PASO ROBLES, Calif. - Paso Robles and Northern San Luis Obispo County leaders are accusing a state agency of civil negligence, and that is risking the life and property of tens of thousands of people.
"We've got a dire situation going on in the riverbed, and a real threat to people's lives," said Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo). "This isn't just property. Property threats are bad. This is a threat to people's lives."
Cunningham was one of a handful of speakers at a press conference held Thursday morning in front of a house that was destroyed in Monday's River Fire.
"One acre burned in the riverbed, and burned 15 acres in a residential neighborhood," said Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin. "We lost two houses, nine damaged, thousands of people were evacuated. From a one acre fire. What will a 10 acre do? What will a 40 acre fire do? How many acres burning in the riverbed will it take to turn Paso Roble into a Paradise (California)? We cannot let that happen."
The press conference was held in large part so the leaders could publicly vent their frustration with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and State of California.
They said the City's efforts to mitigate dangerous fire hazards in the Salinas Riverbed are being stymied.
"What we're dealing with is a situation that has continuously compounded itself and we have not been able to get control of it because of the State of California and CalEPA (California Environmental Protection Agency), and I really want to call them out," said San Luis Obispo County First District Supervisor John Peschong. "We need to rally and get in the face of CalEPA and get them to understand the severity of this situation."
In a letter sent to California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Jared Blumenfeld on Wednesday, leaders said board has failed the community.
The letter, authored by Cunningham, and signed by Peschong and Martin, said Monday's River Fire demonstrates that overgrowth in the Salinas Riverbed poses a substantial threat to community safety.
"We dodged a major, major bullet on Monday," said Cunningham. "That fire could have been much, much worse were it not for heroic actions of our firefighters, but this riverbed situation demands immediate action now. The government's highest obligation is to protect lives, so no more blame shifting. No more bureaucratic shuffle from the state, let's work together hand-in-hand at all levels of government and get this done now."
During the press conference, Martin pointed out the Water Board is making vegetation management nearly impossible since it is forbidding the use of mechanized equipment.
Instead, the City is allowed to only use hand crews to cut through the vegetation.
He also said work is not permitted to begin until late June, when the hot summer season is in full swing.
"It's sort of like, if I told you, it's okay for you to mow your lawn, you gotta wait two months, and when you do mow it, you can only use your pocket knife," said Martin. "That doesn't work for the City of Paso Robles. It doesn't work for the citizens of Paso Robles."
Fire Chief Jonathan Stornetta emphasized that starting at such a late time in the year not ideal and dangerous.
"You look at all the other fire agencies throughout the county, they are starting all of their vegetation management stuff in the wintertime or early spring, and yet, we're unable to get down there and do that work," said Stornetta. "Now we're out in the heat of the summer, when the humidities are low, the vegetation is dry, and as you can see right now, the winds pick, so it's extremely difficult to get down there and start the vegetation management this time of year."
The Salinas Riverbed is a vast landscape that cuts the city basically in half.
Spanning several hundred acres, it contains dense pockets of trees, shrubs, grasses, and other debris.
Since 2017, there have been a reported 425 fires within the riverbed area, including 90 last year.
In 2019, the City was able to clear out a section after it declared a local emergency.
Leaders said the Water Board threatened them with legal action if they were to pursue that once again.
"The powers that be say to us, if you declare a local emergency again, if you do that on your own, we will punish you," said Martin. "We will retaliate. In essence, saying, it's okay for this to happen (pointing to the burned house behind him), as long as you don't go into the riverbed. I disagree with the that. I disagree with that strongly."
While the speakers at the press conference are expressing their disappointment with the Water Board, Matthew Keeling, who is the Executive Officer, disagrees with many of their accusations.
"Protecting public health and safety is a priority for the Central Coast Water Board, and we've been, and to be continued to be committed to be working with the city to address the significant fire problem in the riverbed," said Keeling. "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."
Keeling said he was surprised no one with the City of Paso Robles or any other local government official contacted the Water Board after the River Fire and was hurt by the letter sent by Cunningham.
"I'm really shocked and perplexed by those types of statements," said Keeling. "I just think those statements are uninformed and disingenuous, relative to how our coordinate has been with city technical staff on this."
He pointed out the Water Board, has worked with Paso Robles regarding vegetation management, since only last year, not many years, as the leaders said.
"The Water Board and city staff have been working on this issue since the fires last summer," said Keeling. "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.
He also wanted to highlight the Water Board did allow the City to work in the riverbed last year while without a permit.
"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," said Keeling. "We provided them with the information they needed to prepare this plan. We anticipated the city’s plan late last year or 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."
Keeling also refuted claims the Water Board has not allowed mechanized equipment into the riverbed during vegetation removal.
"According to my staff, they have never formally asked us to do mechanized vegetation removal within the river channel," said Keeling. "The proposals that they've come to us thus far have been for hand removal and we've allowed that."
Keeling stressed that it is his personal desire, as well as all of those who serve on the Water Board, to work with Paso Robles and regional leaders in a positive manner moving forward.
"We're committed to working with the city now to address this very significant issue," said Keeling. "We've always been so. Let's sit down and talk, and lets identify what the obstacles are, what the opportunities are. Let's come up with a plan moving forward that addresses their emergency needs."
It's a sentiment shared by Martin, and all other involved in this contentious issue.
"We need to solve this problem," said Martin. "The City of Paso Robles wants a positive and productive relationship with the Central Coast Regional Water Board. That can only happen if that board respects Paso Robles and its citizens and protects Paso Robles and its citizens."
Keeling mentioned talks are already underway. He noted staff members with the City of Paso Robles and the Water Board spoke Thursday.