California Coastal Commission officials Wednesday rejected an emergency request by Orange County to remove trees and brush from the lower stretches of a creek that flows into Upper Newport Bay.
Over the objections of environmentalists, the Orange County Board of Supervisors decided last month to thin and clear 2 1/2 miles of overgrown vegetation along San Diego Creek between Michelson Drive and MacArthur Boulevard.
County officials fear that the buildup of plants could cause significant flooding. The work will cost an estimated $3.3 million and take about three months.
Coastal Commission staff concluded, however, that the situation did not meet the definition of an emergency under the state Coastal Act and refused to issue an expedited permit for a part of San Diego Creek under commission jurisdiction.
"This is a failure to conduct regular maintenance [by the county], not an unforeseen, sudden occurrence" as the law requires, said Peter Douglas, executive director of the coastal planning agency. "This is an abuse of the emergency permit process."
Douglas said the county should go through the Coastal Commission's regular permit process -- a step, he added, that should have been taken months before the rainy season.
About a mile of San Diego Creek from Campus Drive to Upper Newport Bay is under Coastal Commission control.
County public works officials contend that the thick growth of mule fat, cattails and willow trees could slow the flow of water in a major storm, causing the creek to breach its banks.
The resulting flood, they say, could spread to the Irvine Ranch Water District water reclamation plant and trigger the release of 4 million gallons of raw sewage a day into San Joaquin Marsh and Upper Newport Bay.
"We are disappointed that the commission has come to that conclusion," said Kenneth R. Smith, the county's public works director. "We feel Irvine Ranch Water District and the Board of Supervisors made a proper determination that this fits an emergency condition."
Smith said the county will seek a coastal development permit and continue to work with the commission. Staff members for the commission said they would speed the approval process. If the clearing of vegetation proceeds in the coastal zone without a permit, the county faces a potential enforcement action by the commission.
Smith said the county could not apply for a Coastal Commission permit earlier because the plan had not been approved by other regulatory agencies, such as the California Department of Fish and Game. He said the department, which manages Upper Newport Bay, earlier denied county requests to maintain the waterway because wildlife habitat might be degraded.
Environmentalists, who oppose the emergency action, said clearing vegetation from San Diego Creek is unnecessary and threatens delicate areas inhabited by such endangered species as the least Bell's vireo, least tern and California gnatcatcher.
"Hopefully, their plans to rip and tear up this area have been stopped and the county will rethink its previous decision," said Bob Caustin, head of Defend the Bay, a group dedicated to preserving Newport Bay. "The Coastal Commission underscores that this is not an emergency."
The county plan also must be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the nation's waterways. Corps officials say they are reviewing the situation but need more information from the county before making a decision.
Like the Coastal Commission, the corps' permission to proceed hinges on whether the county has met the definition of an emergency under federal law, said Jae Chung, an ecologist for the corps.
If denied, the county would have to go through the agency's standard permit process, which could take six months, Chung said. Also reviewing the county's plan are state Fish and Game officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.