Local reps slam water board for delaying Salinas River work after destructive fire


Two days after a Paso Robles vegetation fire escaped the Salinas Riverbed and destroyed two homes, 35th District Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham slammed regional water officials in a letter alleging that regulators had “stymied” city efforts to clear the river of flammable vegetation.

The 15-acre blaze that started in the afternoon of June 22 jumped South River Road and took out two homes, damaged nine others, and caused hundreds of households to evacuate before firefighters contained it the next day.
RIVER BLAZE A 15-acre fire on June 22 jumped the Salinas River and burned down two homes. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FIVE CITIES FIRE AUTHORITY
  • RIVER BLAZE A 15-acre fire on June 22 jumped the Salinas River and burned down two homes.

The fire was just the latest to strike the Salinas River where it bisects Paso Robles. In 2019, the city recorded more than 90 fires there, many alleged to have started in homeless encampments. The cause of the latest fire is still under investigation, according to Paso Mayor Steve Martin.

“We have a dry riverbed that is overgrown with vegetation, like a fuse running through the center of town. That creates an immediate threat to human life,” Martin said on June 23.

Last summer, in response to a spree of river fires, the city declared a local emergency and got an emergency permit to clear what Martin said was about 15 percent of the shrubbery in the riverbed to establish a buffer from the city.

Since then, much of the vegetation has grown back and Martin said the city has struggled to obtain another permit from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to do more work in the river.

“I was there the morning before the fire. About a dozen people in hand crews were there with hoes trying to knock weeds down. That’s kind of like a drop in the ocean,” Martin said. “We have to press forward to make sure this risk is minimized in the future.”

Local representatives said the regional water board has barred the city from using mechanized equipment or expanding the scope of the clearing in the river without a long-term mitigation plan and permit in place.

Cunningham’s June 24 letter addressed to the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) secretary claimed that the water board threatened legal action if the city tried to declare another emergency this year to get an expedited permit.

“The board’s staff seems unable, or refuses, to take seriously the threat posed to our residents’ lives and property by the overgrowth conditions in the riverbed,” read the letter, which was co-signed by Martin and SLO County 1st District Supervisor John Peschong. “The board’s inaction is totally irresponsible, borders on criminal and civil negligence, and will inevitably result in further catastrophic damage to the lives and property of local residents.”

In response, Matt Keeling, executive director of the regional water board, told New Times that his staff has worked steadily with Paso Robles since last summer to “help them develop a long-term management plan that would allow them to do the types of things they’re saying we won’t allow them to do.”

Keeling said he expected the city to submit a plan late last year or in early 2020 but has yet to receive one. Cunningham claimed in his letter that a plan had already been approved by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.

“If they submitted a plan to us, we could’ve had a permit in place,” Keeling said. “I’m not sure where they got the information, because it does not comport with the conversations I’ve had with my staff and city of Paso Robles staff on this.”

Keeling added that the water board is responsible for protecting water quality and river habitats. The use of mechanized equipment has the potential to cause “significant erosion that will discharge sediment” into the river, he said.

Martin said that those environmental concerns were “not great consolation for people who lost property in the fire.”

Cunningham’s letter demands that the California EPA and water board grant the city permission to use mechanized equipment, expedite review of the city’s application for a long-term maintenance plan, and issue another emergency permit for river work if necessary.

“Were it not for the quick and heroic actions taken by our local and state firefighters, entire neighborhoods could have been engulfed in a matter of hours,” Cunningham’s letter read. “Their heroic actions, however, should not have been necessary.” ∆

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