Matilija’s slippery slope

Just outside Ojai’s city limits, bulldozers chewed at the jagged rocky cliffs above Highway 33 while a creek lazily snaked through a handful of boulders and pebbles a few hundred feet below.

The tranquil scene just north of the juncture of the Matilija Creek and its north fork belied the newest chapter in a conflict surrounding the nearby Mosler Rock Quarry, which environmentalists blame for degrading the stream’s water quality and its ability to provide passage for spawning steelhead trout. Yet it wasn’t the loose gravel on the nearby hillside muddying the waters on this spring morning.

Instead, a nonprofit attempting to preserve the Ventura River Watershed, which the north fork of the Matilija Creek feeds, and the quarry itself both blame a morass of county, state and federal agencies charged with overseeing the watershed for complicating efforts to remedy ongoing impacts from a 2006 landslide. The accusations of heel-dragging came as the Casitas Municipal Water District, which supplies water to more than 60,000 people in western Ventura County, sent a letter to each agency urging them to coordinate efforts to fix lasting damage from the landslide.

Two years after winter storms washed massive boulders and a stream of dirt into the creek, aftereffects continue to threaten water quality for thousands of the district’s customers as well as fish passage for the steelhead, said Ben Pitterle, the director of watershed programs for Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.

A March 24 letter from Channelkeeper and four other environmental groups urged the California Department of Fish and Game, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Ventura County Planning Division and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors to act to solve problems the environmentalists argue could have been prevented by proper oversight from those agencies.

Two days later the Casitas Municipal Water District board approved a letter concurring with Channelkeeper’s findings. That letter identified four areas for the agencies to act upon.

“This is really a problem with the agencies themselves not going far enough to ensure that critical resources are not degraded, by requiring measures that truly mitigate environmental impacts,” Pitterle told the Reporter. He said evidence persists that biological and geological impacts identified in the mine’s environmental impact report that could be mitigated have not been.

Although both letters identified impacts from the quarry on the creek’s water quality and riparian habitat, both groups stressed its operator has complied with the measures it has been told to meet, whether or not they are adequate.

“You can write down mitigation measures, but if they aren’t working or not appropriately applied then they need to be corrected so that all entities can achieve what they need to achieve, including the Mosler Rock Quarry,” said Steve Wickstrum, the general manager of the Casitas Municipal Water District. Wickstrum said his organization had yet to receive any response by April 7.

Jay Field, a spokesman for the corps of engineers, said in an e-mail the mitigation measures Mosler proposed in April 2006 didn’t require a clean water act permit and were also located outside the corps’ jurisdiction.

“We have been participating informally with the operator and the local, state and federal agencies in attempts to mediate a solution,” Field said.

California Department of Fish and Game regional manager Ed Pert was traveling and a separate contact provided by Pert did not respond by press time. Regional water quality control board and national marine fisheries contacts did not respond to requests for comment.

The matter has significant implications for the regional water supply. The North Fork Matilija Creek is one of the only tributaries of the Ventura River, which supplies about half of the water managed by the district.

Larry Mosler, the owner of the quarry, refused to speak to the Reporter for this story. His attorney, Derek Cole, said Mosler has done everything he was asked to do by the stakeholders, including removing boulders from the 2006 landslide. He has also tried to secure authorizations from the county to remove boulders from the top of the quarry’s steep cliffs above the creek

to limit the amount of rock and gravel that could slide down the hill.

“He started that process in July [of 2007], and it’s April and we still don’t have that authorization,” he said. “Larry’s done everything he can.”

Cole said the problem is the county keeps trying to assert its authority. After it received the letters from Channelkeeper and the water district, the county planning division mailed a letter to Mosler and Cole asking for a summary of mitigation measures the quarry has taken. Cole said the county’s request is just another delay.

“Larry wants to comply immediately with the water board order, and he wants to comply with the mine safety and health administration, but the county is basically telling him you need to get our authorization,” Cole said, “but for reasons he’s having trouble understanding, they keep putting him off, they keep sending him these letters.”

Pat Richards, a Ventura County planner acting as his division’s director when the letter was sent, said a conditional use permit from the county allows the mine to operate, although all of the other agencies contribute to its regulation.

After the landslide, he said, the agencies have spent the past two years discussing the best method to remediate the quarry’s impact. Ultimately, though, Richards said the county’s position is the creek itself is the responsibility of state fish and game officials and the corps of engineers.

“We look at them to tell us specifically how is this issue going to be resolved,” he said. The county’s responsibility is to make sure those agencies’ rules are followed by the quarry.

“It’s not just the in-river issues that Mr. Mosler is dealing with, but it’s also a whole series of perch boulders and loose material that need to be taken care of. Mr. Mosler has to come up with some kind of corrective action,” Richards said. “This is a very complex series of issues because one thing kind of leads into another.”

Pitterle said none of the agencies are taking the responsibility to remedy the problem.

“It’s under the oversight of all these agencies yet not one agency has taken the lead in addressing the ongoing impact,” Pitterle said. “No agency has stepped up and really done what it takes to make sure some of these impacts have been mitigated.”

Mining operations over the years have exacerbated the problem. Previously known as the Schmidt Rock Quarry before Mosler bought it in the 1990s, the mine’s previous owners mined from the bottom up, contributing to the slope’s instability. Despite the site’s history and significant impacts mentioned in an environmental impact report prepared when the conditional use permit was issued, measures that could have been easy to mitigate have yet to be addressed, Pitterle said, resulting in the current problems.

When the Reporter visited the site on March 29, large boulders still crossed the stream bed and a loose slope led down from the mine toward the creek, but water did flow freely toward the Ventura River. Most of the water would dry up in later months, Pitterle said, and the next time there is a major rain storm more sediment could run off and taint the creek and block fish passages.

Pitterle said he was “baffled” at the delays, especially because a Washington-based engineer who visited the site in December 2007 said clearing the channel might cost as little as $15,000, far less than the millions of dollars being spent on other watershed restoration projects, such as removal of arundo donax plants and fish ladder construction projects, both of which might be pointless if the Matilija Creek is blocked at the quarry.

“When these happen every time there’s a rain event, you don’t allow time for it to recover its natural balance,” he said.