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Showdown Over Coastal Restoration

Environment: A state panel will consider a request by Edison officials to scale back wetlands and reef projects in San Diego and Orange counties. Opponents say such a move by the company would breach a 1991 agreement.


DEL MAR — On the eve of a showdown at the California Coastal Commission, conservation groups Tuesday called on the panel to reject a request by Southern California Edison Co. to reduce its environmental restoration projects in San Diego and Orange counties.

"Edison should not be let off the hook, not one little bit," fumed San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater.

At issue is a 1991 agreement in which Edison promised to restore wetlands near Del Mar Race Track and build a 300-acre kelp reef off the coast at San Clemente. The projects were intended as mitigation for the impact of Edison's San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant on the coastal environment.

But now Edison argues that the environmental damage from the San Onofre plant is not as great as once feared and that the restoration plan for the San Dieguito Lagoon in Del Mar could leave the area vulnerable to flooding.

The company wants to build only a 16.8-acre experimental reef and drop a plan to conduct deep dredging at the lagoon. At the same time, the company said it is willing to restore wetlands at Ormond Beach in Ventura County.

"The bottom line is that we're prepared to continue to discharge our responsibility to the environment," said Michael Hertel, manager of environmental affairs at Edison.

The commission is set to consider Edison's request today in San Diego.

Douglas Wheeler, secretary of resources under Gov. Pete Wilson and a nonvoting former member of the Coastal Commission, predicted Tuesday that the commission will require Edison to do more at San Dieguito Lagoon than the company has requested but less than the environmentalists would like.

The company's plans for wetlands restoration, reef construction and environmental monitoring would cost $34.5 million, Wheeler said. A proposal by the commission staff has a price tag of $78 million.

"I think we're looking at something in the $60-million range," Wheeler said.

The commission meeting could be one of the last in which the commission is controlled by Republican appointees, thought to be more friendly to the giant utility than Democratic appointees.

After Republicans captured the state Assembly in 1994, Republican appointees formed a majority on the 12-member commission for the first time in its 22-year history. Last week, however, the Democrats won enough seats to regain control of the Assembly, and the new Democratic speaker will soon be making appointments to the commission.

Adding political intrigue is the fact that the future of the commission's executive director, Peter Douglas, is in doubt. Douglas, the main architect of the 1991 agreement with Edison, has been under fire by some Republican appointees as hostile to private property rights.

In recent decades, the once-lush San Dieguito Lagoon, west of Interstate 5 between Del Mar and Solana Beach, has shriveled and suffered periodic dry spells when it has become blocked from the sea.

The lagoon has taken on added significance with the formation in San Diego of a joint powers agency to build a 55-mile park from the mouth of the San Dieguito River east to Vulcan Mountain near Julian. The lagoon would be the gateway to the park.

"It's worth millions to Edison if the Coastal Commission lets them weasel out of their mitigations," said Warner Chabot, Pacific region director of the Center for Marine Conservation, one of several groups that held a news conference Tuesday to call for the commission to require Edison to restore 150 acres of wetlands at San Dieguito.

Hertel said that Edison is willing to ensure that the San Dieguito River remains open to the sea and that 57 acres be restored to marshland conditions. But he said recent hydrological studies showed that deeper dredging--of the kind needed to make the lagoon a viable fishery--could lead to flooding and undermine a portion of Interstate 5.

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