Packards Pork

We had nothing but big, wet, sloppy congratulations for South Orange County Congressman Ron Packard upon his appointment as the chairman of the House Energy and Water subcommittee, a branch of the House Appropriations Committee. Appointed in January, one of Packard's first public moves as chairman was to warn water-greedy OC residents—via The Orange County Register—that “I would be embarrassed to go to the other members of my subcommittee or the other members of Congress who are going to vote for my bill and have it weighted with California projects.”

Meaning OC gets no special treatment.

So imagine our surprise when, not two weeks after Packard's proclamation, we received a press release from Packard's office detailing more than $35 million worth of water projects that directly benefit the county, $10.5 million of which were either not among the White House's original budget recommendations or had been increased substantially.

“The congressman has put out a responsible bill,” Packard spokesman Adam Schwartz responded when contacted by the Weekly. Indeed, as Packard Pork goes, this is barely a BLT. Even the most rabid anti-environmentalist—such as Packard—can hardly grumble at the prospect of clean water and anti-erosion projects in areas such as Newport Bay, Huntington Beach's Blufftop Park and the San Juan Creek Watershed. The House of Representatives agreed, passing the bill 420 to 8.

But it's the 48th District congressman's poor environmental record that makes these water projects ripe for further scrutiny. What do they all have in common? They're all studies of or ongoing attempts to undo damage done to local waterways and shores by overdevelopment. They are, in short, attempts to shift the costs of private development from corporate developers to taxpayers.

“I'd say 90 to 95 percent of it is due to development,” said former Laguna Beach City Councilman Wayne Baglin when asked about the source of the damage done to one project on Packard's gift list: the Aliso Creek Watershed in Laguna Beach. Baglin, who sits on the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, has been heavily involved with the cleanup of the sewer-ridden creek and the polluted beach it leads to—a project that has been federally assisted for the past three years.

“The volume of the water flowing through the creek has been exaggerated by development,” Baglin explained. “We straightened it, which caused it to work like a fire hose, causing erosion. When a stream meanders, it makes up for that, channels it in a much slower manner.”

The primary result of Aliso Creek's sewage drainage problems has been the incursion of bacteria pollution, causing beachgoers to fall ill. “With no development, that pollution would not exist,” said Baglin.

Funds for the Aliso Creek Watershed will be used to expand the creek's width, shore the sides with concrete and carry out other measures that will, essentially, help nature do what it would have done if developers hadn't interfered with it in the first place, he added.

The stories of other OC water projects are similar, particularly with Newport Bay, which was allocated $1.5 million for pollution cleanup and environmental restoration, including $700,000 for an offshore disposal site for uncontaminated waste.

Perhaps cynically, even the most environmentally minded are beginning to realize that the best they can hope for is to clean up damage done and minimize the effects of the inevitable next barrage of development, such as the reported construction of 14,000 new homes in Irvine, Mission Viejo and San Clemente—part of which falls in Packard's district.

“What we're looking at with all of this,” said Larry Paul, the county's manager of coastal facilities, “is how much of this can we preserve, knowing that this will be developed at one time or another. We need to ask, 'How can we stay ahead of the curve?' Take a comprehensive view. Rather than dealing with just the end of the pipeline, you have to look at everything that drains into it. . . . If you know what the cumulative impacts are going to be in total, it's easier to deal with from all sides.”

The most pernicious thing about the water projects in Packard's bill is that no one seems confident that these are anything but stopgap measures if the pace and manner of development don't change.

“We are far closer to being stuck in a cycle than we are to having an answer and being proactive,” said Baglin, who nonetheless has faith in new legislation, homeowner vigilance and technology to forestall future ecological problems.

It's difficult to imagine Packard's interest in water quality sprouting from environmental altruism.

“Ron Packard never met an environmental bill that he was for,” Sierra Club lobbyist Dan Weiss told the Register. Among his dubious accomplishments, the congressman has, as chairman of the Military Construction Subcommittee, failed to see to the removal of dangerous stockpiles of Navy napalm from north San Diego County and battled vehemently to run roads through some of OC's few remaining wilderness areas.

Despite a precious few local environmental stances—opposition to the proposed El Toro Airport and previous support for coastal cleanup—Packard ranks near the bottom in “environmental scores” in Congress, according to the League of Conservation Voters, which could find only one environmentally friendly bill he supported in the last Congress: tropical rain forest conservation. Meanwhile, Packard actively opposed measures to protect forests, limit logging and fund energy-efficiency programs that would reduce air pollution from the extraction, refinement and burning of fossil fuels.

Packard is unperturbed by attacks on his anti-environmental stances, citing his Mormon upbringing as a justification. “People are the key factor in my judgment,” he told the Register. “The earth was created for people, and I deeply believe that. It's a religious issue for me.”

He has, however, enjoyed great support from the construction and transportation industry, to the tune of $105,510 in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That's an impressive haul when you consider he didn't face a Democratic opponent in '98. But such support's not surprising; in addition to serving on several House committees critical to new construction, his district overlaps one of the hottest building regions on the planet: South Orange County and North San Diego County. And the future of new development in Orange County—indeed, in Southern California—rests upon reliable sources of clean water.

“If it weren't for some farsighted people,” commented Baglin, “Southern California wouldn't exist. Los Angeles would be smaller than San Francisco. Without a reliable source of water, we would be forced to take extreme measures, such as desalinization, or putting a moratorium on construction altogether.”

Not if Ron Packard has anything to say about it.

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