Governmental And Legal Actions To Impact How Santa Ana River Water Will Flow In The Future

Two separate actions and developments in recent weeks hold the potential of impacting for generations to come a large expanse of land at the headwaters of the Santa Ana River.
The property in question, lying among the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains in Highland and within that city’s sphere of influence entirely within San Bernardino County, was acquired last century by Orange County as one of the many ongoing efforts by outsiders to commandeer San Bernardino County’s water resources. Given the still unfolding events, an opportunity is presenting itself by which control of the increasingly valuable regional water supply the Santa Ana River represents could pass back substantially into the hands of San Bernardino County-based interests.
On December 10, with little fanfare, the Orange County Board of Supervisors broached the concept of selling a significant portion of the property Orange County acquired to undertake the Seven Oaks Dam project.  The following day, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Endangered Habitats League announced their intent to sue the federal government and San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties for harming the imperiled Santa Ana sucker fish species with releases of water from the Seven Oaks Dam during the spawning season in the Santa Ana River.
From what is pegged as a 209-square mile watershed and drainage area extending all the way to 6,752-foot elevation Baldwin Lake high in the San Bernardino Mountains, the headwaters of the Santa Ana form at the narrowing of upper Santa Ana Canyon above Highland. From there the Santa Ana River wends its way through San Bernardino, Riverside and then Orange counties before reaching the Pacific Ocean. The area along the river’s banks serves as a major water source. Orange County has historically taken an interest in preserving and securing the Santa Ana’s downriver flow. Generations ago, Orange County acted to tie up much of the property around the river’s headwaters.
After more than a decade of planning and preparation involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the State of California, and the counties of San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange, a contract for building the Seven Oaks Dam was awarded in 1994, with the federal government picking up 70.47 percent of the cost, Orange County defraying 27.09 percent of the price of the undertaking, San Bernardino County chipping in 1.71 percent, and Riverside County laying out 0.73 percent. Cost overruns on the project raised its final price tag to $450 million.
Construction work began in May 1994 and continued until just before its dedication in January 2000.  To create the dam’s embankment, earth was excavated from Santa Ana Canyon immediately below the dam, the alluvial fan of the river north of Mentone, and a cut in a ridge just southeast of the dam that now serves as the dam’s spillway.
Some time after the completion of the Seven Oaks Dam, Orange County gave indication that it considered 1,657 acres the Orange County Flood Control District had acquired to accommodate the project, acreage lying in a rustic area straddling the extreme extension of Highland into Mentone along the foothills at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains near the headwaters, as surplus. Orange County officials said they would entertain proposals for the property’s development.
The Lewis Operating Company, the successor to Lewis Homes, responded, putting together a development plan that entailed building 3,662 single family homes that would confine themselves to 658 acres within the total project area, a neighborhood commercial center contained on another six acres, and an additional 16 acres set aside for neighborhood commercial uses and community public facilities including the construction of a single elementary school and a fire station on a 1.5-acre site. Other infrastructure to accommodate the development was to consist of water reservoirs, a water treatment facility, a sewage treatment plant, and a pump station dotting various portions of the 1,657 acres. Lewis dubbed the project Harmony, and with the consent of Orange County and the Orange County Flood Control District, submitted the proposal to the City of Highland, which had already annexed some of the property and claimed the remainder of the land at the confluence of Mill Creek and the Santa Ana River directly adjacent to the boundary with the San Bernardino National Forest to be within its sphere of influence.
A group of local residents in the unincorporated outskirts of Highland including portions of the Mentone, Redlands, and Mill Creek Canyon communities in an area historically known as “Greenspot” banded together under the aegis of what they called the Greenspot Residents Association to oppose the project as proposed.
Despite that opposition, Lewis proceeded with the project proposal, circulating a draft environmental impact report for the project among property owners between March 21, 2014 and May 5, 2014, and after 50 comments from the public were received, amended and recirculated the report with changes to air quality, biological resources and traffic issues. A final environmental impact report was completed and made available to the public on March 17, 2016.
In 2016, Highland city staff, led by City Manager Joseph Hughes, Public Works Director Ernest Wong, Community Development Director Lawrence Mainez and Assistant Community Development Director Kim Stater, generated a report, essentially justifying staff’s collective recommendation to the council to approve the project. The staff report conceded that “In some instances, mitigation measures for the project could not reduce the level of impact to less than significant [in the areas of] air quality, transportation and traffic.” The city council, according to the report, nevertheless had the legal authority “to determine whether the benefits of the project outweigh significant environmental effects” and that the council was entitled through its authority to “adopt a statement of overriding considerations stating the reasons supporting the approval notwithstanding the significant environmental effects.”
On August 11, 2016 the Highland City Council held a meeting that was entirely devoted to considering the Harmony project at which it issued a statement of overriding considerations, adopted the environmental impact report, amendments to the general plan relating to the project, approved the zone change, adopted the specific plan, approved the development agreement, and approved the subdivision of the property.
The Greenspot Residents Association, networking with the Center for Biological Diversity and the San Bernardino Valley Audubon Society and collectively represented by the law firm Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger, filed suit over the project.
