ENCINITAS — The city could have to pay up to $430,900 due to sediment from the Encinitas Community Park entering downstream waterways, along with other alleged violations.
The California Regional Water Quality Control Board recently levied the fine. The city, which is disputing the board’s findings, has until later this month to respond.
The board’s complaint states that the city and the park contractor, USS Cal Builders, had ineffective drainage and erosion controls on the site for several months. It goes on to say documentation shows rains pushed sediment — dirt from the park — into Rossini Creek and the San Elijo Lagoon on Dec. 13, 2012 as well as March 8 of this year.
“They seemed not at all prepared for last winter,” said Rebecca Stewart, sanitary engineering associate with the state water quality control board.
She added that the case was “raised to a priority” because of the importance of the San Elijo Lagoon and the surrounding environment.
Construction began on the community park, located behind Vons off of Santa Fe Drive, in September 2012.
Rossini Creek, a riparian wetland that begins at the foot of the park, snakes southwest and discharges into the mouth of the San Elijo Lagoon, which is near Birmingham Drive and San Elijo Avenue.
The lagoon already has too much sediment, Stewart said. Adding more sediment contributes to the need of opening the lagoon via means like bulldozer dredging. Absent dredging, the extra park sediment also holds the potential to sprout more invasive plants and kill fish that depend on the lagoon, according to the complaint.
The complaint also states the city didn’t have a suitable runoff management plan in place for much of last fall and winter, resulting in the city being fined for 16 days of that period.
Glenn Pruim, Encinitas’ director of Public Works and Engineering, said the site needed drainage work on certain days due to the dynamic nature of construction. However, the days were spaced out over several months. It’s unfair to draw the conclusion the city was out of compliance for much of the fall and winter, he said.
Pruim said the city reported the initial Dec. 13, 2012 discharge to the regional water control board shortly after it occurred.
“We did the right thing,” Pruim said. “And we notified the contractor to make the changes and get the site back into compliance. There may have been other periods for a day or two where things weren’t in compliance. But we were constantly working with the contractor, and the contractor was working with us to get the site in compliance.”
Further, the city and USS Cal Builders were implementing stormwater controls laid out by a state-licensed consultant, he said.
“If those were inappropriate, it’s hard to see why the city would be liable for that,” Pruim said.
Stewart said the site now has adequate drainage basins and other flood control measures. And she noted there’s no estimate of how much sediment flowed into the lagoon during the two discharges.
Over the years, residents have raised worries about contaminated soil at the park, once used for flower growing. To meet environmental standards, the city buried the soil below the site and covered it in geo-fabric netting during grading.
Stewart said the water board is confident the contaminated soil was buried deep enough to prevent it from flowing into the waterways during the two discharges, and during future rain events.
However, the city and USS Cal Builders didn’t take samples of the discharges. If they had done so, that would have put residents’ fears to rest, she said.
“If either the City or USS Cal Builders had done the required monitoring during the discharge event, that would have been proof that the contaminated soil was indeed mitigated properly,” she said.
Doug Gibson, a wetlands ecologist, and who is the executive director of the nonprofit San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy, said there isn’t evidence so far of large quantities of sediment affecting the lagoon. The group will continue to monitor it, though.
Even if the sediment doesn’t result in negative impacts, it “doesn’t let them off the hook,” Gibson said.
“We hope the city and others take this as a learning opportunity about drainage,” Gibson said.
He added that restoration efforts near the mouth of the lagoon, like planting native vegetation, could absorb any potential sediment that’s still in Rossini Creek. Gibson hopes the city will contribute.
“Our goal is to work collaboratively with the city,” Gibson said.
The city has the option of paying the full fine, entering into a settlement or taking part in a public hearing in which the San Diego Water Board can affirm, reject or modify the fine.
If Encinitas is ordered to pay a fine, USS Cal Builders could also have to pay a portion of it. A representative from the company could not be reached for comment by press time.
A decision on how to proceed is due by Dec. 23. The City Council will give direction on how to respond to the complaint in closed session next week.
Councilman Tony Kranz said he was “disappointed” upon hearing about the park sediment flowing into the waterways.
“It concerns me a lot — the environment is one of the most important things we have to protect,” Kranz said.
Kranz said he looks forward to all parties involved laying out the details of what occurred. He added that he anticipates the item eventually being discussed in open session.
Rossini Creek runs through resident Eleanor Musick’s backyard.
On Dec. 13, she captured a video showing the normally clear water transformed brown from the sediment.
“It was so different — it was alarming,” Musick said.
The creek dried up earlier this year, drawing the attention of some residents, who pointed to the park’s construction as the likely culprit. Stewart said no evidence at this time has been found to support that view.