By Michele Meske
When the California Department of Water Resources planned the route of a drinking water pipeline through a remote portion of Cal Poly's campus, the agency didn't expect any objections from the University, which, like CDWR, is a state agency. A campus crusade to save several dozen ancient oak trees which lay in the path of the pipeline has blossomed into a fight between the agencies, however, and the fate of the proposed route is now uncertain.
Stenner Creek Canyon is in a remote northwestern portion of the Cal Poly campus, near the boundary of the Los Padres National Forest. The canyon is home to massive oak trees 200-300 years old, as well as rich riparian habitat which supports a variety of wildlife. The canyon is a favorite of mountain bikers and hikers, and a living laboratory for Cal Poly students. It is also ideal, according to CDWR engineers, for the route of a drinking water pipeline.
The pipeline proposed to snake through Stenner Creek Canyon is a small portion of the 300 mile-long California Aqueduct which will stretch from Kettleman City in Kings County, through Kern County, to Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County. The pipeline is funded by the state and the Central Coast Water Authority, a consortium of city and county water districts.
The portion of the Aqueduct slated for Stenner Canyon not only requires the removal of 30-40 ancient oaks; the project calls for a 30-40 foot-wide trench within a 60-foot-wide swath of land kept permanently devoid of vegetation. The pipeline will disrupt the watershed with eight stream crossings, eliminate several perennial pools and degrade water quality with siltation from the eroded land. Additionally, biologists fear releases of chlorine-treated water from the pipeline will be toxic to aquatic wildlife.
The pipeline, and the destruction it would cause, first came to public attention in early 1995, when CDWR released the revised environmental impact report for the project. Although the report did not specify the exact route of the pipeline, it contained enough information to alert university scientists. The Cal Poly Biology Department was instrumental in informing both the university community and the entire population of San Luis Obispo County about the implications of the pipeline project. When the department received the report, it drafted a memorandum addressed to the university president, chancellor, all deans and department heads, the San Luis Obispo city council and local newspapers. The memo decried the "unacceptable destruction of irreplaceable habitat and critical instructional resources," as well as numerous defects in the construction methods, design and proposed route of the pipeline.
Although the concerns expressed by the Biology Department were voiced to CDWR, no reply was forthcoming. Only after biology research associate Phil Ashley and other faculty members pressed for more information from the agency did it release the actual proposed route, through Stenner Canyon. After the route was disclosed in late spring, CDWR engineers, California Department of Fish and Game representatives and Cal Poly scientists and officials began negotiations over altering the route and discussed some modifications which would have lessened the impact on seasonal streams on the campus, as well as the Stenner Canyon oaks. In July, however, CDWR decided to take its toys and go home -- the agency didn't want to play anymore. By the end of the year, it became apparent to the university CDWR was uninterested in negotiating or modifying further. At a meeting in December between CDWR and Cal Poly officials, the University learned CDWR had already awarded the contract for construction of the pipeline. However, the university remained confident it held a trump card which would force CDWR to come to terms -- the school could withhold its signature from the right-of-way agreements necessary to permit the pipeline to cross Cal Poly property.
Enter Steven Marx. Marx, an associate English professor and outdoor enthusiast, had been involved in the pipeline controversy since he read a story about it in the student newspaper, The Mustang Daily, in January 1995. Marx, along with Phil Ashley, pressured university officials to protect the natural resources of Stenner Canyon during the period of negotiations with CDWR. But in early 1996, after CDWR slammed the door on further negotiations, Marx decided to mobilize the campus and surrounding community.
Marx organized regular "excursions" into the canyon to familiarize people with the natural beauty and habitat values of the area. He prompted a flood of articles in both the local and student newspapers, authored a letter to the editor and sparked a letter-writing and e-mail campaign to save the canyon and its oaks. In February, Marx developed and proposed an alternative route for the pipeline -- one which would pass mostly through grasslands and require the removal of only two of the mammoth oaks.
