Ahmanson will not impact endangered species, states report

Ahmanson developers insist no significant impacts from the housing development would occur with mitigation measures in place. Environmentalists contend what’s on paper may not work on the ground.

By P.G. O’Malley/Special to The Malibu Times

There wasn’t much new or different last week in the long-awaited Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) for the 3,050-home Ahmanson Ranch development issued last week by the Ventura County Planning Department. Critics say the potential for environmental damage to Malibu Creek and Lagoon and Surfrider Beach boils down to whether or not developer Washington Mutual can do what it insists it’s committed to do.

The supplemental report for the project, which is slated to be built just north of the Ventura Freeway upstream from Malibu, was triggered when two endangered species were discovered on the property. Quoting from the SEIR, Washington Mutual spokesperson Tim McGarry insisted there would be no significant impacts from the development as long as the mitigation measures Washington Mutual specialists have come up with are implemented. But environmental groups such as Heal the Bay question whether Washington Mutual really understands the potential impacts of the project and whether what’s planned will actually work on the ground.

“What they say they’re going to do might look good on paper,” said Shelley Luce, staff scientist for Heal the Bay, “but, intuitively, a lot of it just doesn’t make sense.”

Another recently formed opposition group, Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch, has also been critical of the SEIR, pointing out the consultant who prepared the report for Ventura County relied almost exclusively on generalized data provided by Ahmanson’s engineers and made little if any reference to specific testimony by Heal the Bay and experts from other independent organizations. “What Ahmanson has provided is a promise of mitigation,” said Tsilah Burman, Rally to Save Ahmanson Ranch executive director. “We need details.”

Luce said this is the first time Heal the Bay has involved itself in a development project and did so because of concerns for Malibu Creek and its affect on the health of Santa Monica Bay. The organization is worried about pesticides and nutrients from two golf courses planned for the Ahmanson project being added to a stream that is already overloaded. Sediment during six years of grading and after the houses and hotel and commercial space are built is also a concern, along with increased nutrients and bacteria in both Malibu Creek and the lagoon related to sewage disposal.

Luce contends sediment is a problem because pollutants from golf course pesticides and bacteria, and heavy metals from urban runoff from roads and other paved surfaces in the proposed development will bond with sediment particles traveling downstream. If concentrations are sufficient and build up in the creek and the lagoon, they can be a risk to human health. Luce points out that vomiting, diarrhea and skin rashes reported for years by surfers at Surfrider Beach will get worse if this kind of contamination isn’t controlled. Ahmanson plans to use detention basins to filter golf course and stormwater runoff, but Luce said, so far, there are no numbers documenting that the structures will do what project engineers claim. And while the developer insists “state-of-the-art” environmental controls will be used on the links, the golf courses are still being planned.

Luce also points out that sediment accumulates as it moves down a stream and can back up behind obstacles such as the Arizona crossing Sierra Retreat residents now use as an emergency access.

While Ahmanson has always insisted it will treat its wastewater on sight, plans actually call for sending 200,000 gallons of solid waste a day to the Tapia wastewater facility in Malibu Canyon. Asked why the Tapia option was selected over a self-contained sewage treatment plant built as part of the development, McGarry said regulatory agencies involved in 1992 planning recommended using the facility, which is jointly administered by agencies from Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Times have changed, however, and Tapia is currently under the gun to implement new regulations about nutrient levels in the effluent it discharges into Malibu Creek. A spokesperson for the facility suggested if the new regulations are implemented, retrofitting the current Tapia treatment plant would reduce its capacity, which is currently permitted for 16 million gallons a day but handles a little over half that amount.

Ahmanson planners have also made a point of guaranteeing a balance between the effluent generated from treating its sewage at Tapia and the amount of reclaimed water it will purchase from the facility to irrigate project parks and golf courses. But a “water balance” report released by Washington Mutual in January 2002 indicates the project will in fact have to discharge directly into Malibu Creek during parts of the rainy season, a problem Tapia has had to deal with in the past during heavy storms. And while nutrients contained in sewage effluent don’t pose a direct threat to humans, critics have long pointed out nitrates in reclaimed water encourage the growth of algae and reduce oxygen, which threatens the health of Malibu Creek and lagoon.

What happens now is 45 days of comment, after which the Ventura County Environmental Report Review Committee decides whether or not to certify the SEIR, and then it’s on to the county Planning Commission and final certification by the Board of Supervisors.

The issue of traffic was not addressed in the SEIR because, according to a press release from Ahmanson, the California Department of Transportation and Ventura County have determined that projections contained in the 1992 Environmental Impact Report remain accurate.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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