Local residents protect the environment from their elected officials

Posted by Christine, December 31, 2011

Catherine Ryan Hyde summarizes the struggle Cambria has had with its own governing body, the Community Services District, to protect the local environment. The area is legally protected by state and federal law, but the CSD board of directors has pursued invading it to build a desalination plant. The full text of her summary includes video of some of the players and meetings.

For about three years, a small, committed group of Cambrians have spoken loudly, factually, and often eloquently against drilling on the beach, at the mouth of Santa Rosa Creek, in pursuit of desalination.The creek/lagoon is a highly environmentally sensitive area. In fact, it is a protected natural preserve. It would stand to reason that a careful environmental impact report would be prepared for any project in such an area. Or, better yet, that no project be done there at all.
So that’s what the Cambria Community Services District did, right?
Well . . . no. Their original plan was to categorically exempt themselves from any CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review. (Cambria Activists_and_Mercury_Put_Desal_Plan_in_Retrogade.pdf ) In January 2010, the CCSD called a special meeting to announce that, together with the Army Corps of Engineers, geotechnical drilling would take place in front of Shamel County Park and on Santa Rosa Creek Beach—very fast. Within two months. The meeting announcement was poorly timed (over the New Year’s weekend), given on unusually short-notice, and the work strangely immediate. It all gave the impression that they hoped the public would have no time to object. (They have never explained, to this very day, how, when, or by whom the site was chosen.) When lots of people showed up and registered lots of objections anyway, the CCSD withdrew that tactic and tried instead for a Negative Declaration — far from ideal in the opinion of most environmentalists, but at least it’s a type of CEQA review. As such, it involves allowing both citizens and public agencies to respond.
Citizen letters aside, the project received detailed comments from such agencies as the State Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the Native American Heritage Commission, and the County Air Pollution Control District, to name just a few.
Their concerns included public safety, endangered species, mercury hazards, loss of public access, loss of access to a children’s playground, construction on the beach, vehicles on the beach, and piecemealing environmental review by separating the drilling plan from the actual desalination plant.
Those are big hurdles to any project.
So what did the CCSD do? They announced that the geotesting (drilling for paleochannels under the sand that might support a subsurface desal intake) was not their project at all, but the Army Corp of Engineers’ project. Completely. Retroactively. I’m not sure exactly how that works, but it seemed to involve careful phrasing. They were not “turning the project over” to the Army Corps of Engineers. Rather, they contended, they’d discovered the overlooked fact that it always had been the ACE’s project. Oh, right, and that it’s not a “project.” It’s only an “investigation.” One envisions the Army Corps going down to the beach to ask the sand a few questions.
In truth, it was a bit more invasive. It involved drilling a number of wells — as deep as 150 feet — and lining them with PVC pipe, which would later have to be augured out. As much as could be augured, anyway. The bulk of the thousands of pounds of shards would then be sifted out of the sand. Oh, and then the plan was to build a desal plant nearby, but the two objectives were artificially separated at this point, because there’s no way to make Cambria’s desal plant federal.
Having federalized the project to their own satisfaction, the CCSD then abandoned CEQA review. Because CEQA is a state process. The ACE would now conduct a NEPA review, the federal version. Except all the ACE did toward an environmental impact report was simply to grant themselves a categorical exclusion from NEPA.
The next sound heard around Cambria was that of heads exploding.
I want to note that I’ve read the NEPA handbook for citizens. Categorical exclusion was intended for such minimal-impact projects as outhouses and hiking trails, or changing all the light bulbs in a public building to more environmentally friendly ones.
Now, you can imagine that concerned Cambrians felt we’d been the victim of an end run around California environmental law.  21,000-pound drill rigs were about to roll onto a beach that’s so delicate it won’t even tolerate my 15-pound leashed dog. (And, being a law-abiding citizen, I trust that this rule exists for a reason and don’t take her there.)  Our last line of defense seemed to be the California Coastal Commission, which had been stripped of its jurisdiction to grant or deny a coastal development permit, since this was being passed off as a federal project. The CCC could only declare the “investigation” consistent or inconsistent with the California Coastal Act.
In May 2010, the commission conditionally allowed the drilling. I’m not entirely sure what happened, though I attended — and spoke at — that meeting. (Although we later found out that only the CCC staff — not the commissioners — had seen the agency and public letters of objection.) Also unsure as to what had happened was Commissioner Esther Sanchez, who spoke eloquently against allowing the project.
When I emailed later to thank her, she sent me a rather stunning personal reply that stated, among other things, “It was as if no one wanted to listen to the problems that I saw with this item.  I took the time to look at the record — specifically searching for the information upon which staff would have relied in making recommendations that the drilling was consistent with our state’s laws — and found the record wholly lacking. It was as if we were supposed to take staff’s ‘word for it.’ I was equally disappointed that some of my colleagues seemed to just want to move on and not take the time to ensure that in fact there was a basis for a decision of consistency.
“I believe it was and is incontrovertible that this is an environmentally sensitive area. I wonder if staff had not been so openly controversial whether others would have joined me. I have discussed the matter with the executive director, as I do believe that staff, including the commission’s attorney, interfered (perhaps unlawfully) with a constitutionally protected right, a right guaranteed by the Coastal Act.”
That seemed to say it all, yet no one was listening.
What could have been a huge environmental loss took an unexpected turn when Nick Franco of State Parks refused to grant the ACE a right of entry permit. I was there at the meeting of the State Parks Commission when he stated, simply but importantly, “No CEQA, no right of entry.” The State Park commissioners were 100% behind him. In fact, one commissioner’s jaw dropped, and she remarked, “You mean they thought they could go out on that state beach without CEQA?”
Yeah. Amazing, isn’t it? That’s what we thought.
Another crucial puzzle piece fell into place at that meeting. The waters off that section of Cambria coast were declared California’s first marine park. We were elated, yet did not know how crucial to the story that decision would later become.
The CCSD was not pleased. In fact, director Muril Clift drew a line in the sand at the next CCSD meeting, blustering that they (State Parks) are “no friend,” and that we should consider that in all of our dealings with them. His short speech [see video below] speaks volumes to the CCSD’s stance on environmental laws, which it seems to regard as little tricks up the sleeves of its enemies. It also seems wrong to brand someone an enemy for not giving you what you want, especially when they’ve determined that what you want is not procedurally legal and correct. But I guess that’s another rant for another day.
Questionably, in my (and many other peoples’) opinion, County Parks granted right of entry. The ACE rolled onto the beach in front of Shamel Park  . . .  and promptly hit bedrock at 24 feet(75-foot channels had been predicted there). Eyes turned back to the sensitive lagoon area of the state park beach. This part of the story gets really interesting and . . . dare I say . . . funny.
State Parks managed to prove that the area was a protected natural preserve. (Then-president of the CCSD, Greg Sanders, had insisted on referring to it as “the so-called natural preserve.”) It was protected all the way down to the mean high tide line. And no motor vehicles are allowed in a natural preserve.
Here’s where it gets funny (except for the level at which it’s too disrespectful to be funny). A plan was devised for Amish work horses to be trailered in. To pull a drill rig onto the sand on a type of sled. Know how you can tell I’m not making this stuff up? Because you can’t make up stuff like that, that’s how. I’m a fiction writer, and even I couldn’t have made that up.
Word had it that someone with State Parks in Sacramento was considering going over Nick Franco’s head. But when the CCSD/ACE came up with the idea to hover over the beach with a helicopter and lower a drill rig, patience seemed to run out in the state capital as well.
Did it ever occur to anyone on the pro side of this project that drill rigs are motorized, and do far more harm than the tires of a pickup truck? And that maybe Amish work horses pulling a sled weren’t listed as prohibited only because no one had the imagination to envision that such a threat even existed?
But back to my story.
So the CCSD gave up. Right? You don’t know the CCSD very well.
The CCSD and the ACE came back with a plan to drill below the mean high tide line. Which put it in our new marine park. Where it doesn’t appear legal to try to place any sort of wells or desal intake/outfall systems.
Undeterred, the CCSD — oops, I’m sorry, I mean the ACE (I keep forgetting whose project this is) — headed off for a brand spanking new Coastal Commission consistency determination.  They had scaled the project down considerably. On the one hand, it could be argued that this made the investigation slightly less harmful. It also raised the argument that the investigation might now be quite useless.

