With a November completion deadline and a lot of construction to go, the state Department of Water Resources continues to wrangle with the university over the environmental impact of the pipeline. Cal Poly has still not signed the right-of-way papers, and the DWR plans to send in a construction crew within the month.
It's a showdown that's been due for a long time, and in the end will likely be anticlimactic.
Since the 1960s, state engineers have planned the California Aqueduct's extension into the Central Coast. The pipe will carry drinkable water from the border of Kern County to several San Luis Obispo County communities that voted to pay for it, including Avila Beach, Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Oceano, the California Men's Colony, and Cuesta College. Now, the construction that began in December of 1993 is entering its last phase. That's great news for the DWR, but not until Cal Poly signs over permission to trench through campus property.
The pipe's route would pass behind Poll Mountain, unseen to most of the campus. The area it goes through is dissected by streams, but is mostly range land for the university's cattle.
ButFrankLebens, the university's vice president for administration and finance, who has to put his pen to the final right-of way, isn't ready to join the DWR's celebration just yet. While he says the university has gotten several important concessions out of the agency, Lebens is still concerned about the planned uprooting of a grove of about 50 ancient oak trees in Stenner Creek Canyon.
"They can come and put in stakes; they have access privilege, but not construction permission at this point, he said; ''The ball is really in their court now...we're waiting to hear from them. They're looking at those specific oak grove issues. "
The oak grove has gained a smattering of support on campus, and English professor Steven Marx has led tours up to it in hopes of turning public opinion against the DWR's efforts. Avoiding the grove would be a simple matter of aiming the pipe in a slightly different direction, Marx said.
On a hike last month with a group of 10 people, Marx coaxed several of them to scale one of the oaks for a picture. "This may be our last chance to climb this tree, " he noted.
Melodramatic, perhaps, but Marx may essentially be right But he admits it's late in the game to be launching a public relations carnpaign.
In a way, it feels like a losing proposition, " he said. "But on the other hand, I think any information is a win on this. "
According to DWR spokesman Jeff Cohen, the agency has already made its decision. Missing the oak trees would not only involve bending the pipeline, he said but also would require construction workers to bore through a hill.
To build a tunnel 350 feet through hard rock would cost $760,000," Cohen said. "It was too costly, and will not be.done. We will proceed with our route."
Don Kurosaka, Coastal Branch Project manager for the DWR, said engineers plan to make up for the damage by importing new trees to replace the old ones.
"We would have to plant young oak, " he said. "We agree to plant something like a 5- 1 ratio for mitigation purposes. "
Although Lebens said he believes negotiations are still in progress, Cohen said the decision has been finalized. If the DWR has decided to go ahead with construction against Cal Poly's wishes, the agency has apparently not told Lebens.
Nevertheless, both sides agree that the confrontation is unlikely to amount to much. Although DWR officials want Lebens' signature on a permanent right-of-way, they could overstep him. According to DWR staff counsel Dave Sandino, Cal Poly's property could legally be condemned in order to let the pipeline pass through.
Lebens is well aware of that pressure, and doesn't want the relationship to deteriorate to that point.
They've got an abbreviated legal recourse, if they choose to exercise it," he said. "And they've been willing to accommodate discussions that technically they would not have had to engage in. Politically, I think they're wise to do so, however. "
Sandino agreed.'We think it's very unseemly to have to condemn other state agencies, " he said. It's not a wise way to spend public money."