U.S. Rep. Steve Knight introduced legislation Wednesday, July 22, that would place nearly 70,000 acres above Castaic Lake into "wilderness" and declare the St. Francis Dam site in San Francisquito Canyon a national monument.
Knight's HR 3153, the "Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial and Castaic Wildness Act," would place 69,812 acres currently under U.S. Forest Service management into the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Under federal law, "wilderness" is defined as "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man" and where nobody lives. It generally "provides outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation;" and it "may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value."
Hiking, horseback riding, climbing, hunting, fishing, bird watching and several other activities are allowed, but homes, commercial enterprises, roads, motorized vehicles, and "mechanized" vehicles such as bicycles are not.
Nonetheless, the borders of the proposed wilderness area have been drawn in such a way that several trails currently used by mountain bikers are left just outside of the perimeter, and the bill specifies that uses not allowed in a wilderness area are allowed to abut it.
Bordering the eastern edge of the proposed wilderness, which stretches from Castaic on the west to San Francisquito Canyon, is the site of the former St. Francis Dam. Part of the city of L.A.'s water system, the dam impounded 12.5 billion gallons of the L.A.'s drinking water until it broke just before midnight on March 12, 1928. The subsequent flood killed an estimated 431 people from Saugus to the Pacific Ocean, where the floodwaters emptied 5.5 hours later.
The dam site is a California historic landmark but has not been federally recognized even though the dam disaster affected communities and changed the way dams were built across the country.
Knight's bill would designate 440 acres in the canyon as the St. Francis Dam National Monument to be administered by the National Park Service, and create a commission to figure out "how best to commemorate" the disaster.
"It is important to educate the public and honor the individuals who perished in the St. Francis Dam Disaster," Knight, R-Palmdale, said in a statement. "This memorial site is a high priority for the Santa Clarita Valley, and I am proud to be part of the effort to make it happen."
HR 3153 is cosponsored by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, who represents the Ventura County portions of the St. Francis Dam floodpath.
Knight's predecessor, Rep. Buck McKeon, introduced a bill (also cosponsored by Brownley) that would have memorialized the dam victims, but it came late in McKeon's final term in Congress and stopped short of designating a national monument.
The idea to pursue federal recognition for the dam disaster came about four years ago when Dr. Alan Pollack, president of the SCV Historical Society, visited the Johnstown Flood National Memorial in Pennsylvania where more than 2,000 people were killed in an 1889 dam break.
"Then I started reading about Johnstown and I came to realize there were so many similarities between that disaster and this one," Pollack said. "You had a dam that was poorly constructed, you have this big tragedy happen, hundreds of people dying, whole families … and that's what we had here.
"There was one glaring difference between the two disasters," Pollack said. "In Johnstown, they had a national memorial, visitor center, documentary film — and the St. Francis Dam has nothing. So I figured, why not try to do this with the St. Francis Dam?"
Pollack recruited Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy and executive director of the Community Hiking Club, to rally support in Washington.
"I am delighted that Congressman Knight has introduced this wonderful bill," Erskine-Hellrigel said. "It has been 87 years since the Saint Francis Disaster. Families have waited long enough for their loved ones to be memorialized, and Congressman Knight has accepted this challenge. Not only has he worked hard to give these families closure, but he is protecting the last available pristine wilderness in the district for generations to come."
Added Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita: "Many thanks to Congressman Steve Knight for his foresight in protecting 69,000 acres of pristine wilderness for generations to come, and for having the federal government acknowledge the greatest civil engineering tragedy in the United States, the Saint Francis Dam failure. This memorial will honor those that had fallen and will help bring closure to friends and families."
Jessica Boyer of KHTS AM-1220 contributed to this story.