Press Release # 352

Subj: OOG: San Diego Creek Emergency Dredging, Vireo on Premises
Date: 12/15/2003 2:34:28 PM Eastern Standard Time
From: Jon V3
To: Jon V3

Dear Ocean Outfall Group (OOG) and Watershed Interested Parties:

I took a tour of the San Diego Creek site in the drizzle yesterday and walked the entire 2.5 miles on the west side of the creek, looking across to the east side, where Orange County Flood Control is going to ask the Orange County Board of Supervisors tomorrow, Tuesday, for emergency authorization to dredge out 20 acres of riparian vegetation along the creek, including 1,600 tons of vegetation and sediment at a cost of $3.3 million. See below articles from the December 11 Register and today's Daily Pilot.

From my observations, this emergency does not exist and there are alternatives that should be considered more thoroughly, such as enlarging the creek on the west bank, which has a paucity of vegetation and is 40 to over 100 feet wide.

I think one reason for the emergency and its attendant lack of environmental and agency review and mitigation requirements might be the discovery of an endangered bird, Least Bell's Vireo, which has been found in the riparian area at the southeast


portion of San Diego Creek as per the Mitigated Neg Dec EIR for the San Diego Creek Sediment Basin No. 2 Project that was just released last month, (page 50) and also, IRWD might be contemplating litigation to force the issue without going through the normal EIR/agency approval/mitigation process.

Another issue is the possibility of the riparian area being a mitigation site for another project. Willows have been observed being planted there in the past. Just one more reason for full evaluation of the emergency dredging project.

Below are photos I took yesterday illustrating my point that land exists on the west bank to enlarge the flood control channel in that direction, without disturbing the riparian habitat on the east bank. Right-click on the image to enlarge by clicking edit picture.

Don't forget to attend the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, December 16, from 9:30 to 12 noon. Directions at the Board link below. The Agenda item is number 64. The staff report is not available online. It may have to be picked up at the County Hall of Administration office at 10 Civic Center Plaza, Santa Ana. See link:

Board of Supervisors - Agenda and Meetings

Hope to see you on Tuesday. Go over to the site by driving down Michelson to Riparian View before the bridge over San Diego Creek. Park and walk. I think you might agree that the emergency action is uncalled for.
Jan Vandersloot (949) 548-6326

Looking across the creek from the west side to the east side. Note the riparian on the east side and weeds on the west side.

Looking down the creek towards the Upper Newport Bay, the east side of the creek riparian area is to the left. The west side to the right could be excavated to enlarge flood capacity.

Looking up the creek, the east side riparian is to the right. The west side unvegetated bank to the left can be excavated to increase flood capacity. Lots of land on the west bank.

Bottom of the creek filled with sediment. Removal would increase flood capacity.

Snowy White Egret above the 405 Freeway. This area has riprap, which could be placed on west side of bank in problem areas.

Riprap on west side of bank above 405 Freeway. Possible solution for portions of west bank below 405 Freeway, without damaging east bank riparian area.

Barren west bank compared to lush east bank of creek.

Michelson Reclamation Plant with a lot of land between it and the creek that could be used for flood control purposes through excavation, riprap, berms, retaining walls, etc.

Rather than remove riparian on east side to the left, remove weeds and enlarge channel on the west bank to the right.

Makes more sense to enlarge flood capacity on the west side to the left than remove valuable riparian on the east side of the creek to the right.

Incredible bird life in the creek near the riparian areas.

Creek near MacArthur. Again, notice copious land on the west bank to the right for enlargement of flood capacity, rather than removing riparian vegetation on the east bank to the left

Below is the Register article of December 11, 2003

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Habitat seen as hazard

Concern that flood could swamp sewage plant pits engineering against ecology.

The Orange County Register

A big storm could trigger flooding of Upper Newport Bay and nearby buildings with millions of gallons of raw sewage unless a 2 1/2-mile stretch of overgrown streamside trees and shrubs is immediately destroyed and removed, county officials said Wednesday.

The head of the county's Public Facilities and Resources Department will ask the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday for an emergency declaration to allow the clearing of tall, thick willow trees along San Diego Creek, which flows into Upper Newport Bay. If the trees aren't cleared, they could dam up the creek during a big storm and cause a sewage treatment plant to be flooded in water 10 feet deep, officials say.

It would take three months to remove about 1,600 tons of trees, shrubs and sediment at an estimated cost of $3.3 million. County officials would leave a strip of thinned vegetation on the creek's east bank.

The work would begin as soon as the supervisors approve.

"We've got a real problem on our hands," said Kenneth R. Smith, the director of the county's public facilities department. "It's the right thing to do." Activist Joey Racano, a frequent protester against destruction of wetland habitat, said he does not trust the county's conclusions. "These guys seem to think that nature is the enemy of water flow," he said. "And it's just not true. That is top-grade habitat over there."

The willows, mulefat and other plants have been growing for years and have become valuable habitat for egrets, herons and other creatures. But calculations by flood engineers this summer revealed the channel was so full of trees and sediment that a 10-year storm - that is, a storm of an intensity expected roughly every 10 years, but that could happen any year - would swamp the Irvine Ranch Water District sewage treatment plant on the creek's west bank. The 10-year storm that officials predict would flood the area now would be far smaller than, say, the rains brought by El Niño in 1997.

Most of the sewage flowing through pipelines into the plant could be diverted to the Orange County Sanitation District. But the flooding, which would shut down the plant's electrical system and its sewage pumps, could cause 4 million gallons per day to back up and flow into the bay.

