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Abandoned cattle pond now saving turtles

A family of southwestern pond turtles needed a new home; Irvine Co. gave them one

IRVINE, Calif. — A short hike down from Serrano Ridge, behind a thicket of willows and mulefat, sits an ordinary little pond—with an extraordinary story.

It started as a watering hole back when cattle roamed Irvine Ranch in the 19th and 20th centuries. Over the years it dried up. Then in 2001, Irvine Company revived it to rescue a family of small turtles.

The company’s efforts stretched over a decade and required more than a mile-long water pipe to keep the turtles alive.

Today “Turtle Pond,” barely 40 feet in diameter, is home to one of the densest concentrations of southwestern pond turtles in Orange County.

And more are on the way.
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Western pond turtles (actinemys marmorata) once thrived along the coast of California.
Their numbers dropped through the 1960s and ‘70s, however, and by 1987, they inhabited just four known locales in Orange County.

So a decade later, when Irvine Company found 27 of these turtles while building the Village of Shady Canyon, it relocated them as part of its mitigation plan with the City of Irvine.

The company chose an abandoned cattle pond in Upper Shady Canyon, amid 6,000 acres it had permanently preserved as open space. Workers dug a well and installed a solar pump to fill the pond.

Soon the turtles were splashing among cattail, bulrush and fennel-leaved pondweed they eat. Each summer, the females crawled into the adjacent coastal sage scrub to build nests and lay eggs. The little family doubled. Tripled. Quadrupled to more than 120.

They needed more water than the nearby well could supply.

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For a while, Irvine Company trucked in water: six trips a day up the rutted service roads of Upper Shady Canyon, over Serrano Ridge and down to the pond.

In June 2006, the company trucked in more than 330,000 gallons to keep the turtles afloat. But that proved impractical.

So it got environmental approvals to install above-ground pipes from an Irvine Ranch Water District tank atop Shady Canyon all the way down to a little pond with little turtles.

As part of its mitigation agreement, Irvine Company dedicated Turtle Pond to the city along with a $100,000 endowment to maintain it. The Irvine Ranch Conservancy now cares for the pond and the entire 6,000-acre preserve for the city.

This year the conservancy will remove sediment in the pond, doubling its size, and allowing the family of turtles to grow once again.

That’s good news for the southwestern pond turtle whose numbers are on the rise—thanks to an abandoned cattle pond, a mile of water pipe and efforts by many to keep them alive.

— May 2016