Wading Through Red Tape

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County farmers thought they had slogged through the worst of it last month when El Nino-fueled rains leveled their levees and flooded their fields, causing the worst crop damage in the state.

But as they seek financial aid to restore tattered citrus orchards and strawberry crops, or government permission to clear clogged barrancas, many farmers now complain of being knee-deep in an even greater morass: government bureaucracy.

Although agriculture is still the No. 1 industry in Ventura County, a $1.2-billion-a-year business that employs upward of 20,000 people, many farmers contend that their post-disaster needs rank inexcusably low on the government totem pole.

"Agribusiness is big business," said Chap Morris Sr., who watched last month as a raging Santa Clara River engulfed his family's valuable watercress crop. "But they don't treat us that way. The public thinks the government is coming down here giving us $8-million checks, and that's not true at all."

Adding to the farmers' frustration is their belief that most of the damage could have been averted--if only regulatory agencies would do as much to protect farmland along the rivers and streams as they do to protect the wildlife living there.

Some even vow to shirk the law in the future.

"If they want to sue me, they can go ahead," said one farmer, who plans to drive a bulldozer through an adjacent creek without government environmental permits after suffering more than $50,000 in damage. "I'm not going to stand by and let this happen to me again.

"There are so many jurisdictional bodies, and so many bureaucrats involved, it's just a mess," he added. "Not only for us, but for the environmentalists as well and everyone that's involved. It's not working."

Some wildlife advocates and regulators say they sympathize with farmers' feelings of helplessness, saying the current procedures need work, and are in fact already being reviewed. And some government officials agree that priorities are skewed.

But many of those charged with weighing the need to control waterways against protecting fragile plants and animals contend the permit process is painstaking for a reason: to ensure that a reasonable balance is struck.

Farmers, they argue, often complain of being denied the right to fortify banks or straighten creek channels when in fact they were simply notified they had to do it in an environmentally sensitive--and more costly--way.

"We're really not in their face," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Kirk Waln. "They've really been cut a lot of slack to get in there and do what they need.

"There are always a lot of complaints about the regulatory process," Waln added. "When you look at Joe, the average farmer, that thinks they have to go in and do something, any permit process is onerous. They're free spirits, and they want to do things their own way."

Right now, in the wake of El Nino, farmers have more of a chance to do what they want.

Anticipating this winter's storms, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a fast-track permit process for landowners who need to clear stream beds, rebuild levees and do whatever necessary to restore their property to pre-flood conditions.

As long as improvements do not go beyond what was there before, or seriously affect the environment, the agency usually gives landowners the green light within 24 hours, said David Castanon, the corps' chief regulatory officer for the region from Ventura to Monterey.

More than 300 quickie permits have already been granted in the Central Coast, Castanon said. And even if a project does affect wildlife, chances are good that landowners can still achieve their goals by making concessions in the standard permit process.

Along the Santa Clara, considered Southern California's wildest river, many farmers believe that straightening the river's flow and fortifying its banks would have prevented the recent floods from washing away acres of soil and citrus orchards.

Such a solution has been strongly opposed by the Corps of Engineers and the Friends of the Santa Clara River, among others, who believe that it would do great harm to the environment.

Landowners along the river contend something has to happen soon, because they cannot shoulder such losses every few years and stay in the agriculture business.

"There is a general consensus that the government is working against the farmers," said James Weblemoe, one of the partners in Rio Rancho Amigos, which lost a quarter-mile of riverside berm and dozens of 50-year-old orange trees to the raging waters. "There are a lot of angry farmers along the river right now."

Hoping to find a common solution to their very different concerns, a broad-based group of farmers, gravel miners, regulators, environmental activists and local officials has been working for more than four years on a plan to protect the river.

The Santa Clara River Management and Enhancement Plan, as it is called, may eventually strike a balance between those who want to protect the river environment and those who want to protect themselves from the river.

Among the flood-control ideas being entertained are planting large willow trees along the river's banks to stem erosion, and allowing all property owners to protect their property against a 25-year flood, said committee member Ron Bottorff of Friends of the Santa Clara River.

"I sympathize with the farmers," Bottorff said. "If you want to do bank work, there is quite a gauntlet of agencies you have to go through. That is why they're so involved in this river management plan. I really hope we can make this thing work."

The permit morass is only one of the problems facing landowners in the aftermath of last month's rains, however: The other is money.

Property owners, especially farmers, complain that little is being done to assist them financially in their quest to restore their lands to pre-flood conditions. Moreover, much of what they can qualify for requires them to put the money up first and be reimbursed.

"Basically, agriculture is at the end of the line when it comes to emergency aid," said Randy Axell, a fourth-generation farmer who has lost several acres to the unpredictable Santa Clara River both this year and in 1995. "In some ways I can understand it. I can see why it is more important to protect houses.

"But monetarily, to replace 15 feet [deep] of topsoil, that's just not an option for me," he added. "I'm very frustrated."

Contrary to widespread public opinion, neither the Ventura County Flood Control District nor the Army Corps of Engineers conducts repair work on private property unless lives are in danger.

"We can't afford to do everything," said county flood control director Alex Sheydayi. "There is far more work than there is money."

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