Repairs to the Santa Paula Airport, damaged in this past winter's heavy storms, are on track for completion following a tentative agreement reached this month between the city and the Nature Conservancy.
To divert the Santa Clara River and repair the airport's main runway, a large section of which was washed out in February, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District needed permission from the conservancy, the nonprofit organization that owns property at the edge of the airport and beneath the river in that part of Santa Paula.
In a land swap, the conservancy agreed to allow construction on about 40 acres of river bottom and to give a permanent easement on about 25 acres in exchange for the city donating 70 acres of river bottom along an adjacent parcel downstream.
"When you're working in conservation, you need to realize the needs of the community must be met while you're trying to achieve your goals," said E.J. Remson, the conservancy's point man in Ventura County. "It never occurred to us to say 'no' to the airport and put one of the city's largest private employers out of business. It's too important to the community."
More than two dozen companies, with nearly 150 employees, depend on the 75-year-old private airfield. After several days of storms, the Santa Clara River eroded the bank beneath the airport's lone airstrip and carved more than 400 feet from the 2,650-foot-long runway, forcing the airport to close for about three weeks.
The preservation organization reached the halfway point this summer in its quest to buy and protect about 20 miles of the Santa Clara, one of the last free-flowing rivers in Southern California. The river flows west 84 miles from the San Gabriel Mountains near Acton to the ocean near Oxnard and Ventura.
Remson said the river, which is dry most of the year, contains willows, cottonwoods and mule fat, a small shrub. It also provides a habitat for several endangered or threatened species, including the southern steelhead trout, arroyo toad, the southwestern willow flycatcher and the least Bells vireo songbird.
"This is extremely valuable land from a conservation point of view. To lose this is very painful for us," Remson said. "We work very, very hard to get every acre we can along the river, and we hate to give any of it up.... but we were able to do this while still being true to our mission.
"We have a responsibility to our supporters to protect the habitat we acquire into perpetuity. But at the same time, we understand how important it is to work with the realities of the community."
Jeff Pratt, director of the Watershed Protection District, said about $6 million would be spent replacing the airport land that was washed away and protecting the new fill dirt from storms. The repairs wouldn't have been possible, he said, without the conservancy's cooperation.
"The Nature Conservancy has been a gem to work with. Right away they gave us permission," Pratt said.
Funding for the repairs was secured from a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture because the airport, which serves sheriff's and fire department aircraft in addition to private planes, is considered a crucial facility.
In the first step of the repairs, the Watershed Protection District used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to create a diversion channel in the middle of the Santa Clara. Then 90,000 cubic yards of soil was removed from the riverbed and placed along the airport property to restore the former landing strip. Pratt said the district will soon have a contractor drop tons of large boulders, known as riprap, along the edge of the airport land fanning out toward the center of the river to prevent further erosion.
The project was delayed for months by a dispute between the district and the California Department of Fish and Game, which argued that the county needed to conduct an environmental study before installing the boulders to maintain the integrity of the new riverbank. The county won a court challenge on the issue in October.
As part of its mitigation for disturbing the river habitat, the district was asked by Fish and Game to purchase and give the conservancy about 40 acres downstream of the airport, which cost $9,200. The county will provide an additional $110,000 for the long-term conservation and maintenance of the parcel. Those 40 acres are in addition to the 70 acres that would be given in the land swap with the city over the airport.
Santa Paula City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said the land swap with the Nature Conservancy is expected to be considered for approval by the City Council in January.