By LP Hastings
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"I'm not saying these people are wasting their time," he hastens to add. "They can make that 1 percent more effective!"
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"We do not feel that [Athens] are good environmental stewards, and they are gonna need a lot of monitoring," says Penny Alia, an activist with the Sierra Club and the Laguna Beach Surfrider Chapter. Approximately a decade younger than Butow, she's tanned and fit, looking like someone who hikes into nature on a regular basis.
Alia is conducting a tour of her own. Butow doesn't consider Alia to be as knowledgeable as he on watershed issues, saying she's "an example of one of my students turning on me." To this, she laughs and responds, "Roger's everybody's mentor, in case you hadn't noticed!"
But we are not here to focus directly on the water, but rather another area whose fate is entwined with the creek's: Hobo Aliso ridge. Also owned by the Athens Group, it was scheduled to be included in part of the Aliso Canyon EIR, though locals and council members at the scoping hearing sounded off resoundingly in favor of separate EIRs, given how different the areas are.
The dirt needed to elevate the floodplain is going to come from scouring the ridge, and that doesn't sit too well with residents. As Alia drives us down a narrow residential street, she points out that this is one of only two outlets to the main road and that "they are scheduled to export at least 3,000 truckloads of dirt that'll have to come down these streets."
In the process of clearing this area to get the dirt for the floodplain (and possible development there that is as-yet unspecified), Athens hasn't necessarily treated the ridge too well. The location is home to a rare plant called the big-leaved crownbeard; Alia says this is "one of the only areas on the entire planet where this plant is, and it's an endangered species" as of 1996. In 2005, Athens cleared it out, ostensibly for brush-fire prevention, which caused them to run afoul of the California Coastal Commission. According to commission enforcement officer Andrew Willis, "We would need much more than notice for something like that; it wouldn't be something we could approve." He says the city filed a nuisance abatement order after the plants were already cleared, adding that "crownbeard is not exactly a hazardous plant when it comes to fire."
Other violations with regard to the ridge, listed in Coastal Commission documents (obtained by Alia and provided to the Weekly) include "removal of major vegetation; placement of approximately 5,500 sandbags, sand/gravel berms, filter fabric over the berms and plastic discharge pipes; and grading to create building pads and roads in an environmentally sensitive habitat area."
Resolution of these issues is still pending, and perhaps as a result, Alia is skeptical that Athens has any positive environmental plans for the creek and canyon. In response to Athens' promise to improve water quality, she says, "How will they do that—did they tell you? They won't tell you much."
Joan Gladstone, community liaison for the Athens Group, initially agreed to take questions in writing from the Weekly. The e-mailed list included inquiries about the steelhead trout and the coastal commission violations. "Thank you for your interest," Gladstone responded, "however, we can't help you with this particular story."
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Two years ago, federal and county agencies sought an estimated $45 million in federal funding for cleaning Aliso Creek as part of what became known as the SUPER-project—an acronym for Stabilization, Utility Protection and Environmental Restoration. Congressman John Campbell told Laguna Beach's Coastline Pilot, "I was interested in this project for years when I was in the state Legislature; now I am in a position to do something about it." Yet the fiscally conservative Republican ultimately didn't sign on to the proposal.
Marilyn Thoms, manager of environmental engineering with the OC Watersheds, gives things a more diplomatic spin: "We have secured some of the funds: $1 million from Department of Water Resources, and another $4.6 million from the state water board. We continue to work with the federal Army Corps of Engineers to get the federal costs." She doesn't blame Campbell, but she says that the congressman ultimately didn't support it because there wasn't a lot of money to go around and existing projects took priority over new ones. The Athens Group has promised to help in the effort to obtain the rest of the funding.
Alia, meanwhile, finds the whole thing to be a Trojan Horse, calling the proposal "nothing more than a utilitarian project to rescue all the sewer pipes that are exposed." As part of Surfrider, she's been testing the seawater, right at the beach into which Aliso Creek flows, for enterococcus bacteria, which Surfrider's website calls "a valuable bacterial indicator for determining the extent of fecal contamination of recreational surface waters."
Mike Fennessey at the Orange County Health Care Agency's water-quality program, which issues advisories when bacterial contamination becomes too high, says that 104 colony-forming units of enterococcus per 100 milliliters of beach water sampled is the level at which health warnings need to be posted. In August 2004, an independent test by Surfrider measured a whopping level of 24,196 units per 100 milliliters at a storm drain by Treasure Island. Fennessey's supervisor, Larry Honeybourne, says that while Surfrider is usually reliable, their tests do not have to be lab-certified in the same way official tests are. While stating that his results from around that time show the seawater to have been "in compliance," he also points out that the agency does not test levels of bacteria in storm drains, which are commonly quite high; California has no state standards for fresh water, Honeybourne says, just seawater.
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