In the same timeframe, the Sierra Club, the Crafton Hills Open Space Conservancy, the Tri-County Conservation League and the Friends of Riverside Hills also filed suit.
The suits maintained that the environmental review for the project completely ignored that a bridge over Mill Creek – which would be required to access the development – would permanently alter that free-flowing creek, and that the project would also harm rare and protected species, including critical habitat for endangered San Bernardino kangaroo rats and the federally-protected Santa Ana sucker fish as well as habitat for endangered southwestern willow flycatchers.
The matters were considered by Judge Donald Alvarez. On June 26, 2018, Judge Alvarez finalized and signed his rulings, finding merit in some, though not all, of what the plaintiffs in both suits alleged. In particular, Alvarez ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the Center for Biological Diversity/Greenspot Residents Association/Audubon Society suit by determining the city and developer improperly defined the project, and that the environmental impact report was flawed in that it failed to properly analyze or mitigate downstream flooding impacts as well as the potentially deleterious impacts to regional water resources and wildlife habitat.
Alvarez found that the environmental impact report was flawed by virtue of having left out of the equation the volume of fill required to elevate that portion of the project in a flood zone to a level high enough that the foundations of the structures to be built would be at least one foot above the level of maximum flooding statistically likely to occur every 100 years, together with having failed to reckon the impacts downstream of the grading at the south end of the project. Alvarez indicated this phase of the planning suffered because it had been carried out prematurely, that is, prior to the Federal Emergency Management Agency having done a hydrological analysis of the project area.
In the aftermath of the ruling, the Lewis Operating Company indicated it was not giving up on the project and that it would attempt to revamp its proposal to redress those issues raised by the plaintiffs in the suit, and eventually resubmit the plan for consideration.
At its December 10, 2019 meeting, during a closed executive session that took place out of the earshot of the public, the Orange County Board of Supervisors discussed the sale of 1,658 acres, including the 1,657 acres involved in the Harmony development proposal. Involved in the discussion with the board of supervisors were potential purchasers, among which were “Lewis Brothers Development” and the “City of Highland,” according to the board agenda.
Also involved were “Future Purchasers” and “The Redlands Parks Conservancy.”
There was no reportable action that took place during the negotiating session.
That “Lewis Brothers Development,” which is another corporate entity involving Richard Lewis, Randall Lewis, Roger Lewis and Robert Lewis, four of the principals in Lewis Operating Company, is considering an outright purchase of the property signals the proposal to develop the land as a residential and commercial subdivision is yet in play.
The participation of the Redlands Parks Conservancy, which has as its president and board chairman Jack Dangermond, the founder and owner of Redlands-based Esri, an international supplier of geographic information system software, is an indication that the property might be tied up or purchased outright by the conservancy, rendering it, perhaps into perpetuity, as open space. With his wife, Laura, Jack Dangermond in 2017 provided $165 million to the Nature Conservancy to purchase more than 24,000 acres of undeveloped coastal habitat in Santa Barbara to protect it from development.
On Wednesday, December 11, 2019, John Buse, the general counsel and legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity, and Ross Middlemiss, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, sent intent-to-sue letters on behalf of their organization and the Endangered Habitats League to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Orange County Department of Public Works, the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works, and the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. Buse and Middlemiss told those parties the environmental groups were going to take legal action against them in an effort to head off further harm to the imperiled Santa Ana sucker fish.
The legal action is intended to stop what Buse and Middlemiss called “a poorly timed water release from the Seven Oaks Dam during spawning season.”
The water release, which started around May 11 and lasted several days, caused high levels of sediment in the Santa Ana River to cover spawning and foraging habitat downstream of the dam, according to the two environmentalist groups. “Mud smothered the sucker’s eggs and food, impairing the fish’s reproduction at a crucial time, and damaging some of its best remaining habitat,” a December 11 release from the combined offices of the two environmentalist groups states.
The combined release said the legal notice from Buse and Middlemiss “warns the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Orange County Public Works, San Bernardino County Public Works, and the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District of violations of the Endangered Species Act connected to the water release, which illegally harmed the federally threatened fish.”
“This irresponsible action pushed these iconic Southern California fish closer to extinction,” said Ileene Anderson, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These agencies must be held accountable for violating the law and ignoring warnings from federal wildlife officials. It’s sad and frustrating to see this happen when so much time and effort have been spent trying to save this wonderful species.”
“If implemented correctly, management of the Santa Ana River system can successfully combine flood control with preserving wildlife values and the citizens’ natural heritage,” said Dan Silver, executive director of Endangered Habitats League. “However, releases should not be done during the Santa Ana sucker fish’s spawning season.”
According to the two environmentalist organizations, responsible operation and management of the Seven Oaks Dam would enhance rather than harm wildlife and ensure water quality and quantity for the people who depend on the river to provide domestic water. “Today’s notice notes that the original commitment to provide controlled flood releases to benefit downstream habitat for wildlife went terribly wrong this last spawning season and must not continue,” the release states.
The Sentinel’s effort to reach Brendon Biggs, the interim director of the San Bernardino County Department of Public Works for his department’s reaction to the letter was unsuccessful.
-Mark Gutglueck

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