The U.S. Senate is poised to vote on a land exchange that will help local mining operations and protect environmentally sensitive areas of the Santa Ana River Wash between Redlands and Highland.
The House unanimously approved HR 497, its version of the Santa Ana River Wash Plan Land Exchange Act, about a year ago, on June 27. It is sponsored by Republican Rep. Paul Cook of Yucca Valley and Democratic Rep. Pete Aguilar of Redlands.
The Senate version, Dianne Feinstein’s SB 357, was approved by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee recently and will soon be bundled with similar bills for consideration by the full Senate, said Daniel Cozad, general manager of the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District.
The effort to protect the interests of mining companies, flood control, environmental concerns, water conservation, agriculture and advocates of trails began in 1993.
Local water agencies, led by the conservation district, have worked with Highland and Redlands, state and federal agencies plus the Robertson’s and Cemex mining companies on a plan to exchange of 327 acres of heavily disturbed Bureau of Land Management land for 310 acres for protection of endangered species.
Congressional approval is necessary because of a 1908 act of Congress that set aside certain lands for water recharge but not mining on BLM land.
In a Monday morning interview in the conservation district office in Redlands, Land Use Manager Jeff Beehler said the effort became bogged down, until Cozad took over the agency and brought it back to life.
“He was asked about the Wash Plan and had to make a decision on whether it was something worth saving,” he said.
It was a lot of fine-tuning with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after the district was told in 2008 the conservation efforts were insufficient.
“When I came we started looking at every activity that anyone could imagine on the wash for the next 30 years,” Beehler said. “And we got people to guess and pontificate and do whatever else they do when they are planning 30 years out.”
There’s a premium for doing all of this together, he said.
“Or a discount,” Cozad chimed in. “You get a better deal if you shop together . . .”
“. . . if you work with your neighbors,” Beehler interjected, “because what they’re doing is they’re putting together a pretty significant preserve in a pretty significant area.”
He said that having an area that will never be filled with houses is a blessing.
The Wash Plan covers 4,892.2 acres, extending approximately 6 miles on the east at Greenspot Road in Highland to Alabama Street on the west in Redlands and 2 miles from the north side of Plunge Creek in Highland to the south side of the Santa Ana River in Redlands.
The Santa Ana River, the largest river entirely in Southern California, begins at 6,991 feet at the confluence of Heart Bar Creek and Coon Creek, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The creeks are fed by Dollar Lake and Dry Lake about 3,000 feet higher on San Gorgonio Mountain.
The Santa Ana River has long created an alluvial fan, in which a river flows swiftly into a valley below and spreads rocks large and small into a fan-shaped pattern, Beehler explained.
The rocks and coarse sand created by the alluvial fan makes it ideal for mining and an excellent bucket for storing water in the Bunker Hill Groundwater Basin, which has been the mission of the conservation district since 1911.
“What happens is rock and sand and gravel, all the debris that gets washing down in those high-valley events comes rushing down and then it spreads out,” he said. “The floods rearrange the geological furniture, which is what they’re supposed to do.”
Beehler said plants and animals that live in the wash are dependent on the shifting landscape.
The fan was first called an alluvial cone, which is why the camp for Bracero farmworkers in the 1960s and ’70s was called Cone Camp, Cozad said.
The district has a $500,000 California Department of Water Resources grant to dig out channels around Plunge Creek that haven’t been functional for 50 years. The project will increase the flow, but also slow it down so more water will seep into the basin.
The effort for rapprochement between conflicting interests began with the formation of the Santa Ana River Wash committee to coordinate mining activities in 1993, says the December 2013 environmental impact report. In 1997, the committee expanded and took a “best use” approach instead of being constrained by ownership lines.
The committee agreed that consolidating mining operations into one area would make the wash easier to manage. By the late 2000s, a general plan of sorts had been developed, assigning more space for mining and habitat conservation and less for other uses.
Highland and Redlands have incorporated the changes into their general plans.
Robertson’s Ready Mix and Cemex now have the rights to mine up to 4.5 million tons of aggregate material each year. Under the proposal, each company could expand to 3 million tons a year for the next 30 years.
The companies’ footprint would expand to 1,195 acres, an increase of 43.6 percent.