At the height of the protest, university president Warren Baker wrote a letter to CDWR stating Cal Poly would not allow the pipeline to be constructed on the present route. In support of the university's stand, Baker cited unnecessary environmental damage and irreparable losses of an invaluable educational resource. Cal Poly's biological sciences and natural resources management programs, including the only hardwood management course in the western U.S., routinely use the Canyon and nearby Poly Canyon as natural labs -- labs which would be lost if the pipeline went through them.
At this point, CDWR also decided to draw a line in the sand. Citing the cost of recasting the pipe, conducting new surveys, re-engineering the route and, perhaps most importantly, administrative and processing delays, CDWR refused to budge on the route of the pipeline. The agency had offered some mitigation -- planting five oak seedlings for every tree destroyed, tunneling underneath several of the trees -- but it was willing to go no further.
Ironically, on March 19-22 Cal Poly was host to a national symposium on the oak woodlands ecosystem attended by 440 environmental experts. But while foresters and biologists shared information on oak woodlands, bulldozers several miles away were ripping up grass and mauling earth in preparation for the eradication of a spectacular example of the very environment the symposium spotlighted.
Contrary to CDWR's assurances no work would be done until the university had agreed to a plan for construction, bulldozers ripped a 120-foot-wide gash into a hillside on March 20. After the bulldozing, the university negotiated a stop work order from CDWR. The next morning, however, Steven Marx had to put his body in the path of a bulldozer, as CDWR had apparently failed to notify the contractor of the order to stop work. After Marx's dramatic stand, CDWR both instructed the contractor to do no more work and issued a letter of apology to Cal Poly. The letter, from California Resources Agency Director Douglas P. Wheeler, arrived by fax just as the University's legal counsel was preparing to locate a judge to sign the temporary restraining order they spent the night and early morning drafting. The university has suspended legal action pending outcome of the dispute.
Although Cal Poly didn't get a chance to go to court, Phil Ashley did, and had Ashley been successful, the landscape of the controversy would be drastically different. Ashley formed The Canyon and Stream Alliance to file suit against CDWR after he reviewed the revised environmental impact report in early 1995. The suit claimed the pipeline as a whole, not just the portion on the Cal Poly campus, violated the California Environmental Quality Act based on the 100-plus stream crossings in San Luis Obispo County alone and the threat posed to fish and other aquatic wildlife by chlorinated water from the pipeline. The suit was dismissed in the fall, however, and CDWR handed Ashley a bill for $4,400 -- the cost of compiling records involved in defending the suit, which California law allows the agency to recover.
Ashley's suit highlights what he believes to be the essence of the problems with the pipeline -- degradation and destruction of riparian ecosystems and the wildlife they support. The press and university officials have latched onto the destruction of ancient oaks as the only item of concern raised by the pipeline. The portion which threatens the Stenner Canyon oaks, however, is only several hundred yards out of nearly 300 miles of pipeline. According to Ashley, the focus on the oaks not only ignores the larger dilemma caused by loss of riparian areas, but has lead the public and the university to pursue mitigation measures which will benefit only the trees. The streams, like Ashley's voice, have been ignored in the clamor over the oaks.
Ashley's suit may have been dismissed, and the University's legal action stalled, but this dispute may yet be resolved in a courtroom. CDWR attorneys have stated that, although it might be politically unwise, CDWR can always obtain the right to use the land in Stenner Canyon through condemnation. While CDWR acknowledges the public would likely object to the agency spending public funds to wrest land from another state agency, Cal Poly's continued refusal to yield the right-of-way may leave CDWR no choice. As negotiations are ongoing between the two agencies, however, it seems more likely they will come to terms. Whether those terms will satisfy Ashley, the Cal Poly community or anyone at all remains to be seen.
Cal Poly students have created a frequently updated site on the World Wide Web. Visit the Save the Oaks site at http:\\www.calpoly.edu\~mstiles\oak.html to receive further information on the pipeline dispute.
(Michele Meske is a staff writer for the Environmental News Network and an associate attorney with Hogue, Speck & Aanestad, P.A. in Ketchum, Idaho.)