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Federal OK of River Plan Could Snag on Wetlands : Flood control: County officials say widening part of a creek is necessary to protect lives and property. Environmentalists disagree.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An emergency plan approved by Ventura County supervisors last week to widen and denude a section of one of the Ventura River’s major tributaries could hit rough waters in its quest for federal agency approval, officials say.

The San Antonio Creek, a cool mountain stream that has historically supported a steelhead trout population, also contains wetlands that could hold up the emergency federal approval that county public works officials are seeking.

County officials contend that the $1.15-million project to increase floodwater capacity along a two-mile stretch of the creek is necessary to protect lives and property when the stream swells with storm runoff.

Four homes in the creek flood plain could be damaged during a so-called five-year storm, which has a 20% chance of occurring in any given year, county officials say. Nine homes are at risk during a 10-year storm, which carries a 10% likelihood. Either occurrence could damage nearby California 33, officials said.

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Storms earlier this year, in fact, caused the creek to flood surrounding property and sediment to build up in the stream bed.

“We’re a public agency here and some of these people would be tremendously affected by storm waters coming down the creek,” said Ed Gunen, division engineer in the Ventura County Flood Control Department.

Environmentalists criticized the county’s proposal as a “false emergency,” citing the relatively small number of houses that could be affected as well as the predictable nature of the creek.

In addition, said Mark Capelli, executive director of Friends of the Ventura River, the project is flawed.

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San Antonio is a creek with “multiple channels which shift in response to annual flood events,” Capelli said. “The proposal to confine San Antonio Creek into a single channel without stabilizing the banks . . . will not work.”

In addition, said David Castanon, ecologist and chief of the North Coast regulatory section of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, private property protection along the creek must be weighed against the public good.

“Any property owner has rights,” Castanon said. “But I don’t know if those rights are absolute to the exclusion of everything else. The public also has a right to viable aquatic ecosystems.”

Castanon said he is waiting for a detailed project application before completely evaluating the county’s proposal. But he said preliminary evaluations suggest the project could damage the creek’s resources.

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The county won permission from supervisors last week to designate the work as an emergency maintenance project. If approved by the corps and other agencies, the county would realign, widen and deepen the creek in three sections from the San Antonio’s confluence with the Ventura River to Fraser Lane, 2 1/4 miles upstream.

The county would remove sediment in the river to deepen the channel, excavate some areas of the bed and creek banks and remove “vegetation and obstructions” in the stream that could reduce the channel’s capacity.

The county applied to the corps for a so-called nationwide permit, emergency authorization that would speed up the approval process by bypassing complete environmental review.

If the emergency permit is denied, the county could still apply for a regular permit, but that would require detailed environmental assessment that could take a year or more to complete.

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For the corps to approve the emergency permit, however, it must find that the project would cause no more than “minimal impacts,” Castanon said. In making its determination, the corps will seek advice from wildlife officials at the California Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Castanon cited the wetlands as a possible snag in the permit process. Water from the creek, which flows year-round, supports a rich diversity of life in the wetlands along the stream bed, he said.

“Wetlands typically support a wide variety and high density of wildlife,” he said. “They provide food, cover, water, everything they need. That’s why wetlands are so important.”

But possibly more importantly, the San Antonio Creek has also historically been home to one of the last runs of steelhead trout in Southern California.

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That species, which lives in the ocean but travels upstream into freshwater streams to spawn, is being evaluated by the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine whether it should be placed on the federal Endangered Species List.

Removing willows and other protective vegetation alongside the stream could cause the water to warm up, becoming inhospitable to the cool-water steelhead, officials said. In addition, the channel work could change the speed and depth of the water.

“The service has concerns for the steelhead,” said U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Marie Lindsey. “The project could affect passage and spawning.”

She and Castanon said they were originally supportive when county flood control officials first discussed the project with them last spring.

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“Widening the channel and leaving it in an otherwise natural state is different from the typical flood control projects of straightening out streams and lining the creek with concrete or riprap and destroying the biological resources in the area,” she said. “The concept was good.”

But she said she will have to evaluate whether the work on the channel would prevent the steelhead from reaching spawning grounds both during and after construction.

Castanon said the corps would have a ruling on the permit within a month of receiving the county’s application.

Residents in the area, however, want protection for their homes as quickly as possible.

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Daniel Grimm, who lives on Creek Road with his seven children, said the planned flood control work would not destroy the river’s pristine character, since plant life regenerates quickly.

“We aren’t talking about something that will be a permanent eyesore,” said Grimm, whose yard is frequently flooded during heavy storms.

Harold Hall grew up in a house along the San Antonio, and he and his wife have lived in a house 100 yards from its banks since 1977.

“We enjoy it, that’s why we live here,” said Darleen Hall. “But we want the river to stay in the channel where it belongs and not come into our yards and houses.”

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Times correspondent Eric Wahlgren contributed to this story.


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