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Little traction heading into 2016 on St. Francis Dam memorial bill

Congressman says Castaic Wilderness section of bill may be trimmed

Posted: January 4, 2016 2:30 p.m.
Updated: January 4, 2016 2:30 p.m.
The St. Francis Dam, built to serve the city of Los Angeles's water needs, opened in 1926 and collapsed in 1928. Some call its failure the worst civil engineering disaster in the United States during the 20th century. Photo by George R. Watson The St. Francis Dam, built to serve the city of Los Angeles's water needs, opened in 1926 and collapsed in 1928. Some call its failure the worst civil engineering disaster in the United States during the 20th century. Photo by George R. Watson
The St. Francis Dam, built to serve the city of Los Angeles's water needs, opened in 1926 and collapsed in 1928. Some call its failure the worst civil engineering disaster in the United States during the 20th century. Photo by George R. Watson
Following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which killed hundreds as a wall of water crashed to the Pacific Ocean, nothing but the middle of the dam remained standing. That spire, dubbed "the tombstone," was later destroyed, as well. Photo by George R. Watson Following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which killed hundreds as a wall of water crashed to the Pacific Ocean, nothing but the middle of the dam remained standing. That spire, dubbed "the tombstone," was later destroyed, as well. Photo by George R. Watson
Following the collapse of the St. Francis Dam, which killed hundreds as a wall of water crashed to the Pacific Ocean, nothing but the middle of the dam remained standing. That spire, dubbed "the tombstone," was later destroyed, as well. Photo by George R. Watson
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The year 2015 marked the second in a row for legislation that would put a national memorial at the site of the St. Francis Dam disaster to go nowhere.

Congressman Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, introduced the bill, H.R. 3153, in July. Neighboring Congresswoman Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, is a co-sponsor of the legislation.

But it’s been nothing but crickets since then.

Knight, however, hasn’t lost hope. He said last week he’s confident there will be progress on the bill “within the first three to five months” of this year.

Much like a 2014 bill introduced by Knight’s predecessor, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, the legislation would create a national memorial at the site where the dam once stood.

Proponents of the effort say national memorial status would help bring additional resources to the site and attention to the tragedy, as well as be a fitting tribute to the hundreds who perished when the dam collapsed on March 12, 1928.

The dam site now is virtually unmarked — more of a target for graffiti and vandalism than a stop for those who want to learn about the second worst disaster in California history behind the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

The dam’s collapse sent water rampaging down San Francisquito Canyon and through the Santa Clarita Valley. That wall of water swept into the Santa Clara River Valley and out to the Pacific Ocean — laying waste to structures and wiping out entire families in Castaic Junction, Saugus, Fillmore, Piru, Santa Paula and Saticoy.

The collapse of the dam supplying Los Angeles with water “may represent America’s worst civil engineering failure in the 20th century,” according to Knight’s bill.

H.R. 3153 was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources when it was introduced. It has yet to move forward in the months since.

Knight said the holdup may not be the memorial itself, but another component of the bill that would designate almost 70,000 acres of land in the Santa Clarita Valley as wilderness.

The “Castaic Wilderness,” as Knight’s bill calls it, would take in four primary areas — Fish Canyon/Salt Creek, Elderberry Canyon, Red Mountain and Tule — covering approximately 69,812 acres from San Francisquito Canyon in Saugus west to Castaic.

Getting new wilderness through the Natural Resources Committee could be a challenge, Knight admitted, because there’s been recent push-back in Congress against designating such areas.

“We probably will not get everything that we want,” he said. “We will not get a huge wilderness area. We’ve hit our head against the wall on that for a year now, and I just don’t think we’re going to get it.”

Though Knight previously said it “definitely makes sense that these two efforts are together and attached,” he could be willing to compromise on the wilderness area if it means the dam memorial can move forward.

“The bill is about the St. Francis Dam,” he said in an earlier interview. “There are parts of the legislation that we will negotiate with, parts that we will work with, but we will not lose the St. Francis Dam legislation.”

That doesn’t mean he’s looking to scrap the idea of the wilderness area entirely.

“We’re not giving up on that because we’d like to get something,” he said last week. “Maybe not 69,000 acres, but maybe a portion.”

Though the final language of the bill could change as it moves through the legislative process, Knight said he remains committed to supporting the dam memorial in 2016.

“We’ll get it done one way or another,” he pledged.

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