A bill to protect 27 1/2 miles of the Sespe Creek wilderness as a "wild and scenic river" area is expected to pass its first test in Congress despite opposition from environmentalists who view it as a halfway measure, an aide to Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino said this week.
"I think the prospects are still good for getting a bill through," said John Doherty, press secretary to Lagomarsino (R-Ojai). "We feel like we can get it out of the subcommittee even though there is a division in the community."
Doherty's comments followed hearings in Washington before the national parks and public lands subcommittee of the House Interior Committee at which environmentalists opposed the wilderness-protection bill on grounds that it does not protect the entire Sespe Creek area.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Keep the Sespe Wild Committee, said a key failure of the bill is that it preserves the option of building a dam at two locations along the waterway in future years if Ventura County water interests can make a case that Sespe water is needed to support the county's continuing growth.
Coalition Supports Bill
Supporting the bill, however, was a coalition of business and farming groups, including the United Water Conservation District of Oxnard, arguing that future water needs in the county may be so great that reservoirs along the Sespe may eventually be needed at either Oat Mountain near Fillmore or Cold Spring near the creek's source.
While Lagomarsino's bill would protect 27 1/2 miles of Sespe Creek, Alasdair Coyne, secretary of the Keep the Sespe Wild Committee, argued that Congress should protect the entire 55-mile stretch of wilderness waterway because "rivers like this are so rare today that they must be considered an endangered species."
Doherty, noting that Lagomarsino's bill does preclude building a dam at the most logical site halfway along the creek's meandering mountainous course, said discussions are continuing to possibly expand the area of the creek to be protected, but indicated that there is little chance that the subcommittee might decide to ban all future dam building along the entire creek.
"We have left open the option of dams at Oat Mountain near Fillmore and Cold Spring back in the forest," he said.
Opposition to Continue
Coyne, saying that opposition to the pending legislation is growing among environmentalists, said he was satisfied that environmentalists were given a fair opportunity to present their case before the subcommittee. He added that opposition will continue if the subcommittee does not protect the entire creek.
"We don't have any indication of what the subcommittee is going to do," he said. "But as the bill stands, we are opposed. It sets a very dangerous precedent in allowing for future dams."
Coyne noted that Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) has an identical bill in the Senate and said his group and others have already begun lobbying Wilson and Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) on the need to protect the entire Sespe wilderness area.
Sespe Creek, one of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California, begins at about 6,000 feet in the area of Pine Mountain and flows through Rose Valley north of Ojai, finally turning south toward Fillmore past ancient Chumash Indian sites and some of the most spectacular canyon country in Ventura County.