Rubio Canyon: The Waterfalls, Water Rights and Rubio Water Association, and Recent Construction Activities

Table of Contents

The Waterfalls
Water Rights In Rubio Canyon And Rubio Cañon Land & Water Association
Rubio Water's 1994-1998 Activities in Rubio Canyon
Current Status Of The Controversy Over Rubio Water's Actions
Speculations About The Natural Future For Rubio Canyon If No Mitigation Is Done

The Waterfalls

See The Waterfalls

Water Rights In Rubio Canyon And Rubio Cañon Land & Water Association

The water rights to Rubio Canyon have been owned by the Rubio Cañon Land & Water Association (henceforth Rubio Water), 583 E. Sacramento, Altadena (626-797-0509), since 1886, over 100 years ago. This is no different from Lincoln Avenue Water Company (564 W. Harriet, Altadena, 626-798-9101) who owns the water rights to Las Flores Canyon, and who obtains water from the Dawn Mine, for example. The major water rights owner of the southern Angeles National Forest (ANF) foothills is Pasadena. Pasadena grabbed the water rights of the Arroyo Seco and the Eaton Canyon watersheds (Pasadena Water and Power, Pasadena, 626-405-4409), and probably would have grabbed the water rights to the minor drainages such as Rubio Canyon if they had thought it was worth their bother.

These water sources are extremely important to residents of Altadena and Pasadena. They contribute over 50% of the water consumed in those locales, making them much less dependent on imported water than other Southern Californian communities. For example, San Diego County is nearly 100% dependent on imported water.

During times of plenty, it probably seems unimportant exactly where one's water comes from. But during drought years, which inevitably happen with regularity, imported water is severely cut back. For example, MWD demanded a 50% cutback in water use during the last drought ending in 1991, and hence San Diego County water users suffered a 50% cutback in total water use. However, residents of Altadena and Pasadena only had a 10-20% cutback because they could increase their draw of local water to make up for the shortfall in imported water.

That's why the saying goes:

In the West, whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.

Most people don't realize that most water storage in L.A. County is in underground aquifers, i.e. the "water table". The water agencies get credit for the amount of water that seeps into the ground, and can withdraw it as needed. Groundwater is highly regulated, with permission to pump water controlled by the state. Water agencies cannot pump out more than they get credit for pumping in, where in most cases that credit is derived from the amount of water that seeps into the aquifer from the land on which they own water rights.

Rubio Water began by using the surface runoff, and in the 1920s put in a number of wells to take advantage of the underground storage and the purity of the ground water, which could be used without treatment. Around 1970, Rubio Water was forced to stop using the surface runoff due to new drinking water standards. Then in 1983 Rubio Water installed a treatment plant at the bottom of Rubio Canyon to use the surface water again. The plant is located immediately north of the old Camp Huntington on the east side of Rubio Canyon.

Rubio gets about 200 acre-feet of water per year from the surface runoff carried by that pipe, which is enough to serve 200 families of four people in a year. This amount constitutes about 10-15% of Rubio's total water production from Rubio Canyon.

Source for Rubio Water company information: Rubio Cañon Land & Water Association Operations Reports 1980-1993.

Rubio Water's 1994-1998 Activities in Rubio Canyon

The Northridge earthquake in 1994 caused a rockslide that damaged the 4" pipe in lower Rubio Canyon that is used to transport surface water to the treatment plant at the base of Rubio Canyon. Rubio Water immediately hired a contractor to carry thin-walled pipe into Rubio Canyon to repair the pipe.

After finishing the job, the contractor said that he would not take a crew up there again because the rocks were too unstable. This situation was something that Rubio Water felt that they had to deal with or lose their surface water supply.

As a result, Rubio Water hired an architectural engineer to design a placement of the pipe that was more geologically sound, and applied for FEMA funds to make permanent repairs. (FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.) The wheels of government grind slowly, and it wasn't until 1998 that a check was delivered to Rubio Water for them to proceed.

Rubio Water made the assumption that any Environmental Impact Report that was required had been done by FEMA. This assumption seems reasonable, since federal money usually must go through all the red tape before being dispensed. It is possible that FEMA funds have a loophole due to the "emergency" of FEMA's purpose.

Ranger Steven Bear, resource officer for the L.A. River District of the ANF, told the Pasadena Star News (1/27/99, A8) that

the appropriate environmental studies, including archaeological and botanical ones, were done before the project began in late September.

Hence apparently Rubio Water informed the ANF of what they planned to do, and the ANF approved Rubio Water's plans. Unfortunately, it seems Rubio Water did not inform anyone else of their plans to cause significant changes to Rubio Canyon. In particular, the Scenic Mount Lowe Historical Committee (SMLHC) was never informed in advance. The artifacts of the Mount Lowe Railway, including a number of sites in Rubio Canyon, were included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993. It is hard to believe that Rubio Water did not work closely with the SMLHC.

