House OKs Bill That Funds O.C. Water Projects

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than $30 million for critical water and watershed projects in Orange County was included in a bill that cleared the House on Thursday and is expected to be approved by the Senate early next week.

Among projects the legislation would fund are beach restoration in Surfside, flood controls along the Santa Ana River and a study of water supplies in South County.

The announcement of the $23.6-billion energy and water bill, HR 4733, was called "one of the most important" pieces of legislation this year by Rep. Ron Packard (R-Oceanside), who is retiring from Congress.

"Last December, Orange County experienced a rupture in a major pipeline temporarily affecting the water supply in south Orange County," Packard said in a prepared statement. "I have worked to include funding that would attempt to avert any future water crises."

The legislation includes $500,000 for a Municipal Water District of Orange County study to help prevent recurrences of the pipeline rupture that led to water rationing in South County in December.

"Many of us have known for years that we needed a better job of finding different avenues of getting water to South County and also improving storage capabilities such as at surface reservoirs," said Keith Coolidge, the water district's associate general manager.

A rupture Dec. 13 spilled 5 million gallons of water from the Allen-McColloch pipeline, the main source for Coto de Caza, Ladera Ranch, Laguna Woods, Laguna Hills, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita and the Talega development in San Clemente.

The bill would also fund beach restoration in the Seal Beach community of Surfside, which has traditionally had the county's worst erosion. The erosion problem stems from a jetty built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1940s to protect the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.

"It's good news that it passed," longtime Surfside resident John Kriss said. "We wanted this to happen, though we still need another $3 million for the corps to replenish the beach."

Surfside residents have complained that the last major replenishment project, in 1996, did not bring in enough sand. Boulders that protect the community's million-dollar homes are once again precariously exposed, allowing waves to crash within yards of some homes.

Also included in the bill is $23 million to continue construction of the vital Santa Ana River Mainstem project. While some of the funds are for improvements in San Bernardino County, more than $18 million will go toward beginning construction projects at Prado Dam, including raising the top of the dam 29 feet and building new outlet gates.

"This is only for one fiscal year. The overall project for the dam will cost $200 million, so this is the beginning," said Herbert I. Nakasone, a manager of Orange County's flood control planning.

The funding is part of the federal, state and county governments' $1.3-billion battle to tame the mighty Santa Ana River. With the completion in December of the 550-foot-high Seven Oaks Dam in San Bernardino County, corps officials ruled that Orange County's share of the Santa Ana flood basin is now protected from a so-called 100-year flood--a flood that's so big it is likely to hit only once in a century.

The bill also provides $500,000 to study the Aliso Creek watershed and $250,000 for similar studies along San Juan Creek in South County. County officials said both streams endure severe erosion during winter storms and the studies would examine stream stabilization and habitat restoration.

Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana would receive $2 million to develop the Energy Gallery & Plaza, composed of interactive exhibits to increase the public's awareness of energy sources and their effect on the environment.

While federal funding for water management was proceeding through Congress, a state bill covering similar issues was vetoed this week by Gov. Gray Davis.

The bill by Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) contained nearly $7 million in water-quality funding and received nearly unanimous support in the state Legislature. It would have provided $2 million in matching grants for cities that wanted to divert dry-weather runoff to a treatment plant. It also would have provided nearly $5 million for a water-quality lab and a runoff action plan in Orange County.

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Also contributing to this article was Times Staff Writer Seema Mehta.

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