The plan includes reclamation steps to be taken after mining operations are exhausted in certain areas.
“The side slopes would be re-vegetated with native plant species and would be available for habitat conservation and open space,” the 2013 EIR says. “Processing plants, mining equipment, stockpiles and refuse would be removed. Locked gates and fencing, as needed, would remain along quarry rims with signs posted every 300 feet to prevent public access into the quarries.”
The area has been mined since the late 1950s, Cozad said.
Under the bill, the Habitat Conservation Plan would be expanded from 1,215 acres to 1,947 acres, an increase of about 60 percent. More than 600 acres now designated as open space will become part of the Habitat Conservation Plan.
When Highland completed a storm drain project years ago it was required to set aside approximately 16 acres of land for the mitigation of impacts of the project. This land, known as the Highland Biological Mitigation Area, also would become part of the conservation plan.
The San Bernardino kangaroo rat and the California gnatcatcher are among the endangered or threatened animal species in the Habitat Conservation Plan, along with two endangered plant species, the Santa Ana River woollystar and the tiny slender-horned spineflower.
Also considered sensitive in the area are Plummer’s mariposa lily and Robinson’s pepper grass.
The conservation district operates 14 percolation basins to store local water and water imported through the State Water Project. Most of its operations are in the northeast part of the Wash Plan, including the borrow pit left behind after construction of the Seven Oaks Dam.
The district also owns land in the southeastern part of the Wash Plan that it doesn’t use. Its property would shrink by 41 percent, from 1,260 acres to 740.
The San Bernardino County Flood Control District manages four waterways in the area, the Santa Ana River, Plunge Creek, City Creek, which skirts the western edge of the Wash Plan, and Mill Creek, which enters the southeastern part of the plan before its confluence with the river.
The district’s property would shrink slightly, from 414 acres to 408.
Traffic, trails and bikes
Orange Street and State Route 210 cut through the Wash Plan. Highland and Redlands are working on plans for Class 1 bike trails along Orange Street and Alabama Street, which is the western edge of the plan. Class 1 trails include a barrier to protect cyclists from motorists.
The Santa Ana River trail will be south of the river and ultimately create a path from Big Bear Valley to the mouth of the river in Huntington Beach, a 140-mile trek. The Orange Street trail would connect to the Santa Ana River Trail.
“It also would give people from Highland a route to walk to Hangar 24,” Beehler said, “which the planning people thought was interesting.”
Protecting the habitat from curious hikers and bikers would be a challenge, he added. Cozad said the committee hopes to open the Santa Ana River trail by 2020, assuming those issues can be resolved.
The conservation district does not have a lobbyist, but the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District has a contract with one, who helped push the bill. But the real work has been done by the staff of Cook, Aguilar and Feinstein, Cozad said.
“Their staffs have done a tremendous amount of the work,” he said. “When the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee marked up the legislation, they marked up Congressman Cook’s bill.”
This means that if the Senate approves the bill, it won’t have to go back to the House for a conference committee.
While the House routinely approves individual bills, the Senate bundles bills into a “vehicle,” which Cozad thought was a funny term because they rarely go anywhere. Several other land exchange bills are in the pipeline.
The Gov.Track website gives the bill a 26 percent of passage, but Cozad believes it has a chance. Both sides of the political coin have something to like in this bill.
Beehler said Cook has been pushing hard for his bill because it provides the mining companies a clear path to compliance.
“I’m sure he loves the environment and I’m sure he loves the green part, but what he really loves in that this is a way for the miners to comply and do their business and employ people,” Beehler said. “These jobs at Robertson’s and at Cemex are good blue-collar jobs that you can support a family on.”
“And they’re going to be there for 30 years,” Cozad added, “so you can actually raise your family.”
Cozad testified at the House hearing on the bill and said he was nervous as he listened to the sniping during earlier debates.
“When ours came, it got a few questions and comments,” he recalled.
Cook went first, followed by Aguilar.
“It was sort of refreshing,” he said. “After you had seen all these controversial bills, it was nice to have a bill with something for everyone.”
Beehler and Cozad said that if the land exchange doesn’t happen, mining and habitat protection will continue — just not as effectively as it could be.