Thursday, July 23, 2015

At What Price Progress? A Rancher's Perspective on Placer County's Regional Sewer-line Project

If you live and/or work on the northwest side of Auburn, California (as we do), you're no doubt aware of the regional sewer line project that's under construction at the moment. This project will allow sewage from our part of Placer County to flow downhill (as sewage generally does!) to a large, state-of-the-art water treatment facility near Lincoln.  No doubt, it will help protect water quality by allowing the county to close smaller, out-of-date plants like the one on Joeger Road (just up the road from us).  On the other hand, this project has had some interesting impacts on our community - and I have a feeling these short-term impacts are just the beginning.  I'm sure the county has addressed many of these questions and concerns - but just in case they haven't....

First, there seem to have been a number of questional decisions made relative to this project - some by the county, some by the contractor:
  • Last fall, the Placer County Public Works Department decided to resurface portions of Mt. Vernon Road to improve traction.  Not long after the work was completed, trenching work began in some of the same stretches of roadway.  Seems like a waste of money to me - perhaps the resurfacing could have waited until the sewer line was completed (since the road will need to be repaved anyway).
  • The work on Shanley hill (to the west of where we graze our sheep) started during the dry season last fall.  I watched a guy welding - surrounded by dry grass - and wasn't surprised to see a grassfire start.  Thankfully, a water truck was close at hand, and the fire was extinguished before it could spread too far.  Fire danger is high enough as it is!
  • The crew working on Joeger Road seems surprised and understandably frustrated by the amount of rock they've encountered.  Apparently, they've never tried digging a fencepost hole in North Auburn!  The project is taking significantly longer than the county or the contractor planned.

The project has also created a number of  "minor" inconveniences for our neighborhood.  While the contractor's crew has gone out of their way to accommodate those of us who live here, I still have to go the long way from home to the ranch (normally a 3 mile drive, it's now about 5 miles).  This isn't a huge imposition (except when there's a lot of traffic on Highway 49), but it does add a little time to my irrigation and sheep chores.  Last night's wildfire on Baxter Grade, however, offers a reminder that road closures can have devastating impacts during fire season.  Last year at this time, I had sheep on Baxter Grade - evacuating them would have taken far longer with Joeger Road closed.  I'm assuming the fire trucks that responded from Higgins Corner had to go the longer route to get to the fire last night.

When we do drive on Joeger Road, we must cross trench plates and rought pavement, which I'm sure adds to the wear and tear on our vehicles.  I'm not sure if the contractor is having compaction problems or if it's just the nature of the work, but there are a number of places on Joeger where the completed and filled-in trench seems to be sinking.  Joeger Road, from the water treatment plant to Mt. Vernon Road, will need to be resurfaced.  And we'll need new tires and front-end alignments for our vehicles!

I haven't seem much of the project where it crosses oak woodlands and pasture land, but I have walked some of the impacted land near Mt. Vernon Road.  We have grazed our sheep on a portion of pasture that was traversed by the pipeline.  Based on the difficulty we had in putting our temporary fence posts in, it seems that soil compaction wasn't a problem outside of the road right-of-way - the ground is much harder than the adjacent undisturbed soils.  I'm not sure what kind of erosion prevention seeding was done (although I do remember seeing California poppies growing over the pipeline this spring), but the only thing growing on the section we grazed is yellow starthistle.  I'm fearful that soil disturbance on the scale required for this project, combined with drought conditions, will exacerbate an already difficult noxious weed problem on our local grazing lands.  And at least on the lands we graze, the contractor has not been diligent about replacing the fences it removed during construction.

Which brings me to the most critical question I have regarding this project.  While I understand the need to protect water quality by enhancing our community's ability to treat waste water, I fear that this project will ultimately facilitate the further development (and destruction) of rangeland agriculture and farmland in Western Placer County.  Our landscape is nearly too fragmented as it is to support economically viable ranching operations; this project will make it easier for developers to obtain permits for new subdivisions.  In other words, the short-term costs and inconveniences of this project could lead to a permanent loss of rangeland agriculture and the habitat and aesthetic benefits it provides.

1 comment:

  1. A response from our County Supervisor, Jennifer Montgomery:

    "a LOT of questions in there, but the primary one seems to be relating to growth inducement. The pipeline is a high pressure pipeline that will not allow new connections along the length of the pipe. so, short answer--no it will not allow for further development of ag lands. Wold be happy to sit down anytime over a beer or two and go over your other questions!"

    Thanks, Jennifer - we're lucky to have you representing our district!