A proposed sewage pipeline that would run under Talbert Regional Park is being challenged by local environmentalists, who contend that the wild spaces within the preserve deserve protection from the "mega-sized" equipment and cement associated with an increasingly urbanized city.
Officials, however, say the estimated $23-million project — a joint effort by the Costa Mesa Sanitary District, Orange County Sanitation District and city of Newport Beach — is an essential one that's been discussed since the 1980s. Furthermore, they contend, the new line in Talbert will help ensure a more reliable system and avoid the larger disaster of untreated sewage spilling onto city streets.
The plans also involve building a new pipeline under a Westside Costa Mesa residential street and decommissioning a handful of underground pump stations near Talbert in an effort to save costs on maintenance and electricity.
There will be some environmental effects, officials say, but they'll be mitigated in a variety of ways, including by planting significant amounts of native vegetation to replace non-native plant species there. They also want to create a barrier that, theoretically, would minimize noise impacts to area birds.
"I think, based on what I've seen, it's something that's going to have to be done," said sanitary district President Mike Scheafer of the project. "I'm comfortable with the mitigation measures that OCSD has put forward, and I think the rest of [our] board is too."
Still, for Kevin Nelson and his like-minded cohorts, no pipeline belongs in the park. They favor the "leave-it-alone" option.
Nelson, who grew up in Costa Mesa and now lives in San Clemente, heads an advocacy group he founded called the Nature Commission. He and others contend that this is the largest project around that no one seems to have heard about.
"From the human standpoint, this organic, lightly used place is of great value," Nelson said. "I'm sorry that it doesn't translate to money ... or something you can measure on an Excel sheet."
Talbert park pipeline
The proposed underground sewer pipeline that would go through Talbert park is designed to be about 4,800 feet long.
It would start on Walkabout Circle, a tiny residential street in the Newport Terrace neighborhood of Newport Beach, then go south toward where Balboa Boulevard meets the terminus of West 19th Street before heading west into Talbert park, under the Santa Ana River and eventually into the county wastewater treatment facility in Huntington Beach.
The Talbert pipeline would move untreated sewage using gravitational forces, rather than pump stations that apply pressure to the line to move material. It would be maintained, constructed and funded by the Orange County Sanitation District, which is contributing $14.9 million.
The Costa Mesa Sanitary District, meanwhile, has tentatively agreed to pay $7.1 million toward its end of the project, which involves constructing a new sewer line under Canyon Drive and decommissioning five of its pump stations. They'll no longer be needed because the new line would move material using gravity.
Sanitary district General Manager Scott Carroll has planned a compromise on its end. The district originally wanted to decommission six stations, but decided to leave one of them, on Aviemore Terrace, intact.
Keeping the Aviemore station, Carroll said, will save an estimated $1 million and avoid the need to construct a new pipeline through another portion of Talbert park. The Aviemore station only services about 25 homes, Carroll added, so the district felt removing it for a high price wasn't cost-effective for the ratepayers.
The city of Newport Beach's portion of the project is the smallest. The city would close its pump station on Walkabout Circle. It would also build a pipe to connect to the county pipe that goes through Talbert.
Canyon Drive pipeline
According to sanitary district engineer Robin Hamers, there's no other way to put it: The Canyon Drive pipeline would be a major undertaking, potentially involving excavation, drilling and/or tunneling into the Westside residential street.
"There's no way to get that pipeline in there without some kind of disturbance," Hamers said.
Like the Talbert pipe, the Canyon pipe will move sewage using gravity, rather than pressure created by pumping stations. It is proposed to start at Canyon and West Wilson Street, travel south down Canyon toward Victoria Street and end by Sea Bluff Drive, near the entrance of the Seabluff Canyon community.
It would be about a half-mile long and possibly constructed in smaller sections.
Hamers said the pipe could be buried about 35 feet beneath the street.
"It's going to be deep," Hamers said. "That's also the most expensive part of the Costa Mesa Sanitary District's construction costs related to this project."
None of the details are finalized, officials said, but the work might involve partial closures on the street.
The district has about $2.6 million set aside for the project, Carroll said, adding that it isn't expected to cause an increase in trash and sewer rates.
'One of the few places that's wild'
On a recent afternoon, the unseasonably hot spring weather made tolerable by frequent ocean breezes, Nelson's eyes squinted in the sun.
He was trying to reach the best vantage point for viewing a portion of Talbert that, in his mind, faces irreparable harm if the officials have their way and construct the pipeline through the park. But finding that vantage point to see the pipeline's potential path was a little tricky that day.
Recent rains made Talbert's otherwise dry trails wet with puddles and treacherously slippery. The roughly 180-acre county-owned park, arguably the most remote area in Costa Mesa, is mostly nature preserve split into two sections north and south of Victoria Street and adjacent to the Santa Ana River. The park has few modern improvements and no parking lot of its own. It even has a lake — but it's gated off, preventing legal access to its shoreline.
In Talbert's southern portion, particularly, the trees and brush grow high and thick, making them susceptible to wildlife but with the added benefit of shielding park users so they can escape from the outside urbanized world. For Nelson and others, Talbert's remote, natural environment is exactly what makes it so special for Costa Mesa — and why it shouldn't be touched by a pipeline.
"It's one of the few places that's wild," he said. "That's its primary value."
Though officials have said the pipelines are not being added to help handle increased sewage capacity resulting from new Westside Costa Mesa developments, Christopher Bunyan, a Banning Ranch activist and former Costa Mesa council candidate, is more skeptical.
"It's very convenient that they want to do this right now," he said.
Bunyan and others have had several talks with the involved agencies, and have also alerted the California Coastal Commission of the plans. Bunyan lamented that, up to this point, the project appears to be under the radar — no town-hall meetings, no major announcements.
"For a project like this," he said, "I feel like they didn't do enough to make people aware and get it in the public's hands."
County sanitation officials have already signed off on the project, and it now faces Costa Mesa Sanitary District and Newport Beach officials' approval.
The sanitary district is scheduled to vote on an agreement Thursday night. If approved, it would help kick off a designing phase.
A Newport Beach city spokeswoman said the city is waiting for more details from the county. Once those are received, the matter will go before the City Council.
If approved, construction on the pipeline could begin in 2017 and take two years.
In Bunyan's view, that would leave Talbert off-limits for too long a time.