SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Officials of the powerful Schuller Ministries claim that repair work along the storm-ravaged Oso Creek threatens to devastate the church's picturesque Rancho Capistrano, especially if more rain arrives soon.
Victor Andrews, a spokesman for Schuller Ministries, which also owns Garden Grove's Crystal Cathedral, said the project has actually worsened the creek's severe erosion problems and helped wash out about 10 acres at the religious retreat during the recent storm. The $400,000 project is being carried out by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co. and the Moulton Niguel Water District.
"We have a potential disaster sitting here now," Andrews said.
Repairs began last month after storms hit the creek, exposing two sewer lines and pushing water to within 10 feet of the railroad tracks, on which 18 Amtrak runs are made daily. Two freight trains also use the tracks daily.
With help from the railroad company, 50 carloads of material were shipped to the site and 3,500 tons of rock were brought in over the past few weeks to shore up the creek side along the tracks.
But Schuller Ministries, a politically active international organization, is complaining that the repairs are stabilizing only one side of the deep creek while leaving the ranch side unprotected and exposed to the creek's drainage problems.
Further, it claimed that although most repair work is being done along the creek, crews have gone on the 170-acre ranch without consent from ministry officials.
"This work has been done in total disregard for the other property owners here," Andrews said.
Jack Foley, general manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District, said the storms forced the district and the railroad company to act immediately to control the flooding and keep the tracks open.
"We had to move quickly and take immediate steps to save the railroad tracks," he said. "We know this is only an intermediate step, but we had no choice."
Along with the danger to the railroad tracks and the sewer lines, four 90-foot power poles had to be relocated because they were in harm's way. If the work had not been done quickly, there was a danger of 8 million gallons a day of raw sewage spilling into the creek, said Carlo Habash, the water district's director of engineering.
"We had a problem and we had to take care of it," Habash said, adding that the district hopes to get federal money to pay for the project. "My response to (Schuller Ministries) is that if they have a problem, they should take care of it."
Herb Nakasone, director of flood control programs for the county's Environmental Management Agency, said the effects of the project will not be known until the creek swells again.
"I don't think it will necessarily exacerbate problems on the (Schuller) side," Nakasone said. "One really doesn't know how the water is going to react in this kind of situation. The water was moving toward the railroad side, so obviously that's its natural course."
Erosion problems at Oso Creek and the neighboring citrus, avocado and persimmon ranches have plagued the adjacent landowners and the city of San Juan Capistrano for decades.
Heavy rain can turn the usually quiet creek into a surging river and three men have been swept to their deaths in the creek during storms since the 1930s.
Runoff from residential and commercial development in Mission Viejo and other communities upstream has intensified the damage in recent years, county flood control officials acknowledge.
The creek gathers force as it winds down from its tributaries in the twin Saddleback peaks, through man-made Lake Mission Viejo and, after running for miles along the blacktopped developments and cement-lined flood control channels, dumps out into unprotected Rancho Capistrano and other creek-side properties.
The flow has turned the formerly small creek bed into a monstrous canyon, up to 80 feet deep in places. Citrus trees that only months ago were part of lined ranch groves are now lying at the creek bottom and officials agree that valuable ranch land is being washed away.
Most of the erosion is occurring on the former Bathgate Ranch, a 75-acre spread that Schuller Ministries purchased from the Bathgate family in 1988. But ministry spokesman Andrews said all the landowners upstream and downstream should share the burden of fixing the problems.
"I don't want to sue anybody, but we are going to do whatever it takes to save this ranch," Andrews said, adding that ranch engineers have designed a $10-million creek-lining project that would protect the adjacent properties.
"But it will take a coalition of property owners, the city of San Juan Capistrano, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the county flood control officials to do it right," he said.
Andrews blames the county for the lack of progress on the construction of a basin along the creek upstream in Laguna Hills to catch creek overflow before it gets to San Juan Capistrano.
That project, called the Galvan Basin, has been funded but is undergoing a lengthy environmental review, Nakasone said.
Nakasone said the county is working with San Juan Capistrano on a comprehensive plan for relining several creeks within city limits, not just Oso Creek. He said the Schuller Ministries are experiencing problems shared by people all over the county because of the unusual rainfall during the past two months.
"It's a very tough kind of a situation with no easy answers," Nakasone said.
"It is hard to tell people in Southern California we get large creek flows that do create a lot of destruction, even in improved, lined channels," he said. "People who have lived there for years understand the creek's destructive force. I think the ministry has only recognized recently how serious the flooding can occur."