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SOUNDING OFF:Bill doesn’t target Aliso water quality

President Bush has threatened to veto the recently passed $20 billion Congressional Water Bill, but the incredible positive voting numbers point to an override if he does.

Considering the $2 billion earmarked for California, perhaps it’s time for the public to educate itself regarding what this bill really means for us statewide and its significance locally.

An inherent flaw in these monolithic projects is the lengthy lag time from original incarnations (funding estimates now many years old) through future applications/proposals, a complex web of state and federal permitting, open bids, installations and completion timelines, weather, and the usual heavy cost over-runs unfortunately systemic when public agencies lead.

As always, the ultimate configuration will be 7-10 years out. The procurement of subsequent funding, like all things political, can evaporate with representational turnover or emergencies and are certainly not guaranteed.

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Of special interest to South Orange County residents is the $5 million intended for the lower Aliso Creek SUPER project where watchdog, non-governmental organizations like Clean Water Now! have fought for a decade in the trenches to remedy general watershed degradation, habitat decimation and severe water quality impairments.

Openly acknowledged from the first general stakeholder study meetings hosted by the County and US Army Corps of Engineers starting back in 1998 was that to get the optimal “buy-in" "” that is, to cast the widest net and gather maximum gross funding of 75% federal and matching 25% local "” the Aliso Creek Watershed Restoration had to be proposed as an erosion, bank stabilization for utilities and as a flood control project.

Clean Water Now! board members were repeatedly chastised as obstructionists during the process for demanding that stream bed toxicity be kept in the forefront. Unfortunately, water quality hasn’t been the domain, mission or targeted goal of the Corps of Engineers.

We were told that toxicity improvements might happen but only as a by-product of restoration.

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When these contentious, formal monthly meetings ceased around 2003, the projected costs for environmental restoration of the entire 38-square-mile Aliso Creek Watershed drainage was $45 million.

Why does this matter now? Because the present proposal included in the congressional bill, the SUPER Project, will need the same $45 million for the lower Aliso Canyon portion of the watershed "” about 4 to 5 square miles maximum, or approximately 12% to 13% of the total drainage area.

Inflation has occurred, but this is a shocking sticker price that doesn’t address the regional issues.

Keep in mind this is a partial watershed restoration and certainly is not a “clean-up" as portrayed.

A simple Internet search looking for successful analogs or precedent models tells you this: Watersheds should be viewed and restored holistically via ecological recipes and formulas as totalities, not performed piecemeal.

Yes, some restoration is better than none. However, the public deserves to know what is and what is not going to happen in Aliso Creek. This would preclude misrepresentation or portrayals that result in false expectations.

An urban runoff treatment plant at the top of the Canyon in Laguna Niguel is an additional bell-and-whistle I.O.U. if future SUPER funding occurs. But that still leaves miles of tributaries and almost 15 miles of the main stem which originates above Cook’s Corners highly contaminated.

It doesn’t breed confidence to know Orange County, the public agency overwhelmingly responsible for creating these unhealthy and unsafe watershed conditions, is going to control prioritization and implementation of SUPER funds.

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Many “enviros" see this as tantamount to letting Captain Hazelwood of the SS Exxon Valdez have another go at the helm. As for Army Corps adeptness, can you say “Okeechobee, Fla." or “Hurricane Katrina"?

And by the way, here’s how our representatives voted on this congressional bill:

In the California delegation, GOP Reps. John Campbell of Irvine, Darrell Issa of Vista, Howard P. “Buck" McKeon of Santa Clarita and Ed Royce of Fullerton joined 37 other Republicans in opposition to the measure. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista) did not vote. All others supported the bill.


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