Opting to avoid more populous and politically powerful areas, San Diego County officials announced Monday that a remote canyon near Warner Springs has been selected as the top candidate for a new North County landfill.
With enough room to handle the North County's trash for at least 45 years, the 1,000-acre parcel has the greatest capacity of any surveyed by officials during their drawn-out search for a dump site.
Known as Blue Canyon, the chaparral-strewn site is just off California 79 about 7 miles northwest of Warner Springs and a mile south of Oak Grove, a small community near the Riverside County line.
A canyon north of Pala and a third site sandwiched between the communities of Fallbrook and Rainbow were chosen as the second and third selections, respectively, by solid-waste specialists with the county's Department of Public Works.
The recommendations, the result of a three-year search, will be presented to the county Board of Supervisors Aug. 16 for approval. County officials are recommending that the board authorize environmental reviews and geological studies for each of the sites so a variety of options can be maintained in the face of what experts predict will be dogged opposition from nearby residents.
Indeed, although the sites are in relatively isolated areas, county officials fully expect a fight over the landfill, which they hope to have open by the mid-1990s.
"I would anticipate that most any place we put it there will be litigation," said Nancy Allen, chief of staff for North County Supervisor John MacDonald, who has made finding a landfill site a top priority. "People out there will not be very happy, and people who are not happy these days tend to sue. We're certainly not inviting that, but as a practical matter it's likely to happen."
Residents of the area around Blue Canyon suggested that might just be the case.
"There is tremendous opposition and environmental concern that will unite people," said R. Blair Maine, chairman of the Northeast San Diego County Environment Protection Committee.
Maine said roads in the area are "narrow things designed in the '20s and '30s" that would be hard-pressed to handle the 100 semi-trailer trucks that would haul trash to the landfill each day.
Earthquake faults that riddle the region have prompted concerns that runoff from the dump could seep into the ground water, wreaking environmental havoc, Maine said.
Instead of selecting the best site, the county is steering toward a parcel in a part of the North County outback where "they feel the least political opposition exists," Maine said.
But county officials contend that Blue Canyon is the preferable site based on considerations that have little to do with politics.
The base of the canyon is bedrock covered by a layer of alluvium. Although an inactive earthquake fault lies under one part of the canyon, that section is not proposed for use as part of the landfill, according to a staff report issued Monday.
There are no known sensitive plant or animal species that inhabit the site, the report said. Moreover, very few homes stand near the canyon. The nearest is about one mile away, and none is situated in the immediate vicinity of the property, which is owned by the federal government and private interests.
Although a major disadvantage is the distance that trucks will have to haul refuse, several distinct benefits are listed in the report, among them the availability of cover material, easy access from California 79, a dearth of nearby development and a well-defined drainage basin.
The two other preferred sites are far closer to the populated western parts of the region that produce most of the trash, but are troubled by other problems.
Trujillo Canyon is home to various sensitive plant and animal species. In addition, a riparian area in the canyon may feed a ground water basin serving nearby Pala. And Rainbow Canyon is ringed by houses, and is one of the smaller sites, with an expected life span of only about 25 years.
MacDonald said he supports the staff recommendations, stressing that the selection process has been based on "the best technical knowledge" and not politics.
But he acknowledged that political fallout is inevitable, no matter where the landfill is put.
"I have to look reality in the face," MacDonald said. "I know that the decision to site a landfill will create a lot of animosity toward the process and toward me. But the fact is I service more than 500,000 people in North County, so I have to risk having a small number of people upset. . . . Let the political chips fall where they may."
County officials say a new landfill is vitally needed in North County to take up the slack when the San Marcos trash dump, one of two now operating in the region, shuts in 1991.
Although a new landfill will not be operating by then, officials hope to have a network of three to eight transfer stations, enclosed warehouse-like facilities where trash from local trucks is pooled, then shifted to big rigs that haul it to distant dumps.
With the transfer stations acting as a sort of collection network, the trash from North County could be hauled to dumps in the southern part of the county or Riverside County, officials say.
Another option may be to expand the San Marcos landfill in order to prolong its life and ease problems until the new North County dump can begin operation. A study of the expansion is nearly completed, MacDonald said.