Also, the Altadena Town Council, the body that advises the County Board of Supervisors for matters relating to the unincorporated community of Altadena, was not informed. Ken Balder, chairman of the Council, told the Star News (3/7/99):

[Rubio Water's actions] just demonstrates the insensitivity to what people in Altadena feel and think. The lack of communication is what gets people all upset - I think they just decided they had to do something, and didn't want to include (the community).

No one seems able to produce the Environmental Impact Report for the project as proposed, and Rubio Water officials admitted that the project was done without one "because federal guidelines did not require them" (Pasadena Star News 3/7/99).

Wally Weaver, superintendent of Rubio Water, told the Star News (1/27/99, A6) that Rubio contracted with Zaich Construction of Northridge to create a "ledge" for the replacement water pipes, to remove unstable rocks and to regrade the slope to prevent future earthquake damage. The contract was "partly" paid for by $150,000 from Rubio Water and $200,000 from FEMA, although Rubio Water has applied for reimbursement of the $150,000 from FEMA as well.

In September 1998, a "2 wheel backhoe" with a 6,000 lb rock hammer (the 6,000 lb is the force the hammer delivers, not its weight!) began cutting an 8'-wide "bench" (aka "a road") along the west side of Rubio Canyon at the lower elevations to provide a "stable bench" for the pipe. (Although Wally Weaver called the piece of equipment a "2 wheel backhoe", the equipment looks more like a four-wheel bobcat (mini-tractor with a shovel scoop in front) in a picture taken by a hiker, which was shown at the "informational meeting" on 3/6/99.)

This bench can now be seen in Rubio Canyon from many locations in Pasadena, and has significantly changed the appearance of Rubio Canyon.

Austin Weston, president of the board of Rubio Water, told the Star News (1/27/99, A6):

The problem is the site is almost inaccessible. Work people and equipment had to be helicoptered in and the engineering study was done from the helicopter and from pictures. When they actually got up there and started work it was more complicated than they thought.

The "complications" were apparently dealt with by more extensive grading than originally planned, as well as using dynamite to remove large boulders and overhanging rocks. The net result is that ~100,000 cubic yards of debris now sits at the bottom of Rubio Canyon, in a pile 100' high and 400' long. (The pile must be ~140' wide to contain 100,000 cubic yards if the cross-section is roughly triangular. This estimated width is consistent with the width needed to support a pile 100' high.)

These boulders and debris now completely cover five of the waterfalls of Rubio Canyon: Roaring Rift, Lodged Boulder, Grand Chasm (Rainbow), Moss Grotto, and Ribbon Rock. In addition, about one-third of Thalehaha falls has also been buried by the debris.

These boulders and debris are unconsolidated, which means they are very loose and quite unstable, posing a significant hazard to anyone attempting to traverse the area.

After cutting the 8' bench, the backhoe continued up to Echo Mountain to clear the course for the pipe. In December 1998, the backhoe was helicoptered from the mountain.

Furthermore, damage has been done to the Old Echo Mountain Trail, which is maintained by the SMLHC. Paul Ayers found that a new trail was cut from Echo Mountain to the excavation site for the bench. The new trail looks like it was constructed for this one-time use, and will probably result in significant erosion to the east slope of Echo Mountain. As part of this new trail, markings for the Old Echo Mountain Trail were removed or hidden. Hikers attempting to follow the old trail will now be led to the edge of the escarpment at the top of the excavation. (See CRRC Report On Impact Of Excavation By Rubio Water.)

Sources for this section: Informational meeting held by Rubio Water at Scripps Home in Altadena on 3/6/99; Troy Sette (private communications); Pasadena Star News 1/27/99, A1, A6, A8; 3/7/99; CRRC Report On Impact Of Excavation By Rubio Water; Gregg Oelker (private communications).

Current Status Of The Controversy Over Rubio Water's Actions

As discussed in detail above, the boulders and debris at the bottom of Rubio Canyon now completely cover five of the waterfalls of Rubio Canyon, and partially cover one more. These waterfalls are located just above where the Rubio Pavilion used to be. (The Pavilion was located at the lower end of the incline going up to Echo Mountain.)

It amazes me that decades after Environmental Impact Reports became standard, and with the listing of the Mount Lowe Railway sites in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, that Rubio Water acted so cavalierly and without regard for the impact of their actions. Rubio Water officials had to be aware of both these facts, and it will be interesting to find out why they acted the way they did. I can only speculate that, as often happens in human affairs, they could only think of their primary task, to replace the water pipe, and simply did not consider the effects of their actions.

