A River Runs Beneath It

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.”

Copper and other heavy metal sediments promise medical problems severer than the usual sniffles, earaches and flu symptoms associated with ocean pollution. Heavy metals have been linked to brain damage, immune-system failure and other long-term illnesses for people who ingest them.

And despite the lack of public debate at the County Hall of Administration, these public-health dangers have been well-documented. In cases all over the country, researchers have discovered a connection between highway runoff and water pollution. Traffic-related pollutants are a major component of runoff fouling Wisconsin's Madison lakes. Copper from automobile brake pads is a significant source of San Francisco Bay pollution. Dirt from highway construction has choked the Illinois River at the Arkansas-Oklahoma border. In Everett, Washington, black liquid sloshes through Interstate 5 bridge drains into the Snohomish River. That has so alarmed Washington state regulators that they now require runoff plans be part of any new highway construction.

And for those who believe such pollution can't happen in Grand Master Planned OC, take note: toll roads already pollute local waters. At an April 1999 meeting about proposed improvements to the Aliso Creek watershed, county project manager Larry Paul mentioned that highway-construction and traffic-related runoff—including unacceptable levels of copper—from the San Joaquin Hills toll road is pouring into pristine Laguna Canyon and flushing into the ocean. Paul added—incredulously, it seemed—that no one had considered runoff when officials green-lighted the project.

The EPA now recommends that officials include in their road-building plans strategies to deal with runoff rather than waiting until after a road has been built and begun polluting. As if speaking directly to the Santa Ana River toll-road planners, the EPA adds: “An important consideration in planning is the distance between a highway and a watercourse.”

It's a safe bet that “directly above” is not the distance the EPA had in mind. But in trying to confirm that, the Weekly was treated to a classic bureaucratic runaround. A call to the EPA's West Coast region office that deals with nonpoint source pollution was met with a recorded message that the “position is vacant.” EPA press officer David Schmidt said he could probably find someone on staff to respond, but he later called back and said his agency would only get involved if it's discovered the toll-road project had been built without a permit and was discharging pollution. The agency that would deal with potential water-quality problems from the project would be the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Schmidt advised.

After calls to several corps offices, we were given the name of the person who could speak about the toll-road project. She later called and said we'd need to talk to another person, who was out sick. At press time, that person had not returned our calls.

But corps representatives have previously revealed their feelings about the over-the-river road. During another incarnation of the project—which dies and un-dies more frequently than Dracula—corps official Bruce Henderson told the LA Times in October 1994 that there were no apparent environmental obstacles to hamper the project. The only concern, he said, was that columns used to support the road might affect “the flow of water.” Other than that, Henderson reportedly told the Times, “I don't see anything that the corps would not permit at this point. . . . It doesn't sound like it's a horrible project. It's a big, wide river. You would think they can design structures that can withstand the flow of the river and still allow traffic on the facility.”

Mel Placilla, the project manager for the private group that later abandoned the toll road to another developer, boasted in the same story, “I don't think we'll have a bugs and bunnies issue here.”

As long as the bugs and bunnies are fine and the water flows freely, it seems the corps would have little to object to even if it were proved water quality might suffer under a toll road. At an Aliso Creek watershed meeting, a corps official said her agency's mission is not to improve water quality but to ensure proper flood control. She stressed that water-quality concerns must be taken up with the EPA—which brings us back to the starting point of the bureaucratic runaround.

The idea of using a river channel to alleviate traffic congestion is not new. In 1989, then-Assemblyman Richard Katz floated the idea of converting one-third of the Los Angeles River into an expressway. The plan was mocked by engineers, environmentalists and late-night TV comics before a 1992 storm turned the normally pallid concrete channel into, well, a real river. That was the deathblow for Katz's dream. During his bid for mayor of LA a few years later, political opponents seized on the so-called “Katz Freeway.” He lost badly.


Still, considering their unnatural states, concrete rivers will always be subject to such wacky plans. As Lewis MacAdams, co-founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, put it, “It's easier to destroy something if you call it a flood-control channel.”

Anyone in a rush to destroy the Santa Ana River would be wise to consider potential legal ramifications. In 1997, Caltrans agreed to a nearly $3 million settlement after the nonprofit environmental group San Diego BayKeeper proved the agency's sloppy runoff-control practices throughout the region were polluting Mission Bay.

“I was just talking with some marine biologists, and the thing that concerns us is when you look at an elevated freeway or Crystal Cove or Treasure Island or the Headlands in Dana Point, no one's looking at the cumulative effect of all of it, of how collectively they will degrade the marine environment,” said Brown, in whose Newport Beach office hangs an aerial photograph showing a pollution plume that starts at the Santa Ana River mouth and extends eight miles out to sea.

“We can show all kinds of things about Crystal Cove. But what are the effects of 865 homes at Crystal Cove combined with what's going on a few miles down the road at Treasure Island, then a few miles down from that at the Headlands? The elevated toll road is the same thing. They can hire consultants to say whatever they want—for example, that they will have no effect. Obviously they will have an effect. And coupled with everything else, that could be a devastating effect.”

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