Upper Newport Bay is vital habitat for rare birds and other wildlife, and a popular recreation area.

Such a flood also could swamp Mariposa Villa, an Irvine apartment complex whose residents are disabled. Also at risk are the nearby Bethel Korean Church and the Irvine First Chinese Baptist Church, as well as buildings on the University of California, Irvine, campus. Damage could total $40 million to $50 million, and the bay could be closed to recreational use for days or weeks.

Wetland ponds at San Joaquin Marsh adjacent to the sewage plant, also important bird habitat, could be swamped with sewage.

Nearby residential areas probably would not be flooded, even in a more massive storm, because they are on higher ground, Smith said.

Weather experts don't expect this year to be especially rainy, but storms are unpredictable.

When the San Diego Creek channel was originally engineered for flood control in 1969, it was wide enough to handle a 100-year storm without flooding. In recent years, Smith said, county officials grew concerned about the thickness of the growth but were unable to gain clearance to remove it from the state Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"They have a mission and a focus that is very much one of restoring, recovering and preventing habitat loss," Smith said.

Fish and Game officials familiar with the situation could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Fred O. Egeler, spokesman for the Army Corps, said his agency could issue an emergency permit to allow the clearing.

He said he did not have enough information Wednesday to respond to Smith's assertion that the Corps had stymied earlier clearing efforts.

The situation closely resembles a problem in the Santa Ana River bed, where growth of willows and other trees on a stretch of river between Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa is also prompting flood worries.

End Register Article.

Today's Daily Pilot Article, 12-15-03:

County pushing for creek clearing

Environmentalists caution against rushing to pull plants above the Back Bay to prevent flooding.

Alicia Robinson
Daily Pilot

December 15, 2003

NEWPORT BEACH — To avert a flood that could cause a sewage spill into the Upper Newport Bay, county officials want to begin removing plants and sediment from San Diego Creek above MacArthur Boulevard as early as Wednesday.

Local environmentalists say they're concerned about the animals that travel the waterway and they want to see some other area within the watershed improved to replace the lost habitat.

On Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors will address a request from the Public Facilities and Resources Department to declare an emergency so that the clearing of vegetation from a 2.5-mile segment of the creek can begin immediately.

"I think the big risk is that in a moderate to heavy rain, that we could be having severe environmental damage in Upper Newport Bay," said Ken Smith, the county's director of public works.

A severe flood could overwhelm the Irvine Ranch Water District's Michelson Water Reclamation Plant with 10 feet of floodwater, shutting down pumps and sending as much as 4 million gallons a day of raw sewage into the bay, Smith said.

"That is the big difference between that and, say, some other flooding problem that would be a threat," he said.

The $3.3-million project will take about three months and will restore the creek to full flood capacity. The 10-mile creek is the main tributary in the San Diego Creek watershed and has been reduced to 54% of its design capacity by overgrowth, according to information from the county.

The plan is to remove trees and plants in the 2.5-mile stretch of the creek between Michelson Drive and MacArthur Boulevard. A 40-foot buffer of vegetation on the east bank will be thinned in places.

After county engineering studies in August uncovered the threat of flooding, the Irvine Ranch Water District immediately explored the effects of flooding on its treatment plant.

Although weather experts are predicting a normal to dry year, the project is urgent because public health will remain at risk, as will some area businesses and residences, if the creek's capacity isn't restored, Smith said.

Newport Beach officials support the idea.

"I think it's important to do the work quickly," said Dave Kiff, Newport Beach assistant city manager.

He added that he thinks the county will address his concerns, which include that no more vegetation is removed than is necessary and that a plan is created to replace lost habitat.

Environmentalist Jack Skinner was also worried about the effects of reducing the riparian, or stream-side, corridor.

"The preservation of these animal species would be lost if you didn't have the adequate ability for animal movements in these corridors," Skinner said.

Other environmentalists are taking an even harder stance against the idea.

Activist Jan Vandersloot said he thinks the county is using the threat of a sewage spill to rush the project through as an emergency instead of going through the usual process of evaluation by the public and various government agencies.

"What really concerns me is that they're getting around the normal regulatory process," he said. "I think the threat of raw sewage going into the bay is just a red herring that they're using to scare people."

He agrees with Skinner that some sort of work should be done to replace the riparian habitat that the project will remove.

Instead of funding this project, Vandersloot said, "they ought to be spending a million or so to fix the water reclamation plant so they can divert the sewage if there's a flood."

About 70% of the wastewater coming into the plant can be diverted to the Orange County Sanitation District if necessary, but the remainder could overflow during a flood because the plant's pumps might not work.

County staff members note that if the work is not done under an emergency declaration, obtaining permits could take three to four years, but the county might have chosen to act quickly for another reason: to ward off the possibility of litigation.

Smith said there wasn't any threat of litigation, but the Nov. 24 meeting agenda for the Irvine Ranch Water District Board of Directors lists a closed session to discuss "significant exposure to litigation" concerning San Diego Creek and flood risk to the Michelson Water Reclamation Plant.

Marilyn Smith, Irvine Ranch Water District spokeswoman, said that she didn't know if any litigation was proposed but that the board did discuss it.

"Our board of directors' main responsibility is protecting public health, so there's always that potential," she said. "Our board discussed all options, but it doesn't look like we're going to go in that direction."

Ken Smith said any mitigation will have to be negotiated with the involved government agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Fish and Game.

• ALICIA ROBINSON covers business, politics and the environment. She can be reached at (949) 764-4330 or by e-mail at

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