The Pasadena Star News says that it may cost $1 million to remove the debris, which Rubio Water would probably have to pay. In addition, they will probably be sued over their actions, and they may have to pay a fine on top of the debris-removal bill.

Rather than accept the responsibility for their actions, Rubio Water is currently attempting to shift the blame wherever they can. Austin Weston, Rubio Water's president, said (Pasadena Star News 3/7/99):

I guess you'd call it an accident.

On another front, Rubio Water is attempting to blame FEMA. Austin Weston said (Pasadena Star News 3/7/99):

We are a small company, we don't have a lot of resources and experience in this area - we did what FEMA told us to do or they would have never given us the money. We are in almost daily touch with FEMA, and our feeling is since FEMA funded (the project) they should pay to get (the canyon) back to where it should be.

One reader tells me that the Forest Service refuses to discuss the situation due to possible litigation.

The Committee To Restore Rubio Canyon (CRRC) is recommending

that the debris ... be removed with the least impact possible to the canyon and its historical and recreational sites. In this regard, the best suggestion advanced thus far, of which the CRRC is aware, is the use of a conveyor system to move the debris down-canyon to a road-head. Such a system has been used in mining and concrete processing applications in much more complicated and difficult terrain then is presented here, would be relatively inexpensive and have a low impact on the canyon.

However, bringing heavy equipment into the bottom of the canyon might cause far worse damage to the environment than simply leaving things alone. This is a problem that will probably be studied a lot more before action is taken than Rubio Water did with its hasty decision to order more removal of debris than originally planned.

If removal of the debris is unfeasible, Rubio Water's ordered abatement might be in the form of purchasing land elsewhere to save it from development, or restoring some other environmental harm elsewhere that can be fixed by money. Gregg Oelker made the wonderful suggestion that Rubio Water could start by buying the 20 acres at the mouth of Rubio Canyon that is presently on the market for development.

The 100,000 cubic yards of loose debris sitting in Rubio Canyon won't stay there forever (see next section), and downstream residents are concerned about the flood hazard posed by the debris. There is a debris dam at the base of Rubio Canyon, and such debris dams regularly fill with debris after major storms. The County of Los Angeles regularly clears the debris out, because if the debris dam is full, it cannot provide any further storage of water to protect downstream residents. If more debris enters the debris dam than can be cleaned out between storms, flooding downstream will occur.

Astrid Ellersieck, who lives at the mouth of Rubio Canyon, says that her neighbors have serious concerns about this possibility (Pasadena Star News 3/7/99):

We've lived through two major floods, in 1980 and 1994. In 1980 there was a 50' wall of water roaring down. All of us are really worried.

Rubio Water, in a handout at the 3/6/99 meeting, said they had received a letter from the County of Los Angeles Flood Maintenance Division which said

We do not believe that the construction of your water line will result in any measurable increase in the debris production of this watershed flowing into Rubio Debris Basin.

Further, the Star News reported that Weston said two county flood-control geologists hiked up to the site and reported there is no danger.

Paul Ayers talked with Ken Swanson, Area Engineer, Flood Maintenance Division of L.A. County Department of Public Works. Ken told Paul that his Department never provided a blanket assurance that the debris flow did not pose a flood danger. Ken felt that they could indeed handle anything that came into the Rubio Debris Basin, but agreed that this assurance was based on a review of aerial photos and past experience, not on any on-site inspection of anyone from his Division. Source: 3/17/99 letter from Paul to Ken documenting their conversation.

Speculations About The Natural Future For Rubio Canyon If No Mitigation Is Done

There is little doubt that the waterfalls will eventually be uncovered naturally. Waterfalls exist for a geologic reason. They are made out of rock that is relatively resistant to erosion, and hence retreat slowly upstream as the cliff that forms the waterfall slowly erodes. The only questions are the time-scale and the further damage that the debris might cause as it is naturally removed, both within the canyon to historical artifacts and below the canyon to homes.

If you bury a waterfall in loose soil, the next heavy rain or two will completely wash away the soil and uncover the waterfall.

If you bury a waterfall in gravel, you might have to wait until the next really large storm. A sufficiently large storm to remove gravel may happen every few years or so.

If you bury a waterfall with large boulders, you have to wait for a very serious flood event before those boulders move downstream. The Rubio Pavilion itself was destroyed in 1909 when "a severe thunderstorm sent huge boulders crashing down the walls of Rubio Canyon and directly into Rubio Pavilion, demolishing the double-decked structure" (from Historic Mount Lowe by Paul H. Rippens, p. 27). Paul H. Rippens also writes that the "Great Rainstorm of March 1 & 2, 1938" was the "most destructive ever in man's memory of the San Gabriels" (p. 29). Wally Weaver of Rubio Water tells of a 50' wall of water that came down Rubio Canyon in 1980, also mentioned by Astrid Ellersieck, that would probably also do the trick.

