A River Runs Beneath It

Santa Ana River toll road elevates eco-fears

Phoenix-based American Transportation Development LLC wants to build an 11-mile toll road along the length of the Santa River, between the 57 and 405 freeways. Not a road that occasionally crosses the river, mind you. They want to build a road in the river, elevated slightly above what they figure would be flood level.

In the river.

They've asked for the county's permission to do all this, building the road, billing themselves and paying themselves with money they'd get floating about a billion dollars' worth of tax-exempt bonds on Wall Street. Then they want to turn the road over to a nonprofit agency—an agency very much like the Transportation Corridors Agency that has so mismanaged the county's other toll roads—in exchange for a multimillion-dollar contract to run the Santa Ana River toll road for several decades.

If the financial possibilities—tax-exempt bonds to build the kind of road that hasn't yet turned a profit in Orange County—don't spook you, the potential for environmental disaster should. On the rare occasion when someone has expressed fears about the environmental effects of building a toll road in a river, those fears have dealt with noise, aesthetics, air quality and possibly impeding the flood-control functions of the mostly concrete river.

Following last year's bummer in the summer, that could change. Despite spending more than a million dollars looking for the source of high bacteria levels that closed stretches of the Huntington Beach coastline last summer, government and water-district officials still shrug when you ask them to name the culprit. But they'll admit that their shortlist of suspects includes the Santa Ana River.

No mystery there: the Santa Ana River has poured shitty water into the ocean off Huntington Beach for years. Bacteria counts at the river mouth often exceed state standards by more than double.

That's because the Santa Ana, once the most dangerous river west of the Mississippi, has become an immense, concrete-lined sewer, draining a 3,200-square-mile area inhabited by 4.4 million people. It begins at Big Bear Lake and snakes along a 75-mile path to Huntington Beach. Along the way, it picks up runoff from storm drains in more than a dozen cities—runoff that includes disease-carrying microbes, oil, trash, pesticides, and animal and people shit.

Given all that, you'd naturally assume that once you told local environmentalists of plans to build a roadway a few feet above the Santa Ana's predominantly concrete riverbed, they'd be, well, agitated.

"Hell, yes, I'm concerned," said Orange County CoastKeeper's Garry Brown, who conceded he'd heard little of the proposal. "Automobiles are among the worst polluters we have."

"Certainly that's going to be something we're going to have to examine," said Nancy Gardner of the Surfrider Foundation's Newport Beach chapter, which for years has developed strategies for cleaning up Santa Ana River water that constantly fouls the once popular River Jetties surfing beach.

Like Brown, Gardner had only vague knowledge of the elevated toll road. But she sees it fitting a pattern of similar projects that threaten the environment.

"That's always the thing: you can look at an environmental-impact report and try to anticipate potential environmental problems. But when they talk about traffic, they talk about it in other ways," she said—ways like congestion, parking, air pollution, but not water quality. "Anything that involves a lot of cars and construction [near a river] should make you really nervous."

It's a safe guess that far more people are nervous about accidental oil spills—they're a daily occurrence, dumping almost 3 million barrels of oil into oceans around the world annually. But, as environmental awareness group the Worldwatch Institute points out, that pales next to the 19 million barrels of oil that enter oceans every year from street runoff and other "normal" features of a petroleum-based society.

"Our roads, highways and bridges can be a source of a significant amount of pollution," states a 1995 federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report. "Pollution is generated during road construction, maintenance and use. Nonpoint source pollution is created when chemicals, debris, fertilizers, automotive oils, debris from wear and tear and litter are washed off roadways and bridges during rainstorms and carried off as runoff to streams, rivers and bays."

Materials found in highway-related runoff and their primary sources include a dictionary of stuff that'll kill you, or at least make you miserable: particulates from smog, pavement wear and car-care products; lead from auto exhaust and tire wear; zinc from oil, grease and tire wear; iron from auto-body rust, moving-engine parts and highway structures; cadmium from tire wear and insecticide applications; chromium from brake lining, metal plating and moving-engine parts; nickel from oil, asphalt, metal plating, brush wear, brake lining and gas/ diesel exhaust; manganese from moving-engine parts; sulfate from fuel; and petroleum from spills, fluid leaks and asphalt. According to the EPA, petroleum hydrocarbons from engines that drip oil can become concentrated at levels that kill aquatic organisms—bad news for sea creatures higher on the food chain—and collect on the ocean floor, where they can stay for long periods.

"Copper brake lining has a real devastating effect," said Brown, whose group has found high copper levels in Newport Harbor. "Copper levels are already high in storm-water runoff. We don't need more."

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