THE SANTA ANA RIVER
Other Names: Rio de los Temblores, Rio de Santa Ana, Wanaawna
Invisible waterways line the land of my home. We stand on creeks and rivers not knowing they exist until they fill. It is only then that we recognize the symbols for water. When the rains come, water falls fast. Rivers form. Land floods. This has always been the story of Southern California, but we ignored this fact when we settled here. We saw topsoil and water and sun and endured devastating floods every few years. We grew, and the floods washed out homes. Until finally we tried to control the water.
My childhood home in Costa Mesa is at the bottom of a small hill on the edge of suburbs that stretch for almost a square mile. Here, homes curl in on themselves with cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac. A drainage ditch runs next to a bougainvillea-covered wall that separates homes from a private golf course. My house lies at the edge: a corner lot on a dead end. Behind us, the Greenville-Banning Channel, the flood control for my part of Orange County, and next to that, running parallel, is the largest river in Southern California: the Santa Ana.
The Santa Ana River was never stable. Every year, it took a newpath to the Pacific. Its origin stayed the same—the mountains, inland—but it always ran restless in the lower reaches. Often, the river ran through someone’s home or farm, and when the floods came, the riverbed could almost span the entire county. In 1862, it rained for nearly forty days straight. The river killed twenty people in Orange County. In 1938, a tropical storm flooded the Santa Ana, damaging fifteen hundred homes, carrying away the topsoil that the citrus trees loved so much. After a damaging flood in 1969, the county had become too developed to ignore the danger of the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared the Santa Ana the biggest threat for flooding west of the Mississippi. Even so, houses continued to creep. If people wanted the building to continue and the flooding to stop, they had to regulate the water, make it uniform, designate a “Santa Ana River” with clear, rigid borders. A solution was proposed to control the river. By 1989, construction near my home began.
The solution? Concrete.
FIXING A LEAK
Underneath the crab grass in my backyard, a sprinkler is broken. On the surface, the leak is invisible, its origin unknown until I walk and suddenly my feet sink and squish. I am young enough to be excited about helping my father fix this problem, and together we dig, pulling up grass, mounding dirt to the side of us, trying to reach hidden pipes.My father reaches into the ground to feel for the break. His hand disappears in the muddy swamp the sprinkler created, a small aquifer that will soon drain away. He moves my hands to feel it. Mud sleeves me, and my hand gets lost in the ground.
The sun bakes my back. Reaching down, I feel the plastic. My fingers run along the crack. The water is cold on my palms. We drive to the hardware store with our broken part. I stand with my father on the concrete floor in the sprinkler section. Before us is a row of plastic options, of joints and connectors and patches.We compare the old part for the new. My eyes scan the possibilities, the inner workings that make up our pristine lawns. Such complicated equations for green. I know what we are looking for, a cylindrical connector with a three-quarter-inch circumference. “Is this it?”my father asks, holding up a piece. After studying it, I say, “Yes.”We buy it, go home, and put in the new part. We turn on the water and watch our handiwork, testing for leaks, for weaknesses, before we put the ground back in place. Dirt packs under my nails. I will spend the week digging it out, a reminder that I know how the grass is made. That it is possible to fix a flood if it’s caught early enough.
The threat of flooding in Southern California has always been known. When Juan Crespi, the diarist for the Spanish settlers, first looked upon the Santa Ana, he knewthat it flooded despite the trees that grew in a river just seventeen inches deep. In his journal, he wrote, “It is evident from the sand on its banks that in the rainy season it must have great floods which would prevent crossing it.” But that didn’t prevent settlement. The allure of fresh water was too hard to ignore. First came the Gabrielinos, the Native Americans who inhabited the river’s shores. Then, the missions came and took the land, bringing agriculture and oppression. Before long, the Californios with their ranchos replaced missions, bringing cattle, which in turn brought cities.
But it was the topsoil that created Orange County. Citrus came and spread, and soon the county was formed, breaking away fromLos Angeles. Orange County couldn’t have formed without citrus, and citrus wouldn’t have existed without the Santa Ana River. And yet, the river is largely unknown. People mistake the Santa Ana for a flood control channel and nothing more. After all, rivers aren’t supposed to be made of concrete. We know it as a landmark, something that we see as we wait in traffic on the 405 or the 22. The origins of the river lost as we inch forward on the freeway.
My grandmother is in the backyard studying Hebrew. Sitting on our porch swing, she rocks back and forth, her face to the flood control channel. She turns each flashcard over, memorizing the turn of the letters, the meaning behind the symbols. The sight of the cards amazes me, this other language littered on our green-and-white striped cushions. She swings, while I play with our dog. In my memory, it is quiet, but construction must be going on. Once construction started at the end of the ’80s, it never stopped. Maybe the noise was something so ubiquitous, so natural, that I did not take notice and remember.Maybe the ground shook from tractors and their beeping filled the yard. But in my mind I hear only the sounds of my dog running and my grandmother’s voice as she describes the language.
She tells me that each word can have many interpretations. She tells me the story of Job, how it’s clear the man was never meant to be taken as a historical figure. That he is a parable. This news stuns me, and it feels like something is falling away. But as she explains more, I catch myself. I’ve learned a truth. There are layers to words, to stories. Meanings underneath the surface.
I wash my hands in my church’s bathroom. We use the bathroom by the banquet halls, not the crowded one in the sanctuary. I like this. In the sanctuary, I have to be quiet and wait in line. There, sounds bounce off the marble floors, making me nervous. High heels and jewelry clicking everywhere.
I wash my hands in the same sink that I always use—second from the last, by the shelf for purses.Water rushes from the faucet, and I stare into the mirror. I don’t study the freckle on my right ear or check the cowlick in my blond bangs. Instead, my eyes shift to a sticker at the bottom of the mirror: We are in a drought. Please don’t waste water.
I don’t remember learning about droughts, but somehow I knew the word’s meaning. Maybe I had just learned about the water cycle and conservation fromRicky the Raindrop in school. I wash my hands, reading the word that tells me that water is limited.Water pours out of the faucet, splashing the sink, the mirror, the brown marble counters. It scares me that water is finite even as it bombards me. I don’t understand how it can be both scarce and everywhere, covering our Crayola-green lawns from perfectly timed sprinklers. The word “drought” doesn’t seem to connect to the reality that pours out before me.