Estimates for the frequencies of such events are very uncertain, but it seems pretty likely that another such event will uncover the waterfalls naturally sometime in the next 50-100 years. (Remember that this debris sits in the streambed, and so will be eroded much more quickly than similar debris in an alluvial slope, for example.)

This natural cleansing of the streambed may not be a pleasant event. An engineer, from either Caltech or USC, was in the audience at the informational meeting on 3/6/99. He warned that the biggest danger may be water building up behind the rock slide. This may turn the rubble into a dam that could build up a large lake behind it. Eventually this may break, sending debris and water down canyon. There are many past examples of such occurrences, always known as the X disaster, where X is the location of the occurrence. The Gros Ventre Disaster in Wyoming occurred two years after a landslide blocked the Gros Ventre River. Two years later, the lake that formed behind the dam caused by the landslide gave way suddenly without warning, and flooded the town of Kelly downstream, drowning people. It is of course not correct to compare the streamflow of Rubio Canyon to the Gros Ventre River, but the principle is the same.

Troy Sette writes:

As for Mother Nature restoring these falls, I believe the upper falls may recover over the next ten years. But it will take a long time for the lower falls to recover. There are some huge boulders in that debris which will only disappear by erosion. Even then the canyon will never be the same. A large part of the cliff that made up Grand Chasm has been blasted down. This area used to be very dim and cool on a midsummer day. I doubt we will ever recover the remains of Mirror Dam or the famous boulder that Professor Lowe once stood upon.


If you have any further information to add to this page, please email me with it. I hope to get before and after photos taken by Troy Sette online in the near future. I encourage geologists to send me their estimates of what the future holds for the Rubio waterfalls via natural processes, and engineers to send their estimates of what could be done to mitigate the damage without causing further damage.

I thank Craig Cheetham for providing me with the Pasadena Star News articles, Paul Ayers for supplying his extensive information about Rubio Canyon, and Troy Sette and Gregg Oelker for their inputs.

I called Rubio Water on 3/8/99 and had a long conversation with Wally Weaver, superintendent at Rubio Water. However, because Wally has not granted permission to me to use his substantive comments on this webpage, I have not put anything substantial from that conversation online. I have used only the following few minor innocuous facts I received from him in the material above: the background about pipe damage from the Northridge earthquake and the comments from their contractor at the time; the description of the "2 wheel backhoe"; the helicoptering of the backhoe from Echo Mountain; and the 50' wall of water in 1980. All other material came from other sources.

I have submitted this page as it existed on 3/9/99 to Wally at Rubio Water on that day so that Rubio Water could review it for accuracy. As of 3/21/99 I have not received any input from Rubio Water other than a phone call from Wally saying he was "too busy" now to give me comments. I made extensive modifications to this page on 3/21/99, and will submit that to Rubio Water as well for review.

Disclosure of personal biases. As a resident of Altadena from 1979 through 1994 who was served by Rubio Water, I never observed or heard of Rubio Water acting with disregard to Rubio Canyon. Indeed, since Rubio Water depends on Rubio Canyon, I suspect the people of Rubio Water love Rubio Canyon as much as many of the people who are now throwing stones at Rubio Water. Rubio Water always offered to take customers on a hike through Rubio Canyon to show them the water facilities. Talking with Wally Weaver reveals a person who enjoys being in Rubio Canyon.

Furthermore, as a hiker who has enjoyed the Castle Canyon Trail, I have always wondered whether the trail owed its existence to Rubio Water in the first place. Hence for these reasons, I must confess that I have always had a high opinion of Rubio Water.

However, as a hiker interested in natural places remaining natural (except of course for trails through natural areas constructed in environmentally-responsible ways!) and in the historical artifacts that remain from the Mt. Lowe Railway, I am of course outraged by the damage done to Rubio Canyon.

I am sympathetic to Rubio Water's desire to get as much water as they can locally, and wish we had similar local supplies of water at my home in San Diego County. However, my personal feeling is that Rubio Water made a mistake in authorizing more work in Rubio Canyon than was initially planned, and clearly are not owning up to that mistake.

As Gregg Oelker has pointed out, it is very sad that this whole sequence of events has happened just to supply local water to 200 families. This will turn out to be a very expensive water supply overall, and it would have been far better if Rubio Water had simply abandoned their pipe and paid for a slightly larger amount of imported water.

Go to Field Guide to the San Gabriel Mountains: Places: Rubio Canyon

Copyright © 1999-2000 by Tom Chester.
Permission is freely granted to reproduce any or all of this page as long as credit is given to me at this source:
Comments and feedback: Tom Chester
Updated 31 March 2000.