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Creek Repairs Halted for Lack of Paperwork

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Emergency repairs to San Juan Creek that tore up sandbars and vegetation have landed the city in hot water with the federal government for doing the work without a permit or an environmental impact report.

The repairs were ordered after last year’s rains pummeled the creek, eating away a huge section of its banks, damaging city sewer lines and a bike path and nearly undermining an Interstate 5 overpass south of Ortega Highway.

Earlier this month, the Army Corps of Engineers ordered the city to stop a second phase of its creek-clearing project, under penalty of a daily $50,000 fine.

City officials said they had proceeded with the work because they believed that under the California Environmental Quality Act, such emergency repairs did not require a permit or environmental impact report, City Manager George Scarborough said.

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Lisa Morales, a Corps of Engineers spokeswoman, said there is a “good likelihood” that after an inspection and with further talks, the corps will drop its order and approve a permit for the work that has been done near the Interstate 5 overpass.

Morales said the corps’ concern was with the removal of a giant reed called arundo Donax , an aggressive intruder that can take over streams.

“It spreads so easily,” she said, “that if you’re not careful you can make the problem worse.”

Still unresolved are issues concerning the southwestern arroyo toad, a two- to three-inch, olive-brown amphibian whose habitat is loose, gravelly areas of streams and arroyos such as San Juan Creek. The toad won federal protected status late last year because it was edging closer to extinction.

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The toad’s listing could affect the city’s long-term creek repair program, which was recently approved by the City Council. The plan, which involves a series of poles and netting along the creek’s weakened bank, is called a palisades system and can catch enough runoff debris to re-establish the bank in five years, city officials said.

City and elected officials said they were forced to begin creek repair rapidly, and the process of getting a permit would have delayed the work.

“If we waited to get all the permits it would be until next spring to even start on it,” said Mayor Carolyn Nash, who conceded that the city knew about the corps’ concern before the order for the emergency repairs was issued.

“We have concern for the safety of our residents, the highway and the safety of people living in a senior citizens’ home and we thought our repair was vital,” she said.

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Nash acknowledged the lack of a permit but was optimistic that one will be granted for the work already done and also for a new palisades system.

“We do not have to have a permit to install the poles in the palisades system. But in order to fill the dirt back in, we need” a permit, Nash said.

The Corps of Engineers, city officials and other agencies have scheduled meetings to discuss the city’s plan for long-term creek maintenance.

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“We will develop a general permit for the city for long-term maintenance,” Morales said, “and it will include mitigation and restoration.”

Scarborough said the city has already repaired and rerouted the sewer line and placed heavy rocks on the banks as temporary protection.

He said there is concern about the sandbars that were created over the years. The sandbars were harmless when the creek was dry. But with heavy runoff, they dangerously diverted the flow, which then scoured the creek, chewing 200 feet of embankment along an 1,800-foot section.

In May, the city arranged with Terra Pacific, an Irvine contractor that agreed to remove unwanted vegetation and the troublesome sandbars at no cost. In return, the company was allowed to remove and sell tons of sand and gravel it collected, Scarborough said.

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Funding to install the palisades system is the next hurdle, Scarborough said. The city’s application for about $800,000 for long-term maintenance was rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency last month.

The city has appealed FEMA’s decision.

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Halt to Repairs

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Army Corps of Engineers stopped creek rebuilding.


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