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Bill to Protect Sespe Awash With Debate

February 16, 1989|GERRY BRAILO SPENCER | Times Staff Writer

Sespe Creek, which runs wild and free through 55 miles of rugged, scenic Ventura County backcountry, is roiling the county's political waters again.

The present controversy swirls around legislation that Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) plans to introduce next week. Lagomarsino proposes to grant Wild and Scenic Rivers status to 27.5 miles of the middle portion of Sespe Creek, protecting that area from development of any kind. The proposal would leave the stream's northern and southern sections open to the possibility of development.

Local environmentalists say that leaving the upper and lower portions of the creek open to reservoir and dam development would open the door for more people and other development in the area.

County agricultural and business interests contend that the legislation, even though it would only protect a portion of the Sespe, would cut off a potential source of precious water to a growing county.

The Sespe, according to the U.S. Forest Service, is one of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California and runs through one of the largest roadless areas in the United States. The Forest Service estimates that about 10,000 people a year use the area for recreation.

The Sespe lies about an hour's drive from metropolitan Los Angeles and flows through spectacular wilderness. It begins at about 6,000 feet in the vicinity of Pine Mountain, although its main source of water is springs in the middle section of the creek.

The Sespe passes through the camping area at Rose Valley, north of Ojai, which is often jammed with weekend campers during summer. After 20 miles of meandering eastward, past the much-visited Sespe hot springs, the creek turns south toward the community of Fillmore.

It is this southward path that is so spectacular, where the Sespe rushes past ancient Chumash Indian sites and surges into the condor sanctuary through a colorful gorge without trails, reminiscent of a canyon of the Southwest and strewn with smooth, house-size boulders. It is this area that is proposed for wild-river status under Lagomarsino's proposal.

While environmentalists and the water-rights interest groups argue the merits of the Lagomarsino bill, Alasdair Coyne, a Sespe hiker, and William P. Price Jr., a water engineer, are seeking changes in the proposed legislation before it is introduced. Each thinks that the present bill is a compromise favoring the other side.

Coyne, 34, is a member of Keep the Sespe Wild, a group of a dozen people who want to see the entire Sespe Creek protected. What they fear is the eventual building of a reservoir in the upper reaches of the stream north of Ojai and a dam on the lower Sespe that would flood a scenic gorge just upstream. They say this flooding would cause the submersion of geologic formations found nowhere else in the world, and the loss of irreplaceable Chumash sites and rock art.

In addition, members of Keep the Sespe Wild say, if a dam is built, the loss of sediment flowing into the Santa Clara River and on into the ocean would drastically increase the erosion threat to beachfront property from Oxnard to Port Hueneme and past Point Mugu.

"We are out to protect a unique resource," Coyne said.

But Price, 78, a former general manager and chief engineer of United Water Conservation District, contends that Lagomarsino's bill, if enacted as written, will spell economic disaster for the county.

"We will either need Sespe Creek water, plus a good deal more, to keep Ventura County 'water solvent' in the future, or a plan to get rid of a lot of people and water uses from the county economy," Price said.

For Coyne, the fight for the Sespe has become a personal one because of his love for the area.

"My first hike down the Sespe . . . really got me hooked," he said. "There's about six or eight of us that are all very excited about the beauty of the backcountry, and we want to see it preserved for future generations."

Coyne said that while he has not hiked the entire Sespe, he particularly loves the creek's last 10 miles, which remind him of Arizona canyon country.

Since there is no trail down that portion and mountaineering skills are needed because of the steepness of the gorge, Coyne said, hiking through the area is guided by "word of mouth," a sort of verbal map from one hiker to another.

Coyne said he and other members of Keep the Sespe Wild have talked to a representative from Lagomarsino's office about the effects of the proposed bill "but they haven't been listening. I guess that's just politicians. . . . I'm not a political person, but I believe it's necessary to get involved to sustain the environment."

Price, on the other hand, became involved in county water issues as head of United from 1954 until 1971. He now has his own water engineering consulting firm in Santa Paula and has done independent projects for United, which serves Santa Paula, Fillmore, Piru, Oxnard and parts of Ventura and Camarillo.

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