A measure passed Wednesday by the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs sets aside an additional 10 miles of Sespe Creek for study for eventual "wild and scenic river" designation, and eliminates two of three proposed dam sites on the rugged backcountry river.
The remaining dam site is near Oat Mountain, about 5 miles north of Fillmore.
The delicately drawn compromise is the latest action in the decades-long conflict over development of the Sespe, one of the last unobstructed rivers in Southern California. Environmentalists have fought for the wild and scenic designation, which bars dams and other development, while water districts, agriculture and business interests have urged legislators to leave some stretches of the river free for dams.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Robert Lagomarsino (R-Ventura) and amended over his objections, would knock out of consideration the proposed Cold Spring dam site about three miles east of the Sespe's intersection with California 33. The Topatopa site, deep within Los Padres National Forest backcountry, was eliminated in an early draft of the bill.
The measure, which has bipartisan support, was sent to the full House, where it is expected to have clear sailing.
27 'Wild and Scenic' Miles
It protects 41 1/2 miles of the 55-mile river under the federal Wild and Scenic River Act. It designates 27 1/2 miles as "wild and scenic," shielding that stretch from any development. An additional four miles is designated as scenic, which precludes the construction of dams but allows bridges and limited mining or timber activity.
The new measure also names the 10 miles containing the Cold Spring site as a "river study" area for as long as seven years. That status prohibits river development, pending additional Forest Service study and recommendations about its ultimate designation. It takes federal legislation to move that portion out of study status.
Alasdair Coyne, a leader of the Keep the Sespe Wild Committee, was positive about Wednesday's action, but pledged to work for U. S. Sen. Alan Cranston's bill in the Senate, which designates the entire Sespe a wild and scenic river.
"We are pleased," he said. "But we need to do more."
Lagomarsino on Wednesday called the amended measure "a reasonable bill that addresses the core concerns," although he opposed provisions that were inserted at the behest of environmentalists. He said his original legislation had "more than adequately addressed the environmental concerns."
He objected, for instance, to the exclusion of motorcycles from the seven-mile Johnston Ridge Trail that leads to Sespe Hot Springs.
And he also protested designation of the 10-mile study area.
"It just appears to me this amendment is unnecessary," Lagomarsino said. "The Forest Service has already studied this part of the river and has already decided it is not appropriate for designation as wild and scenic."
The compromise was hammered out between Lagomarsino and Rep. Mel Levine (D-Los Angeles), who are both members of the Interior Committee. Levine had sought to gain immediate protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act for the additional 10 miles. Lagomarsino opposed this attempt.
The head of the United Water Conservation District, one of Ventura County's major water purveyors, was disappointed by the committee's action.
"If this is your savings account for the future, do you want to lock it up in wild and scenic forever?" asked General Manager Frederick J. Gientke.
'Best of 2 Worlds'
As he spoke, he motioned toward the Topatopa Mountains looming behind the district's Santa Paula office. "The county can have the best of two worlds here. My plan would be that people in the county would declare what they want to do with the river, instead of letting people in Washington decide."
Gientke believes that any future dam building on the Sespe would require local public hearings, public votes on bond issues that would be needed to pay for the dam and possibly a referendum on a dam itself.
Water conservation in the county is one of the few other options that United has to meet future water needs and that option is tapped out now, he said.
"At this point, we would have to make it mandatory to conserve and people are just not going to accept it," Gientke said.
Gientke's district recharges underground water supplies for six aquifers in a 214,000-acre area in the Santa Clara River Valley and the Oxnard Plain.
He acknowledged, however, that dams on the Sespe would provide no more than 10% of the water that his district supplies.
Dams and reservoirs at both Oat Mountain and Cold Spring would supply about 20,000 acre-feet per year, Gientke said. A dam at Oat Mountain alone could supply about 8,000 acre-feet.