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'This is unacceptable.' Paso Robles leaders demand action to clean up riverbed

Posted at 7:22 PM, Jun 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-25 22:22:01-04

Local and state leaders are sounding the alarm to get the green light to clear the Salinas Riverbed of dry brush and vegetation.

They're calling it the largest fire risk area in Northern San Luis Obispo County.

This comes after a fire Monday in Paso Roble which started in the riverbed and quickly moved into a neighborhood destroying two homes and badly damaging nine others.

A total of 15 acres burned.

It also forced hundreds of residents to evacuate their homes.

Local leaders penned a letter to the California Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday demanding action within seven days. The goal is to mitigate fire risk in the Salinas Riverbed.

"This riverbed situation demands immediate action now," said Jordan Cunningham, 35th District Assemblymember.

The Salinas Riverbed is hundreds of acres and it runs through the heart of Downtown Paso Robles.

It's also a hot spot for fires.

"There were over 90 fires in the riverbed last year," said John Peschong, 1st District Supervisor for the County of San Luis Obispo.

Since 2017, there have been at least 425 fires there.

"We need to rally and get in the face of CalEPA and get them to understand the severity of this situation," Peschong explained.

The goal is to get the weeds and brush cleared so a fire doesn't happen again but it must go through the Central Coast Regional Water Board.

"This is unacceptable," said Debbie Arnold, 5th District Supervisor for the County of San Luis Obispo, who is also on the Fire Safe Council. "The funding is in place. The funding is here. It's a matter of getting some cooperation from some of the other agencies so that the fire prevention work can be done timely."

In 2019, the City of Paso Robles declared a State of Emergency and spent $400,000 to clear overgrown vegetation and trim trees.

"Fast forward a year, plants don't stop growing," said Mayor Steve Martin of Paso Robles. "It's all grown back and it's grown back with a vengeance."

The city said it's hands are tied by the Water Board, which wants a long-term maintenance plan backed by data.

In the letter, the city is demanding the following:

  • Use of machinery in the riverbed
  • Accelerate the long-term maintenance plan
  • Recognize the lack of maintenance of vegetation is a threat to life and property and is acceptable for declaration of a local emergency

"We need to solve this problem," Mayor Martin said. "The City of Paso Robles wants a positive and productive relationship with the Central Coast Regional Water Board."

The Paso Robles Fire Chief says a long-term management plan will be completed by the end of the week and presented to the city council.

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board Executive Director Matthew Keeling released this statement to KSBY on Thursday:

Protecting public health and safety is a priority for the Central Coast Water Board and we have been and continue to be committed to working with the city to address the significant fire problem in the riverbed.

It is our mandate - under the California Water Code - to oversee and permit activities within river channels to ensure potential impacts are mitigated to the extent possible to protect water quality and the beneficial uses of the aquatic and riparian habitats.

The Water Board and city staff have been working on this issue since the fires last summer. This is when the city first reached out to us about the need to remove vegetation for fire suppression; this has not been going on for years as stated in Assemblymember Cunningham's letter.

In response to the river channel fires last summer and the city's declared emergency, we allowed the city to remove vegetation in strategic areas to act as fire breaks to mitigate additional fires and have allowed them to maintain these fire breaks.

Following these "emergency" activities we asked the city to prepare and submit a long-term plan for our review and approval so a permit could be in place to implement fuel reduction work prior to subsequent fire seasons. We provided them with the information they needed to prepare this plan. We anticipated the city's plan earlier this year but have yet to receive it for our review and approval. City staff now say it will be submitted sometime in July. The permitted plan would have allowed them to implement more comprehensive and ongoing actions starting this spring instead of having to respond to future emergencies like the most recent fire this Monday.

We anticipate another emergency plan from them in the next day or so and will very likely allow them to do this work again without a permit with the hope that they submit a long-term plan to us for our approval so we are not in this same situation next spring and summer, like we are again now.

One of the issues associated with the riverbed fires that hasn't been discussed, but will need to be addressed, are the homeless encampments in the riverbed. Homeless encampments were reportedly the source of the fires last year and the city is going to need to address this issue in a compassionate and comprehensive way in conjunction with their vegetation removal projects.

We will continue working diligently with the city to address this significant issue.