Farmers, gravel miners and wildlife biologists will take their places at a negotiating table in Ventura today to begin deciding the future of the Santa Clara River.
If they find enough common ground to write a blueprint for the 100-mile-long river, the Santa Clara River Enhancement and Management Plan will become a nationwide model for such projects, officials said.
If they fail, one of the best-preserved rivers in Southern California will continue to be governed by competing interests and sometimes conflicting regulations.
The plan, which is expected to cost about $700,000 and take up to two years to develop, would determine which stretches of the river are preserved for wildlife or water quality, and which are farmed, mined or possibly reinforced for flood control.
Members of the 25-person steering committee, who represent the many competing interests on the river, acknowledge that it will be difficult to find consensus among a group with such divergent concerns.
“The key thing is that everyone who is involved understand the bigger picture,” said Carl Blum, deputy director of public works for Los Angeles County and co-chairman of the steering committee.
“The mining people, farmers, beach-replenishment folks, fish and wildlife people all have their little pieces. But it all has to fit together for this to work.”
The steering committee has hired a consultant team to study the river and write a proposed management plan. On Wednesday, committee members will meet with the consultants and express some of their concerns.
Project manager Michael Savage of the Santa Ana-based consulting firm known as CH2M HILL said all interests will be represented in the plan.
“This will be a plan created by the stake-holders,” he said.
Savage, who attended the first two meetings of the committee earlier this year, will introduce his five-member team, which includes specialists in recreation and resource planning, water and environment. It also includes a facilitator who specializes in helping groups get along and reach consensus.
But Savage said the members of the group have already shown they can work together by agreeing to hire a consulting firm to develop the plan.
“They have already come a long way,” he said.
Still, no one involved expects the process of studying the river and assigning priorities on its use to go smoothly.
“There are a lot of people who are very apprehensive of what will happen in this process,” Blum said. “They are leery of change, if that’s what comes.”
If a plan is developed with the consensus of property owners and business interests as well as public agencies, it will be referred to local governments to adopt zoning or other regulations needed to implement the plan.
The Santa Clara begins near Acton in Los Angeles County and flows into the sea at an estuary near Oxnard. With only about six miles in Los Angeles County lined with concrete, it is one of Southern California’s best preserved waterways.
But competing interests on the river and conflicting regulations governing how it may be used or altered have left landowners confused about their rights and public agencies concerned about the river’s preservation.
Members of the committee include farmers who want to protect their land against flooding and public works agencies whose mandate it is to convey floodwaters safely to the sea. Also represented are sand and gravel miners who want to preserve their rights to dig aggregate from the river, as well as state and federal agencies who want to protect wildlife habitat.
The 25th committee member, who will also be introduced at Wednesday’s meeting, is Ron Bottorff from the newly formed Friends of the Santa Clara River.
The Friends representative was recently appointed to the steering committee to give a voice to environmental groups, said Al Escoto, aide to Ventura County Supervisor Maggie Kildee.
Escoto acknowledged that there had been opposition as well as support for adding the Friends to the committee. But he said the supervisor decided that the committee should include an environmentalist organization.
Because the plan ultimately could have costly ramifications in lost business or agriculture, some committee members are wary as they prepare for Wednesday’s meeting.
“We are waiting to see what little surprises they have for us,” said Mary Ann Berrington, a citrus rancher whose husband’s family has farmed along the river’s banks for nearly a century.
During last year’s storms, Berrington said, the rain-swollen river ate away five of the 35 acres that can be farmed on the family’s 113-acre ranch. She hopes that a new plan will enable farmers to build berms or take other measures to protect their properties in future years.
All the river’s 100 miles are owned by private landowners. But state and federal agencies as well as the federal Clean Water Act severely restrict any activity in the river channel.
“We want to be able to work with our neighbors to see that the river is kept out of our orchards,” she said. Berrington said she is willing to compromise for the good of the project to some extent.
“But we already own the land and we pay taxes on the land,” she said. “There is a group called the Friends of the River. But we who own the river, we are the family of the river, because we pay the bills.”
The Newhall Land and Farming Co., which owns about 20 miles of the river, wants to see regulations on both farming and development streamlined, said Jim Harter, a senior vice president.
He said conflicts between what is allowed by U. S. Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers, and California Department of Fish and Game cause delays in company projects. “If there were a consensus on how the river was managed, I suppose it would streamline the permitting by the agencies,” said Harter, whose company developed the Los Angeles County community of Valencia.
But Cathy R. Brown, a U. S. Fish and Wildlife biologist based in Ventura, said it may not be possible to change or even streamline some regulations.
“The Clean Water Act was passed by Congress,” she said. “I don’t think that it is realistic that they will make an exception for the Santa Clara Valley.”
But Brown said once there is a body of information about the river and how it is affected by various uses, it will be easier and quicker to decide which projects should receive permits.
“Instead of having to agonize over each decision, we (at Fish and Wildlife) will know how projects will affect the river. (The plan) will also help protect the river much more efficiently than we do right now with our limited knowledge.”
Although most acknowledge that the process may be difficult, no one on the committee is certain what the outcome will be.
“Anything is possible at this point,” said Reed Holderman, a manager with the California Coastal Conservancy, which is funding at least part of the project. “It’s amazing we’ve been able to accomplish as much as we have, considering the differences of opinion.”