, is prevented from wandering through this plain/plateau, as it used to like to do, and is now channelized in a snug concrete straight jacket and forced to flow in an orderly fashion, east to west. There is no more wandering for the mad river. Before it was made to conform to the vision of flood control experts and urban developers, it managed to give one last gift to the future inhabitants of Newport Beach and Orange County: the long finger of land now called the Balboa Peninsula. It shoved sand and alluvial soil out of its way, as it headed south towards an estuary which emerged like a balloon from the Pacific Ocean. This estuary is the Lower and Upper Newport Bay, and at one time it was fed by the Santa Ana River and the ocean, its two loving parents.

The Santa Ana Delhi Channel now feeds the Upper Newport Bay. San Diego Creek comes in from the east after collecting the water of five different tributary streams. Lower down, near the Back Bay Science Center, fresh water from a gully behind the private housing developments of Big Canyon and Park Newport drains into the lower bay. The term “fresh water” is a bit of a misnomer, really, since the water from the washes, drainage channels, and creeks isnt really very fresh. The water is adulterate with pollutants from human activities: selenium, nitrogen, bacteria E. coli and Enterococcus. The water that feeds the Bay comes mostly from the east and the south, these days, and of course the west. The ocean heaves itself through the narrow harbor opening and surges in and out, day after day.

The bluffs that line the northern perimeter of the Upper Bay mostly go unmentioned in the official documents that get churned out by the various agencies and departments that are tasked with keeping their regulatory eyes on the Bay. The City of Newport Beach, the California Department of Fish and Game, and a handful of county agencies—flood, water management, environmental health—all jostle against each other, regulating this and protecting that. Cherry Lake, with which the Bay has a part-time, somewhat illicit relationship, generally escapes regulatory scrutiny. It sits serenely 75 feet above sea level in the neighborhood called inaccurately by my family “East Side Costa Mesa” and “Santa Ana Heights” by real estate agents writing ecstatic descriptions of the wealthy neighborhood for trade publications. The handful of people who live in the 20 houses which ring the lake call their settlement “Cherry Lake.”

Cherry Lake, Newport Beach, CA

Cherry Lake, Newport Beach, CA

The Santa Ana Delhi channel, like all the other channels and drainage ditches, was put in place as one element in a larger system to control flooding in Orange County. These great washes of rain and sediment created the plain and were not called floods until the mid eighteen-hundreds, when there was enough of a population settled there, on the plain/plateau, to fear the destructive power of water. All of Orange County is located on this plain, and all throughout its broad flatness, a tributary system of drainage ditches and flood channels is threaded. When it doesn’t rain, it can be difficult to understand why these channels, which are ugly, are needed. The rain comes infrequently to the Orange County plain. Orange County is now in its third official year of drought.

But the rain does come. And when it does, the water has fewer places to go, since it is mostly barred from the water table, thanks to the preponderance of hard concrete surfaces that come with residential and commercial development. There have been three floods worth mentioning: one in March of 1889, which washed out the old Fairview railroad, one in 1916, and one in 1938, during which the channelized river broke its banks and overflowed the bluffs which hang over the flatlands of Huntington Beach. Twenty-two people died. Waves in the Santa Ana River rose to a reported height of 15 feet.

Floods get remembered. Steps get taken. The river got channelized, and yet that was not enough. More engineering of the natural landscape was undertaken.

The 1938 flood in Orange County.

The 1938 flood in Orange County.

Even in the days of climate change and lack of rain, the basic relationship of the towns, cities, and unincorporated settlements has not changed. Orange County will forever be at a disadvantage to the forces of precipitation and gravity. Every twenty-eight days, the full moon rises behind the Santa Ana mountain range and throws its light over the communities of Mission Viejo, Tustin, Lake Forest, Irvine, and all the neighborhoods on the margins. And then the stakes become clear. The mountain face looms above the flats which lie below the peaks of Modjeska and Santiago, like a dog stretched out at the feet of its master, and the ancient relationship of mountain to plain is made clear. The querent of the landscape inquiring into the nature of the place is given a definitive answer. The water—when and if it comes—has nowhere to go but down.