Santa Clara River Enhancement
and Management Plan Goes Public
by Ron Bottorff
After 12 years of work by a 26-member Steering Committee, the Santa Clara River Enhancement and Management Plan (SCREMP) is finally out for public review and comment. Participation in the SCREMP Steering Committee was one of the primary reasons Friends of the Santa Clara River was formed in 1993. The process has involved countless meetings and years of subcommittee work in several areas. The following overview takes a look back at what has been accomplished and discusses some of the rough spots along the path leading to the Draft Plan.
Plan Origin The Santa Clara River Enhancement and Management Plan (SCREMP) evolved because of potential conflicts among various stakeholders along the river: farmers, aggregate miners, flood control agencies, developers, and various state and federal agencies charged with administering complex environmental laws such as the state and federal Endangered Species Acts and the federal Clean Water Act. In 1991, Ventura County and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a series of discussions and stakeholder meetings which led to the formation of a 26-member Project Steering Committee (PSC), consisting of state and federal agencies, Los Angeles and Ventura County Flood Control Districts, property owner groups, city representatives, and FSCR. The PSC became fully operational in 1993 and has been meeting periodically ever since. A draft version of the SCREMP has been developed by AMEC Earth and Environmental, the plan consulting firm, and is now ready for public dissemination and comment. The SCREMP covers only the 500-year floodplain. Initial efforts aimed at the eventual development of a full watershed plan are underway by the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the two affected counties.
The Santa Clara River (River) is the largest river system in southern California remaining in a relatively natural state. It drains a watershed of 1634 square miles (see map), and flows westward from the San Gabriel Mountains of Los Angeles County about 84 miles through Ventura County along the southern edge of the Los Padres National Forest. Major tributaries include Castaic and San Francisquito Creeks in Los Angeles County, and the Sespe, Piru, and Santa Paula Creeks in Ventura County. About 99% of the River is privately owned. In the past, the River has been heavily mined for aggregate. The upper River, which runs through the City of Santa Clarita, is currently undergoing extensive urbanization northwest of Los Angeles. Farming operations have intruded well into the floodplain along the lower sections of the River below Santa Clarita.
The primary objective of the SCREMP is to develop a comprehensive management plan for the resources of the River within it's 500-year floodplain that will achieve a balance among the various ways that these resources are utilized and the ways they will be sustained. The SCREMP is intended to facilitate the implementation of public agency mandates so as to promote strategies for the preservation, enhancement, and sustainability of physical, biological, and economic resources, while also acknowledging and respecting the property and water rights of private property owners. The SCREMP also has the objective of simplifying permitting processes, where possible, for private property owners.
Funding for the Plan has been provided primarily by the California State Coastal Conservancy, the State Wildlife Conservation Board, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the two affected counties. CH2M Hill provided consulting services for the initial phases of the plan, and mapped the entire floodplain utilizing low-altitude fly-over aerial photographs. GIS maps were then prepared for each of several land uses, including agriculture, aggregate mining, habitat, flood control, and urban development. Overlays of the various uses were then developed showing potential conflict areas as well as areas for restoration and enhancement.
To facilitate the SCREMP development, it was decided early-on to establish subcommittees covering the major elements of the Plan . These were agriculture, aggregate mining, water resources, flood control, biological resources, and recreation. Each subcommittee (except agriculture) developed reports in the 1995-96 timeframe, which were accepted by the entire PSC. Other reports developed under the Plan were a history of the River and a cultural resources report. An ad-hoc committee was established in mid-1996 to develop a series of riverwide and reach-by-reach recommendations for subsequent approval by the full PSC. Recommendations covered major issues including private property rights, agricultural land preservation, permit streamlining, flood protection, conservation and enhancement of natural habitats, aggregate harvesting, beach erosion and replenishment, recreation, cultural resources, groundwater recharge, water rights, water supply and water quality. AMEC used all of these documents to develop the Draft Plan, which has now been approved by the PSC and is available for public comments.
Among specific riverwide recommendations of the Plan were to (1) Establish a Long Term River Management Committee (LTRMC) for implementing the provisions of the Plan, (2) Develop a public education program about the values of the river, (3) Establish a streamlined regulatory process for replacement of agricultural bank protection, (4) Preserve and enhance instream and riparian beneficial uses while respecting existing water rights, (5) Encourage use of reclaimed water for nonpotable applications, (6) Utilize sediment deposition removal, if necessary, to maintain the effectiveness of public flood protection facilities, (7) Maintain fish passage (with details to be developed by the appropriate regulatory agencies), (8) Control exotics, primarily arundo donax, and (9) Identify areas where aggregate mining can be done with minimum impact to biological resources.
Property owner groups had been especially interested in the establishment of a streamlined permitting process to aid them in obtaining permits for bank protection installations. This is commonly referred to as "one-stop permitting" wherein one coordinating agency would handle all permits. Although the desirability of such a scheme was conceded by the regulating agencies, numerous discussions produced no practical and legal way to effect it. However, an ad-hoc committee headed by the Corps is working to develop a Regional General Permit to facilitate permit streamlining along the River for private agricultural operators.
