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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sonoma County's Steelhead Beach SAVED!

For the last several months a group of dedicated volunteers met every month to work toward saving Sonoma County Regional Park's Steelhead Beach from becoming a wastewater discharge site for the City of Santa Rosa. They collected more than 4,000 signatures on petitions for the purpose of showing public support. In the end - both this very public effort, spear-headed by Brenda Adelman of the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee, and the efforts of this group of volunteers, succeeded, in part because of them, and in part, because the City decided this alternative would be too expensive. Bottom line - Steelhead Beach is saved!

Steelhead beach SAVED!
RRWPC Appeals Santa Rosa’s Decision on Discharge EIR
By Brenda Adelman

Santa Rosa’s Board of Public Utilities (BPU) certified the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for its direct discharge alternatives (including Steelhead Beach) on October 2nd, only ten days after its release. At their November 6th Meeting, the BPU informally recommended to the City Council that continued, but improved Laguna discharge was their favored option. The final decision will be made at the Dec. 4th BPU meeting (1:30 PM at City Council Chambers). Local West County citizens played an important role in that recommendation.

Consultants had made numerous last minute changes to the Final EIR, which included changing the pipeline route one half mile down River Rd. What they didn’t do was provide the required analysis to reveal and examine the impacts from this change. Neither did they allow meaningful public review of this action.

Furthermore, they had changed the pipeline entry to Steelhead Beach to the west end of the park, which would cause a huge impact on access to Children’s Beach. In fact, it probably would have closed off beach access for as long as 18 months.

Russian River Watershed Protection Committee (RRWPC) decided to appeal the decision to the City Council, an action never taken before, in order to get the City to re-circulate the EIR so the new issues could receive public review. We submitted the appeal on October 16th. The Appeal was based on the recent changes. Several days later, we got a call from City staff asking if we would like to negotiate an agreement? If we did not, the appeal would be heard by the City Council at their regular meeting on Nov. 4th (election day).

It was extremely likely that the Council would have supported the BPU's certification decision. At that point we would have been forced to file a legal challenge on the entire EIR, or do nothing. To honor the strong public opposition to this project, we felt to do nothing was unacceptable. After all, about 4500 people had signed the petition opposing the project.

On October 29th, RRWPC came to an agreement with the City of Santa Rosa. The City promised to provide supplemental environmental review of the D1 Alternative (Steelhead Beach) should it be selected, and to assure further consultation with the concerned agencies and public as part of the supplemental review. Our appeal to the City Council to reconsider the BPU's certification decision would be dropped, but RRWPC reserved the right to legally challenge the Supplemental EIR, including all changes made to the document since the draft EIR, should it become necessary.

We gave up our ability to file suit on the total EIR. We struggled with this decision and for numerous reasons, determined that challenging this document would be extremely difficult:

The EIR was filled with huge amounts of data and analysis developed by expert consultants, and it would have been prohibitively expensive to challenge this in court.

The City had spent about $12 million or more over a period of about eight years making sure this EIR was litigation proof. The project record alone, including pages and pages of document references, would probably cost over $50,000 to reproduce for litigation.

The response to comments was fairly thorough. Although we didn't care for many of their responses, the sheer volume of their effort would impress any court. Our chance to prevail would be slim.

To seriously challenge the content of the EIR and the responses to comments would take an army of experts and would also be prohibitively expensive.

All of these issues were taken into careful consideration in making this decision.

City negotiators assured RRWPC that Steelhead Beach would probably not be selected for financial reasons. We know there are many economic constraints at this time. For instance, municipal bonds have either been frozen or the interest rates are much higher and obtaining affordable financing for this project will be very difficult.

The Steelhead Beach Project would cost as much as $265 million and could not be phased in. The City all but admitted that they don't need the project for current flows anyway (We have been saying that for the last four or more years.)

The Laguna option would cost them about $6 million and can be phased in. (The EIR for the project cost the City almost twice as much!) It makes complete sense that this would be the project of choice in today's economic environment. Also, many of the earlier anticipated regulatory constraints have been resolved since this process began and are no longer an issue.

RRWPC doesn’t like the Laguna discharge either and we intend to continue our battle to get the City to move towards zero discharge, a goal we’ve had for many years. Each year they are getting closer to reaching that goal.

Finally, the City is VERY aware that a very active and effective group of citizens have come together to fight the Steelhead Beach option (Friends of Steelhead Beach). They also know that we have had enormous success with the petition which will be turned in during the project selection phase on Dec. 4th. We believe that the effort of the community was a major underlying motivation for the City to come to this agreement.

RRWPC consulted and conferred with numerous people familiar with this situation before signing the final agreement. All agreed that this was probably the best way to go considering all the circumstances.

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