Knight Resubmits Dam Disaster Bill as Standalone; Hearing Tuesday -- May 18, 2016

U.S. Rep. Steve Knight reintroduced federal legislation Monday to memorialize the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster that killed an estimated 431 people from Saugus to the Pacific Ocean.

H.R. 5244, the Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act, would “provide for the establishment of a national memorial and national monument to commemorate those killed by the collapse of the Saint Francis Dam on March 12, 1928, and for other purposes,” according to the bill’s text.

The legislation was immediately referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, where a hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, May 24, before the Subcommittee on Federal Lands in Washington, D.C. Dr. Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, said he intends to speak at the hearing.

Knight, R-Palmdale, introduced similar legislation last summer that also would have designated vast acreage in the northern Santa Clarita Valley as wilderness. To move the legislation forward, Knight decided this year to carve out the dam memorial portion as its own separate bill.

“We told everyone in the community that we would work with everyone and try to get to a consensus, but we would never lose the St. Francis Dam Memorial (part),” Knight said Wednesday. “We did work with several groups; we just couldn’t get a consensus from everyone about the wilderness area. We wanted to move forward with the St. Francis Dam Memorial because we didn’t want to lose that (in) this legislative session.”

Among those who objected to the previous bill were mountain bike enthusiasts who objected to the loss of recreational use of wilderness area but favored the dam disaster designation.

“We thank Congressman Knight for revising his bill and look forward to supporting the Congressman and H.R. 5244 as this bill moves forward,” Ken Raleigh said this week on behalf of the SCV Trail Users cycling group. “We expect that most in the community, including cyclists, will gladly support this revised legislation.”

Knight stressed that the St. Francis Dam Memorial is important not only to his 25th district but also to the country.

“This is also a national issue that should be memorialized,” Knight said, adding that he expects the hearing to go smoothly and that the committee has been positive about the new bill.

It’s actually the third iteration of legislation requested by the SCV Historical Society, the local Community Hiking Club and others to memorialize the dam disaster and honor its victims. Knight’s predecessor, U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, introduced a bill in July 2014, shortly after announcing his plans to retire from Congress.

The major difference between Knight’s current bill and his previous version is the removal of language relating to 70,000 acres of “Castaic wilderness” area.

Utah Rep. Bob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, who chairs the Federal Lands Subcommittee, “are not super high on the wilderness area,” Knight said in April. “In fact, they’re not happy about it at all. So we’re working with them. But the major part of the bill is the monument, the memorial for the St. Francis Dam.”

The scheduling of a hearing for Tuesday indicates a willingness on the part of the committee to move forward with memorializing the dam disaster, which was America’s worst civil engineering failure of the 20th Century and California’s No. 2 most deadly disaster after the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

Another change from Knight’s earlier bill is assigning management authority to the USDA Forest Service rather than the National Park Service. The approximately 440-acre dam disaster property is public land administered by the Forest Service.

The bill instructs the Forest Service to work with state, tribal and local governments including the Santa Clarita City Council and come back to Congress within two years with a plan for the design, construction and management of the memorial, including a visitors center.