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Laguna Beach Abandons Project for Flood Control

Infrastructure: City decides there are still questions about the plan to unclog underground channel. Environmentalists, merchants opposed it.


After a decade of planning, Laguna Beach abruptly killed an $8.6-million project aimed at relieving a bottleneck in an underground flood channel that sends a river of sand and silt racing through downtown during heavy rains.

The City Council's decision Tuesday night to abandon the ambitious public works project came after officials said they could not resolve how much contaminated soil existed around the channel, how much it would cost to remove it and who would pay for the cleanup.

The project was strongly opposed by environmentalists, who were troubled by public health risks, and by merchants, who feared the construction effort would increase traffic and chase away customers during the 1 1/2 to two years of work.

The decision leaves the community of 25,000 exposed to major floods that have wreaked havoc on the downtown area. By rejecting the project, the city also forfeits the bulk of the funding and staff that the Orange County Flood Control District and Army Corps of Engineers had agreed to supply.

"I had more questions last night about the project than I did a year ago, so I had the wind taken out of my sail," said Councilman Paul Freeman, who had been one of its most ardent supporters. "I still support doing something. It's just that enough concerns, enough uncertainties, were raised that I couldn't vote to keep this particular project going."

Councilwoman Cheryl Kinsman, the only dissenter, said even though the project wasn't perfect, it would have gone a long way toward preventing storm water from streaming along narrow streets, swamping the business district and beaches, and threatening lives.

"I don't want that to happen," Kinsman said, noting how the city will have to pay for an alternative project. "This is a huge missed opportunity."

By virtue of its topography, Laguna Beach is a catch basin for urban runoff and flood waters from inland cities.

The existing flood channel backs up at drains near Beach Street, where S-curves pinch capacity from 1 million gallons a minute to 360,000 gallons a minute. In 1997, El Nino rains closed businesses and damaged the boardwalk and beach. They also destroyed nearby Aliso Pier.

To relieve the pressure points, the county flood district and Army Corps of Engineers planned to build a concrete box, 14 feet wide and 10 feet tall, under Broadway. It would run about 450 yards through the intersection with Pacific Coast Highway and out through the middle of Main Beach.

In a unanimous vote in November, the City Council granted final approval for the plan, even though it learned at the last minute that MTBE and other chemicals had pooled in the soil and groundwater beneath the construction site.

The Surfrider Foundation, Clean Water Now Coalition and the South Orange County Watershed Conservancy have mounted a fierce campaign against the project, writing letters to city leaders and conducting their own research and analysis.

During Tuesday's hearing, group representatives said the city needs to better assess the public health risks. They also said the new channel would actually create a path for contaminants to pollute their beaches and that the wider outfall drain planned for Main Beach would actually worsen the erosion there.

"I think the community as a whole was concerned about what would be the horrendous impacts of the construction," said Rick Wilson, chairman of the local Surfrider chapter. "We are pleased. I think we definitely made a difference."

Council members who voted against the project concurred. They noted that some of the merchants who complained so loudly about flood damage now complained more about their businesses being hurt by construction.

"I think as we got better acquainted with the project, it appeared to many of us on the council that it was tragically flawed," Mayor Wayne Baglin said Wednesday. "You look around the room and you wonder, does anybody want this?"

The council plans to begin discussing options in six months.

County flood district officials said they were disappointed but respect the community's wishes.

The Corps of Engineers said the funding might still be available if Laguna revisits the project soon. Otherwise it would be available to other cities.

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