OC Environmentalists Celebrate Momentous Decisions

pahne-ancestors-walk.jpg
Ancestor walks take on new meaning after efforts to carve a toll road through Pahne failed.
Holiday celebrating started early for local environmental groups.

On Friday, a diverse coalition of allies marked the one-year anniversary of a U.S. Department of Commerce decision that effectively stopped the Foothill/Eastern (241) toll road from being carved through a state park and sacred American Indian land. Some groups involved in that battle were already riding high from Wednesday's unanimous San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board vote to adopt a set of new regulations to control runoff into the receiving waters of the Pacific Ocean off South County.

The state Coastal Commission objected in February to the 16-mile toll road extension on grounds that the proposed route was not consistent with the state's coastal zone management program. Federal agencies cannot issue permits for such projects unless the Commerce Department overrides a state objection on appeal. The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (TCA) filed an appeal that triggered months of written arguments submitted to the feds by all sides and a contentious 10-hour public hearing at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The feds would have had to agree with TCA that there are no reasonable alternative routes to the one proposed and that denial of it would jeopardize national security.
Carlos Gutierrez, the Bush's administration's Commerce secretary, announced on Dec. 18, 2008, that the Coastal Commission decision would be upheld because there are reasonable alternative routes and there is no threat to national security.

Native Americans who have grown used to being disappointed by federal decisions that discount their interests applauded Gutierrez's decision. The proposed route would have paved over Pahne, an ancient village now overgrown with vegetation within San Onofre State Park. Acjachemen/Juaneno tribal members consider that land sacred. Surfers feel the same way about Trestles, the San Clemente surf breaks many believed would be threatened by toll road construction.

But the route was supported by a powerful coalition of labor unions, developers and other business interests and many Republican, Orange County-based state legislators. The United Coalition to Protect Pahne (UCPP), the California Native American Heritage Commission, The City Project of Los Angeles, the Sierra Club, the California State Parks Foundation, the Surfrider Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and other groups and individuals joined forces to oppose the proposed extension.

Surfrider, the Sierra Club and the NRDC were also heavily invested in the years of debate over the new state water-quality regulations, with additional assistance from Wild Heritage Planners and the South Laguna Civic Association.

They got a much needed push from a federal requirement demanding water-quality rules be made more stringent given the persistent polluted water that runs down Aliso Creek to the ocean, polluted water that violates the Clean Water Act of 1972 championed by Richard Nixon. Pushing back were developers, the Count of Orange and inland-city governments worried about the costs of stricter regulation, although the city of Laguna Beach--which has to deal with all the crappy water collecting on its coastline--supported tougher regulations.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Cindy Lin, who advised the San Diego regional board during the months of public hearings and workshops, has called the new regs the strongest in California, if not in the nation.

Among the most significant changes are: the prohibition of discharges of excess irrigation water into storm drains; the establishment of levels of various pollutants that will trigger timely control of both dry-weather and stormwater discharges; and stronger rules for retaining runoff on-site in new developments and for retrofitting earlier developments to that end.

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