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Remembering California’s 2nd-Deadliest Disaster

The St. Francis Dam collapse in 1928 is California's second-deadliest disaster, after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. (H.T. Strearns/U.S. Geological Survey)
The St. Francis Dam collapse in 1928 is California's second-deadliest disaster, after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. (H.T. Strearns/U.S. Geological Survey)
May 24, 2019

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. – Ninety-one years ago this spring, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, sending a 160-foot wall of water crashing 54 miles from Santa Clarita to the beach in Ventura.

It killed about 450 people – the second-deadliest disaster ever in the state.

President Donald Trump signed a law in March establishing a national memorial there, and now, the Angeles National Forest has three years to come up with a management plan.

Forest Supervisor Jerry Perez says the memorial will serve a dual purpose.

"So, I think the importance of it is to acknowledge the loss of human life, and the importance of sound infrastructure in Southern California,” says Perez.

Investigations done after the tragedy determined that rock on the south side of the dam was unstable, and that engineers failed to fortify the base when they raised the top of the dam an extra ten feet. Perez says the lessons learned have since informed generations of civil engineers, including those who worked on Hoover Dam.

Last weekend, volunteers removed trash near San Francisquito Creek, which runs through the dam site and supports two endangered species – the California red-legged frog, and a fish called the unarmored three-spined stickleback.

Alan Walker is a manager with the nonprofit Resource Institute, which is working on a project to improve the creek that will then inform the management plan.

"What we're trying to do is look at ways naturally to incorporate the existing site conditions into a natural feature that will allow these organisms to move up and down stream, and being extremely respectful of the cultural resources that exist, especially at the St. Francis Dam site,” says Walker.

The project is a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Angeles National Forest, Resource Institute, and SWCA, an environmental consulting firm.

The site is open to the public, northeast of Santa Clarita off Interstate 5. There is a plaque at the site of one of the power stations that was destroyed, as well as multiple places to pull off and see the giant pieces of concrete that washed down the valley almost a century ago.

Disclosure: Resource Institute contributes to our fund for reporting on Endangered Species & Wildlife, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness, Water. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - CA