Planada needs an EIR

Lydia Miller, President
San Joaquin Raptor/Wildlife Rescue Center
(209) 723-9283, ph. & fax
P.O. Box 778
Merced, CA 95341

Steve Burke
Protect Our Water (POW)
(209) 523-1391, ph. & fax
3105 Yorkshire Lane
Modesto, CA 95350

Bryant Owens – Planada Association and
Planada Community Development Corporation
2683 South Plainsburg Road
Merced CA 95340-9550
(209) 769-0832
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Robert Lewis
Director of Planning and Economic Development
Merced County
2222 M Street
Merced CA 95340
(209) 385-7654
via Fax (209) 726-1710

Thomas R. Pinkos, Executive Officer
Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board
11020 Sun Center Drive. #200
Rancho Cordova, CA 95670
via fax 1-888-454-5310;

Tam M. Doduc, Chairman
State Water Resources Control Board
1001 I Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
P.O. Box 100
Sacramento, CA 95812
(916) 341-5250
fax (916) 341-5252

RE: Planada Community Services District proposal to drill test wells in association with an expanded WWTF- CEQA requirements

It is our understanding that Merced County Planning is the land use authority with regard to environmental review of ‘projects’ in the unincorporated sections of Merced County. Planada falls within that category. So does the proposed expansion of the Planada SUDP north of Hwy 140 and east of North Plainsburg Rd.

We feel that a number of individual projects (including relocation of migrant housing near Planada, the proposed expansion of the WWTF, the Compliance Project mandated by RWQCB, expansion of the Planada community SUDP and a proposed Merced County General Plan Update) which should be under the aegis of a single environmental review, are being addressed in a piecemeal and uncoordinated fashion with regard to larger overall needs of this unincorporated predominantly farmworker village.

We therefore request your assistance in determining precisely who has the statutory responsibility for identifying, evaluating and mitigating the potentially significant cumulative environmental effects represented by these various individually identified components of what is clearly a larger picture.

While we clearly understand the need for Planada Community Services District to comply with the regional water board’s cease and desist order for past discharge violations, we are unclear as to what nexus of authority gives the Planada CSD latitude to propose an expansion doubling the capacity of the current WWTF in combination with a land use change to handle effluent discharge without triggering significant and coordinated environmental review by the local land use authority, the county of Merced.

In the county’s presentation of the proposed SUDP expansion referenced above, at the Planada Town Hall Meeting Thursday Jan 26th, 2006 the ‘SUDP expansion project’ was correlated with and described in terms of the number of new homes the expanded WWTF would be able to serve. This may have represented convenient numbers for audience members to recall, however it does not take into account the needs of any potential new commerce or industry, which would seem to be a necessary component of what Supervisor Pedrozo described as the need for ‘smarter growth’ in Planada.

We don’t believe this was an unintentional oversight in Thursday night’s presentation, insofar as residential development pressure seems to be the sole driving force behind this expanded SUDP proposal, and given the glaring lack of any proposed new business or industry in the vicinity over the last 3 years.

County Planning Department’s collaboration with this effort to expand the SUDP, against the wishes of the community and in spite of the ongoing litigation over the previous Community Specific Plan Update, challenged in Merced Superior Court Jan 2004 and currently before the 5th Appellate Court in Fresno is particularly puzzling when this proposal is viewed in light of the current jobs/housing imbalance that already exists in Planada.

Business Housing and Transportation subsidiary organizations are all mandated to incorporate environmental justice sensitive evaluation into approval of the various policies and programs they oversee and enforce.

Planada is predominantly inhabited by a clearly identifiable target population, yet the policies of the State Water Resources Control Board to assist this target population seem to be being hijacked for the direct benefit of speculative residential developers with designs on the community; with the willing assistance of sympathetic county administrators and local elected officials.

We would like some clarification and demonstration as to how the proposed funding stream ($2million grant from SWRCB) for the Planada CSD WWTF expansion will not in fact cause financial detriment to the target population currently living in Planada. This grant is by no means sufficient to fully fund the proposed expansion, by at least several million dollars. The current community can ill afford to service additional tax burden to make up the difference.