One of the primary recommendations of the Plan was use of the 25-year floodplain line as the edge of allowable agricultural intrusion into the floodplain. This was based on a study of ag operations by Ventura County which showed that the 25-year line represented the effective limits of agricultural operations within the floodplain. This recommendation provided that farmers may replace bank protection facilities (excluding levees) up to the 25-year line, if washed out by floodwaters, provided that they had obtained all necessary permits for the original intallation.
Another key outcome of the Plan was the development of the Santa Clara River Parkway Project by the California State Coastal Conservancy. The Parkway Project involves the acquisition and restoration of the entire river floodplain, including some levee removals, from the estuary to the Sespe Creek confluence, a distance of about 20 miles. Several parcels have already been acquired, totaling over 1200 acres, including the Hedrick Ranch Nature Area owned by Friends of the Santa Clara River. A total of 6,000 acres is planned for eventual acquisition. The SCC is working with The Nature Conservancy to acquire the properties, which are being held by TNC. Management of the Parkway is expected to be carried out under a joint powers agreement between the SCC, Ventura County and the Cities of Oxnard and Ventura.
Several problems have developed over the years as the Plan has gone through its various phases. There have been periods of many months when the PSC has not met and momentum was lost. This was due primarily to funding gaps, in which funds for one phase were exhausted without subsequent funds being in place. The very long time span (11 years) to complete a Draft Plan resulted in the turnover of several PSC members and some loss of historic memory. Another result of these gaps was the that key members of the PSC lost contact with the Plan and did not always begin re-attending when funds were secured and the next phase begun.
The PSC, from the beginning, operated under a Memorandum of Understanding which provided that "The completion of the Plan will in no way impact permitting activities of the various regulatory agencies." In effect, this meant that any project, including large development projects, which was in some phase of agency or jurisdictional approval process or permitting activity, could not be limited by Plan provisions and recommendations. Most of the projects affected were large urban developments in the Los Angeles County portion of the River being done by Newhall Land and Farming. Newhall has established its own management plan for the upper river, known as the Natural River Management Plan (NRMP). The only SCREMP recommendation concerning areas covered by the NRMP was that they be governed by the NRMP. The NRMP, which was covered by a Corps 404 permit and CDFG 1603 Stream Alteration Agreement, has now been in affect for 5 years. The NRMP has proved difficult to amend, i.e. adaptive management has not been followed. Many biologists are convinced that impacts to biological resources in the upper river under the NRMP have not been adequately mitigated, and that some species, such as the arroyo toad, will likely vanish from the area over time as a result of massive urban encroachment onto the floodplain and terrace lands. Newhall plans to establish a similar NRMP for Newhall Ranch, a 21,000-unit development along 5 miles of the river downstream of Santa Clarita.
The southern steelhead, an anadromous fish, uses the River as a migration corridor and spawn in several creeks, primarily Sespe Creek. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is developing a recovery plan for the steelhead. Steelhead migration on the River has been interrupted by the Freeman Diversion Dam (the only dam on the main stem of the River) despite the incorporation of a fish ladder at the diversion. NMFS is now working with the United Water Conservation District, the diversion operator, to develop improved streamflows after storm events to facilitate steelhead passage up the River and through the fish ladder.
The Regional Water Quality Control Board has developed TMDLs (Total Maximum Daily Loads) for chlorides and nutrients in the River. In support of these TMDLs, a study of benthic life at several sampling points in the River has been carried out by a UCLA team. Further studies will be done as part of TMDL implementation.
The Army Corps of Engineers has recently completed a reconnaissance study of the watershed in anticipation of a watershed assessment project to be carried out in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works and the Ventura County Watershed Protection District. The final product of this effort would be a watershed protection plan.
Development of the SCREMP has been a long and difficult process. Turnover of PSC members was a significant problem and the process was often interrupted by funding gaps. The plan is also limited in jurisdiction, with major sections of the river governed by developer-originated plans, which lack adaptive management, and which have inadequate mitigation for urban encroachment impacts. During the Plan process, litigation was initiated against the Newhall Ranch Project by three PSC members: Ventura County, United Water Conservation District, and Friends of the Santa Clara River. This litigation involving PSC members did not help the process. Yet, as a general comment, the planning process resulted in stakeholders communicating with each other and gaining, in many cases, an improved understanding of other's perspectives. The importance of the river and its resources have been highlighted. Property owner groups have bought in to the concept of acquisition of land or easements from willing sellers. The River Parkway Project, involving acquisition and protection of floodplain lands unprecedented in scope for a river of this type, was spawned by the Plan. Looking to the future, funding sources for SCREMP implementation have not been as yet established. Hopefully, enough PSC members will elect to become part of the LTRMC to make it an effective organization in carrying out implementation tasks.
Santa Clara River Enhancement and Management Plan, Public Review Document, January 2004, prepared by AMEC Earth and Environmental, Riverside, CA.
Santa Clara River Enhancement and Management Plan website, sdgis.amec.com/scremp/
Friends of the Santa Clara River website, www.fscr.org