September 8, 2008
San Mateo County Supervisors Revise Watershed Plans
By Julia Scott
REDWOOD CITY -- Protecting streams and creeks from the pressures of urban development seems like a laudable goal but when the county gets involved, finding common ground on the issue can be tough.San Mateo County Supervisors Rich Gordon and Jerry Hill scaled back a proposal Tuesday to impose some rules that would limit building on steep slopes or at the edge of creeks in residential portions of unincorporated San Mateo County, after they were bombarded by criticism from homeowners who said the proposed changes, even on a trial basis, equaled "government by fiat" and "eviscerated" their property rights.
Instead, Gordon and Hill, who together form the Board of Supervisors' Environmental Quality Committee, adopted recommendations from staff members to research what the county is already doing to protect its 34 watersheds, most of which lie in unincorporated areas.
The next step will be a fact-finding mission about the watersheds, the creeks they drain into, and what problems may exist in those creeks.
Thirteen waterways in San Mateo County have been identified as "impaired" by the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board, a designation that carries a variety of site-specific connotations. San Francisquito Creek, part of a watershed that includes Portola Valley, Woodside and unincorporated Menlo Park, is known for sediment buildup problems that cause flooding in the winter.
San Mateo Creek is said to contain Diazenon, a pesticide that is no longer in production. Fecal coliform pollution in several Coastside tributaries is severe enough to warrant beach warnings several times a year.
These concerns were on the minds of the two supervisors last year when they asked staff members to embark on an unprecedented outreach campaign -- 12 public meetings to educate residents in various unincorporated communities about potential threats to their watersheds and ask for comments on some of the zoning changes the county would propose to protect them.
The results of that public comment process were presented on Tuesday. Although the project has garnered some support, the meeting made it clear that residents weren't convinced that there is a serious problem or that homeowners are to blame.
"I don't want to have a solution proposed before I know what the problem is," said Mike Sherman, a member of the Emerald Hills Homeowners' Association. "I feel like we're not trusted to do the right thing, and we're not thought to be intelligent enough to protect the environment."
His comments received enthusiastic applause from the crowd assembled at the meeting, and dozens of others expressed similar sentiments.
Some said the Regional Water Board's data was suspect or out of date, although it was updated in 2006. Many creeks are undergoing a new assessment this summer, as the county will soon have to comply with new regulations that limit the levels of untreated pollutants that flow into urban creeks and streams during storms and ultimately out to the Bay or ocean.
Sam Herzberg, senior planner for the San Mateo County Parks and Recreation Division, said the amount of testing the county committed to would be costly but necessary, considering it has never happened before.
"There are enormous data gaps," Herzberg said. "County monitoring is for fecal contamination on beaches -- they're not monitoring for heavy metals or turbidity (water clarity), for example."
As currently written, the county's residential zoning codes do not require contractors to consider impacts of their construction projects on nearby streams. No county rules prohibit construction or grading on steep slopes, which can result in erosion over time and cause a river to fill up with sediment.
The county has no ban on farming or ranching next to waterways, no development checklist applying to the protection of fish species other than salmon or steelhead trout.
The supervisors have long been hoping to address some of these shortcomings, but they stopped short Tuesday of making it an official goal or policy.
"We don't have the power to shove something down people's throats and it's not the county's intent to do that," said Hill, attempting to placate the crowd.
But he continued to maintain that the county had a responsibility to protect its watersheds now so as to avoid major problems down the road. He compared it with the forward-looking approach taken by the San Mateo County Transportation Authority years ago in foreseeing the need to widen Highway 101.
"That's the role of government: planning for problems 10, 15 years down the road," said Hill.
Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4340 or [email protected]
Originally published by Julia Scott, San Mateo County Times.
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