This SUDP expansion ‘project’ was reportedly connected to a proposed Merced County General Plan update, which would, according to the county representative, necessarily supercede the various components of the 2003 Planada Community Plan Update, in which Planada’s sewer and water needs were inadequately studied/estimated, and remain points of contention in the ongoing litigation.

Planada CSD was faced with a mandate to cease sewage effluent discharge into Miles Creek, and was given time to achieve a compliance project to bring the needs of the current community into compliance with the regional and state water boards’ discharge requirements.

An increase in the SUDP of this magnitude was not envisioned as part of the mandated compliance project for the WWTF and cannot be environmentally justified in light of the Community Service District’s decision to forego tertiary treatment, to remain with secondary treatment and to change to a land based discharge process.

In fact the funding source for a majority of the mandated compliance project is being pursued through a program funded through the State Water Resources Board chiefly because Planada qualified as a ‘small community with financial hardship’.

The decision, to switch to land based dispersal of effluent and disking of dried biosolids into the soil around Planada, was reached in order to avoid continued pollution of waters that are tributary to the San Joaquin River, which describes Miles Creek, and can only have been reached based on balancing the environmental impacts of allowing Planada to continue to discharge with a more costly tertiary treatment of Planada’s current .5 mgd average effluent load, against the relative environmental impacts of land based dispersal of that same amount of effluent (But certainly not more!) at the current level of treatment.

The county must not be allowed to avoid timely CEQA consideration of the potential significant effects of a WWTF expansion in anticipation of further development by hiding within the mantle of the RWQCB’s mandate to the Planada CDS to cease and desist pollutant discharges.

The State and Regional Water Board were clearly not intent on encouraging what will be essentially another 4000 homes connected to an elaborate leach field on what was once productive agricultural land and which will no longer be capable of growing food for human consumption.

The environmental review under CEQA of the significant effects of this decision to expand the WWTF is clearly the responsibility of the Planning Department of Merced County. The mandate to abate identified discharge violations may trump the county’s responsibility for environmental review of the abatement activities, as an emergency situation exists; that is not in question. The pollution that has occurred must stop.

However, the decision to expand the capacity of the WWTF is a project completely separable from the Regional Water Board’s sanction against the Planada Community Services District, and we maintain that it is the Merced County Planning Department’s ultimate responsibility to identify and evaluate potential significant impacts of the LARGER ‘project’, and to do so at the earliest point in the process in order to ensure that decisions are made based on the best and most thorough information available.

We request that you help us identify which authority has jurisdiction, and require that you collaborate in identifying who exactly has the duty to the public to require an environmental impact report regarding the potential impacts of expanding the capacity of the Planada WWTF and that such agency be directed to comply with the requirement of CEQA regarding the environmental impact report that must be prepared before any other irreversible commitment of the Planada Community’s assets are ‘permitted’ by the County, or allowed to proceed beyond completion of the mandatory aspects of the compliance project.

Drilling of test wells to monitor for potential groundwater contamination from the proposed land based dispersal of effluent creates potential hazards in and of themselves, and threaten direct ground water contamination for a significant number of residents in the areas surrounding the Thiaroff property adjacent to the current Planada WWTF where these test wells are proposed. These affected citizens as well as the public in general, are entitled to the protections of the CEQA insofar as a portion of this ‘project’ is elective and not mandatory.

The CEQA requirement for review at the earliest point in the process must not be circumvented simply because it suits the interests of residential developers who have expressed interest in building homes in the area. In fact it is that very interest that requires the early review of these potential environmental impacts.

At the very least we request that the appropriate permits for drilling wells in unincorporated areas of Merced County be made requisite to the Planada Community Services District Plans, and that copies of those permits be made available for inspection by the public when they are completed and approved, and then incorporated into the administrative record of this ‘project’ when such is officially identified and recorded with the State Clearinghouse of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

Thank you for your timely consideration of these concerns and we look forward to your written response.


Lydia M. Miller

Steve Burke

Bryant Owens