Not everyone in town thinks the SUPER Project to restore and clean Aliso Creek is super, but the City Council reaffirmed its support Tuesday.
The 22 speakers from the audience publicly supported the goal of creek restoration, but split on the method as proposed in the SUPER Project, as outlined by a county spokeswoman. The project gets its name from the goals of the project: Stabilization, Utility Protection and Ecosystem Restoration, and was supported by the council on a 4-1 vote.
“We have a very complicated project,” Councilwoman Toni Iseman said. “We have a creek that is not what it was. And we don’t have a wilderness, we have destruction.”
In the interests of clarifying the project’s goals and methods for the public, Iseman invited county Director of Water Quality Mary Anne Skorpanich to provide an update on the project and a brief description of its benefits.
South Orange County Wastewater Authority, Moulton Niguel Water District and the county propose to construct the project within the boundaries of Aliso-Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, from Aliso Creek Road downstream to the SOCWA coastal treatment plant bridge and from the Pacific Ocean upstream through the county-owned Aliso Beach.
The stabilization and restoration component includes a series of low riprap grade control structures; flood plain reconnection by flattening and terracing the eroded steep banks; removal of invasive plants and riparian re-vegetation. Infrastructure protection would include locking the low flow channel in place through the placement of rock at the toe of the channel and soil wraps above the rock.
Many local environmentalists oppose the project.
“Clearly something needs to be done,” said Lisa Marks, a member of the city’s Environmental Committee. “But the environmental community I know doesn’t buy into the SUPER Project. I’d feel better if the city hired a consultant to evaluate the plans at the concept level. Then we can offer improvements.”
Meetings will be held to offer the public an opportunity to comment.
“As our city is the most impacted, we would like customized stakeholder meetings,” Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson said. “We would like speakers to come here and keep our environmentalists informed.”
Skorpanich said if time allows, a workshop might be arranged before the stakeholder meetings.
“Make it a Saturday,” said Iseman, who was appointed with Pearson by the council in 2006 to serve as sub-committee to deal with Aliso Creek improvement issues. They were directed Tuesday to continue to work with creek watershed communities in support of the SUPER Project and to lobby for funding.
Local funding is still about $2 million shy of the required share of the estimated $45 million cost of the federally authorized project, 75% of which will be paid by the federal government, if approved.
“A lot of time has been spent on this project,” resident Annie Spech said. “It would be prudent to take advantage of the funding.”
But not at the cost of damaging the wilderness park, protested critics, including supporters of Councilwoman Verna Rollinger, who voted against the city’s participation in the project.
“The project proposes to tear up inland Aliso Canyon and channelize three miles of Aliso Creek,” Barbara Metzger said. “The size and alignment of the channel will be matters of engineering rather than nature.”
Skorpanich said the project would require cutting and filling, but would be balanced to minimize exporting truckloads of dirt. Some of the dirt will be used to lessen the steep grade of the creek.
South Laguna resident Penny Elia excoriated the project as a Trojan horse that should be opposed. She said the creek’s problem stems from massive inland development and the large area of land used as a golf course, targeting the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course, which Athens Group is in the process of redeveloping.
“I live at the mouth of the creek so I am aware of what comes out of it and sometimes it is disgusting,” ocean front property owner Dennis Morrin said. “Aliso Creek is a storm drain for Orange County. Treat it for what it is.”
That’s exactly what water quality activist Michael Beanan opposes.
“Basically, the SUPER Project represents an attempt to mitigate problems created by inland development,” Beanan said. “In essence it’s a project to use a public wildlife park as a flood control channel rather than implement source controls in the cities of Aliso Viejo and Laguna Nigel.”
Pearson said point and non-point sources contribute to the pollution of the creek.
“Non-point sources mean we don’t know where it’s coming from,” Pearson said. “There are a lot of animals pooping out there and that is what is ending up in Dennis Morrin’s backyard.”
Aliso Creek neighbor Armando Baez said everyone agrees on the need to clean up the creek, but would have preferred further study before backing the project.
“Let’s vet this proposal before the city’s environmental committee,” Baez said. “We have significant expert resident resources. Let’s use them. Let’s build a consensual approach to this project. More discussion and review is needed. Let’s be guided by this question: In a time of financial stresses, is this the best and most effective alternative?
“We need more study and discussion to be sure we get the most environmentally and financially sound solution. Then we can all join in requesting federal appropriations to complete the funding.”
Laguna Taxpayers Assn. President Martha Lydick said take the money and run, and businessman Billy Fried agreed.
“A bird in hand,” Fried said. “If we have the funding, go ahead. There is no perfect plan. Take everything into consideration, but move ahead. Inertia is the enemy.”
But Village Laguna founder Arnold Hano urged caution. “Inertia can defeat wrong doing,” he said.
Realtor and arts philanthropist Bobbi Cox said the council should seize the moment.
“We can be leaders in a private/public partnership,” Cox said. “To turn away money at this time would be a great mistake.”
Rollinger commended the public for its decorum.
“I can’t imagine anywhere else where so many knowledgeable people would come together to discuss an important issue with such dignity.”
While efforts to obtain funding continue, technical studies are being completed.
Once the reports are finalized, the next steps will be a public meeting to start the National Environmental Quality Act process, to be followed by the California Environmental Quality Act process.