Photo by Keith MayWatching a customer taking in the stunning view of the Pacific Ocean shimmering under a mid-October sun, a Crystal Cove Shake Shack worker struck up small talk by noting the obvious: "Beautiful day, eh?"
Whip around and face the opposite side of Pacific Coast Highway, and you can't help but wonder if those beautiful days are numbered.
Denuded hills just above environmentally sensitive Crystal Cove State Beach are abuzz with activity. Workers and heavy equipment are everywhere within a mile-wide swath of the hillside between Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. Earthmovers roar by in military precision, carving streets and pads for the first 300 of 800 exclusive homes destined for the area.
Work began in April, and the Irvine Co., which is developing the residential and shopping-center project Crystal Cove at Newport Coast on one of the largest chunks of prime coastal real estate left in Orange County, plans to sell its first gated "Santa Barbara-style" homes by next summer.
But before escrow opens, the winter rains will come. And that spooks local environmentalists.
"If it begins raining and they are unfinished, I think even the most uneducated person can recognize the environmental disaster: a chocolate-brown runoff filled with sediment that will ultimately suffocate all marine life," predicted Orange Coast College marine science professor Dennis L. Kelly.
Listed as one of 34 biologically sensitive locations on the California coast, Crystal Cove is a birthing spot for the coastal bottlenose dolphin. Migrating gray whales and their young swim there, while sea lions and seals come ashore—"which is kind of rare," according to Kelly. The cove is home to some 70 species of fish, a large population of lobster, shrimp, scallops, mussels, oysters and a dwindling number of rare abalone.
Though the mainstream dailies have focused on the long-term effects of urban runoff from the finished project, little has been said about the short-term possibility of mudslides from the construction zone.
That worries a number of environmentalists, who say that the steep slopes of dirt stripped of vegetation offer no place to hold back mud and runoff if heavy rains come.
"I can't believe all that grading is going on now," said Garry Brown, executive director of the environmental watchdog group Orange County CoastKeeper.
Teresa Henry, the state Coastal Commission's South Coast district manager, echoed that sentiment, saying it does seem "kind of strange" that such a large area of earth was exposed so close to the rainy season.
"We have very sophisticated processes in place as well as plans in the event of rain," countered Larry Thomas, the Irvine Co.'s vice president of communications. "We have had a lot of experience over the years, but probably the worst and most difficult and most challenging was during the El Nio season. As we were doing work in other places on the Newport Coast and other places on the ranch, we had problems internally on some of the sites, but we did not have any damage to adjacent properties from any runoff or slides or those kinds of things during El Nio, which range during different times from five-year to 100-year storms."
To minimize storm damage, the developer uses desilting and detention basins to catch moving water; berms, bunkers, silt fences and sandbags to control mud flows; and biodegradable material that is sprayed on dirt to hold materials together, according to Thomas, who added that the company monitors weather forecasts closely and places movable storm-fighting devices in potential trouble spots accordingly.
"We are real confident with our plans and our ability to control any flow of soil or movement of soil in storming," Thomas concluded, "and we have the El Nio experience to point to."
Indeed, there were no reports of Newport Coast mud or runoff fouling adjacent property during the 1997-98 El Nio. But six years earlier, muddy water from the then-freshly graded Newport Coast hillsides cascaded onto the beach. "It looked and roared like a brown Niagra Falls," Mike Egan, Crystal Cove State Parks supervisor, told The Orange County Register. At the time, the Irvine Co. claimed no marine habitat was damaged, but environmentalists reported murkier water and more dead sea urchins than in years past in the federally protected marine preserve just off the shoreline.
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Some storm-fighting strategies Thomas mentioned were in place during another controversial project that produced a mammoth mudslide.
"We all saw how effective that was with the kind of grading that was done by the toll-road agency before Laguna Beach's mudslide disaster," Kelly said of the January 1998 calamity. "Lo and behold, during the big El Nio rains, the center of Laguna was washed out. So we already have an idea what can happen with that amount of grading being done to a coastal shrub community."
Kelly vowed to monitor the Crystal Cove project and, if necessary, contact government agencies and recommend fines against the Irvine Co. if downstream habitats are damaged.
The Irvine Co. should be held accountable if Kelly's fears are realized, he said. "I'm going to be poised down there with a camera to document what happens, to collect very good scientific evidence. I think the Park Service and just normal citizens should go after the company if something happens."