Sweet and Sour News for Creek

by Nick Welsh

The good news about Mission Creek is that the California Coastal
Commission (CCC) finally approved a flood-control and
creek-restoration plan for the lower 1.3 miles of Santa Barbara’s
downtown channel. The bad news is that in the six years since the
creek plan was last before the CCC, the Army Corps of
Engineers — the federal agency whose approval and funding have been
critical to the life of the project — has run out of money. But
even if the funding were available, construction costs have risen
so astronomically, it’s highly doubtful that the Mission Creek
project still meets Army Corps requirements that project costs must
at least equal project benefits. In 2000, project costs were
estimated at $18 million, to be split evenly between the Army Corps
of Engineers and local government. By 2003, the estimates had
escalated to $28 million, which pushed the cost-benefit arithmetic
almost to the breaking point. “We barely made it back then,” said
Santa Barbara city engineer Pat Kelly. “I can’t imagine how we’ll
qualify now.” Putting a brave face on matters, Kelly said now that
City Hall has the CCC’s blessing, it can compete effectively for a
host of flood-control and creek-restoration grants. In addition, he
said the County Flood Control Agency has been quietly amassing a
treasure chest of unspent flood-control assessments enacted in
1995.

Back in 2000, when the Army Corps was experiencing no shortage
of funds, environmentalists and creek advocates represented by the
Environmental Defense Center (EDC) opposed the Mission Creek
project, arguing that it failed to safeguard the tidewater goby, an
endangered fish living in the creek. In addition, they charged, the
project plan lacked adequate provisions for the endangered
steelhead trout, which for millennia has made winter runs up the
creek to spawn. In response to those concerns, the CCC ordered the
Army Corps and City Hall to modify the creek plans accordingly.
EDC’s Brian Trautwein expressed pride in the changes resulting from
his organization’s advocacy, but said that the new plans — and fish
studies supporting them — should not have taken five years to
complete. Contributing to the delay has been the fact that with the
advent of the war in Iraq and in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina, there’s been a conspicuous dearth of Army Corps personnel
available to work on the Mission Creek plan, let alone any who are
up to speed on the project’s long and tortured history.

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