[Note: This is an admittedly brief history of a very complex situation. It may be hard to do it justice in so few words. I hope if you’re interested you’ll go out to the Cambria Water Watch website – Cambria Water Watch – and read up on the background of this mess. The Water Watch site (disclaimer: I help maintain it) links its statements to source material. If it says there was a letter from Fish & Game, for example, it links to a PDF of the letter. The page entitled “More Information” is a particularly rich source of documentation.]

The consistency hearing was scheduled for December 9th. On December 8th, the ACE got together with Coastal Commission staff and lined out most of the stipulated protections. In retrospect, that might have been pushing the envelope.
The project was unanimously denied by the 11-member Coastal Commission.
But even better was the way it was denied. Not only did the commissioners (a couple of whom generally support desalination) call the site inappropriate, they suggested this was an end run around California environmental law.
Right. Exactly what all us “crazy” Cambrians have been saying since the play was run.
Commissioner Steve Blank asked, “Is this an end run around our process?” and “Isn’t this just a way to take it out of our jurisdiction?” He suggested, ”  . . .  raising red flags with our legal staff and thinking about what the issues are here, because I think they’re bigger than—much bigger than—Cambria.” Other commissioners said, “There’s just no way around that this site — this beach, this creek mouth, is an environmentally sensitive area by any standard,” and, “In my mind, there isn’t a section of Chapter Three  [of the Coastal Act] this doesn’t go against.” And, “This project represents an avoidance of proper procedures.” And, “The risks of the testing alone are substantial.” And, “Page after page of conditions that are almost standard conditions in any action we take . . .  we want to make sure that the public is safe and the noise is diminished, and all of those were gone.” And, “It really smells of going around the system.”
It was a wonderful moment for the Cambrians who have been shouting these same words for several years now and feeling as though no one cared to listen.
At the December CCSD meeting, district engineer Bob Gresens claimed there had been some confusion among the commissioners, and some kind of disconnect of logic in their decision. I think it goes without saying that the logic involved in this story disconnects somewhere, but I don’t agree that the problem took place at the Coastal Commission level.
But don’t take my word for it. Complete video of the commissioners’ comments are available on the home page of Cambria Water Watch. Watch and listen, and decide for yourself if the commissioners seem confused or if they seem to have an excellent grasp of what’s really going on.

Christmas
Cambria Environmentalist Mickie Burton sent this Christmas card to those who
had worked to protect this beautiful and important piece of coastline. (Photo by Joe Johnston)
The animals rejoice. And so do we, on their behalf. At least for the time being.

Recent Headlines