At first glance, it looks like a classic, even clichéd match-up between big-money development interests and grassroots environmental activists.
Trestles Beach, with world-class surfing on 12 varied and consistent breaks and anachronistically clean water, has been disputed territory in a running battle between the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) and a coalition of surfers and environmentalists for at least four years now.
Depending on whom you ask, the planned 16-mile Highway 241 Toll Road extension will either ease traffic congestion in an eco-friendly way or permanently degrade one of the last great surf spots in the county.
Area surfers predict the proposed $875 million toll road will permanently damage Trestles Beach. Armed with "Save Trestles" bumper stickers, T-shirts and enthusiasm, they've fought the project at every step—and have claimed victory with every delay.
At one point, construction was scheduled to begin this summer. Now, the target year is 2011. TCA spokeswoman Jennifer Seaton says a delay in approvals from environmental and government agencies moved back the groundbreaking.
Both groups toss around armloads of facts, but no one can really know what the effect will be of a new highway running adjacent to the San Mateo Creek near Cristianitos Road in San Clemente until it's built.
David Skelly, a coastal engineer contracted by TCA to study Trestles, says the beach is not in danger and that activists are using Trestles for attention because it's "sexy."
"It appeals to the stupid. It appeals to the lemmings of the world," he says. "The lemmings want to take up what they consider a righteous cause to get what they really want."
Skelly, who works for Irvine-based GeoSoils Inc., says what the surfers and activists really want is to delay the project and drive up the cost until the TCA decides it's not worth it.
Standing under a deafening Interstate 5 overpass, unofficial Trestles steward Jerry Collamer remarks at how much the San Mateo Creek has changed since his youth.
"None of this was here," he says while pointing at intense grading and landscaping supporting the concrete behemoth. "This is all completely different."
In the late 1950s, when he was barely a teenager, Collamer and his friends played cat-and-mouse with the U.S. Marines at Camp Pendleton to get to Trestles. Back then, there was no I-5, just a more-subdued four-lane Highway 101, with two lanes heading in either direction between Orange and San Diego counties. During the construction of the overpass, entire hills were moved as bulldozers dug down to bedrock to secure the massive structure.
Collamer says if the TCA's plans go through, the changes in the landscape will be similarly dramatic—and, when it comes to impact on the watershed, even worse.
The I-5's construction maintained the integrity of the San Mateo Creek, Collamer says, because the freeway runs perpendicular to the stream; the proposed toll road would parallel the creek. The San Mateo Creek trickles from the peaks of the Cleveland National Forest 16 miles to the west, all the way to a small lagoon in front of Trestles. When floods set in, the creek overflows into the ocean, where it deposits stones and sediment into the delta. The waves that have made Trestles a world-class surfing destination, Collamer says, are dependent on those sediments, which create the underwater formations that shape its breaks.
When the subject of the toll-road extension comes up, a plan to build a massive structure sweeping parallel to the San Mateo Creek and eventually swooping over the I-5 right in front of Trestles, Collamer gets swearing mad.
"When you're as old as I am, and you've got guys lying to your face and you know the facts, you say, 'Fuck, somebody's got to say something,'" he says.
A silver-haired surfer, Collamer is one of the first opponents of the toll road who helped garner popular support to "Save Trestles." The popular slogan, featured on more than 80,000 bumper stickers given away in the past few years, helped him build a coalition called the "Friends of the Foothills," which includes the Sierra Club, Surfrider Foundation, Audubon groups and local homeowners associations.
Collamer says a proposed water-retention basin in San Mateo Creek designed to catch and clean rain and debris runoff from the road will ruin the surf. The retention basin will impede the natural process that replenishes the surf during floods, he says, eventually leading to its demise.
Skelly says only a minuscule amount of the sediment is deposited—and only once every 10 to 50 years during major floods. He referred to the beach as "very robust."
"Trestles is not sensitive to small changes in sediment delivery," he says. "That's like pissing in the ocean and expecting to see the water level rise."
Skelly says after the retention basins are in place, they will filter the runoff from the new road as well as the I-5 and San Mateo Creek, creating better water quality than presently at Trestles.
According to Heal the Bay's 2006-2007 report card, released on May 23, the San Mateo Creek watershed received an A, the top grade for water quality.
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Surfrider foundation spokesman Matt McClain says the TCA wants to clean up the pollution they will create with the toll road, not existing pollution.
"They're really offering to fix a problem that doesn't exist," he says. "It's tantamount to saying, 'We're going to help Newt Gingrich beat his battle with anorexia.'"
Rick Irkeneff, chairman of the South Orange County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, says that as long as the TCA keeps pressing the issue, there will be activists standing in the way.
"The incentive for them is the $53 million per mile," he says, referring to the project's price tag. "The incentive for me is having that kind of nature available for me and my kids."