The oleander curtain
George Waegell hates oleander. He thinks it is cheap, it is ugly and it is a poor excuse for landscaping. He believes the tall banks of white and pink blossoms often get used as a barrier to obscure an ugly truth hiding behind them.
If you take a ride along Jackson Highway, about 10 miles southeast of downtown Sacramento, you will see quite a bit of oleander on the roadside, usually in conjunction with chain-link fence and concertina wire. The hedges are so innocuous that one might pass by them every day and never wonder what is behind them.
But Waegell wonders. Today he is touring this stretch of Jackson Highway with a 20-foot-long metal ladder in the back of his battered pickup truck. Here and there he pulls the truck off onto the shoulder of the road and sets up his ladder for an inspection.
Behind one fence is a moonscape, a steep, sloped pit hundreds of yards long with a conveyor belt running along the pit floor, up a long rise and out of sight. This is a gravel-mining pit, one of many in this area. According to Waegell, much of this stretch of the county is owned by outfits such as Teichert Aggregates and Granite Construction Inc., which extract millions of tons of aggregate (gravel) every year for use in construction and road building.
Sometimes one finds pits that are used up and have been ‘reclaimed,’ where farmers have come behind to plant crops along the bottom. Topping another fence, one finds a lush green carpet of alfalfa growing. But just as often the trenches are nothing more than brown dusty scars hidden behind berms and makeshift landscaping.
Waegell, a 74-year-old with a bald head and a Fu Manchu mustache gone white, is a retired farmer who looks younger and stronger than a man his age should. As he pulls his truck back onto the road, he explains that this area once offered some of the broadest vistas of the Sierras, before the fences began to crowd the roadside.
‘I don’t want to see this crap. I want to see the mountains,’ he exclaims.
He pulls his truck over to inspect another spot, this time a green and open stretch that runs south of Jackson Highway near Bradshaw Road. A few yards away is Morrison Creek, and a patch of land and stream studded with valley oaks that Waegell is trying to keep from falling behind the oleander curtain.
‘Creeks have been very badly mistreated in this county. At some point we’ve got to start saving at least parts of them,’ Waegell says as he looks around what he calls the ‘last two miles.’ Much of Morrison Creek, he says, from its origins just east of Sunrise Boulevard to Stone Lake where it ultimately drains, has been damaged, channeled, straightened, lined with concrete and stripped of its trees and vegetation.
This is why Waegell has brought a lawsuit against the county of Sacramento and two major gravel-mining companies, Teichert Inc. and Granite Construction. His hope is to stop a proposed gravel-mining project that he and others believe will be disastrous to this sliver of Morrison Creek that is still relatively pristine.
‘There are trees, plants, birds, reptiles, fish and insects all interacting in this fascinating, meandering slice of geology,’ he says. But it is just that geology that has put the creek on a collision course with economics.
‘You typically don’t find sand and gravel deposits that don’t involve wetlands issues,’ says Scott Wolcott, corporate real estate manager for Granite Construction.
Both the creek and the gravel exist in the same place because the area is an ancient riverbed. It is this underlying geology that makes it rich in gravel, a valuable commodity in a fast-growing region like Sacramento.
The county Board of Supervisors gave its blessing to the project to help feed Sacramento’s serious gravel habit. Indeed, the county estimates that it needs 8.5 million tons of gravel a year to keep pace with development and new road construction.
The project entails digging an 800-acre trench, which would straddle Morrison Creek south of Jackson Highway. The area would be excavated down to a depth of 20 to 35 feet. About 36 million tons of sand and gravel could be produced here, yielding about 3 million tons a year for 12 years of the project’s life.
In one section the creek itself will need to be dammed and then rerouted, and perhaps later lined with concrete if the creek banks begin to fail.
The Morrison Creek watershed, one of the largest creek systems in the county, ultimately drains into Stone Lake, which is a protected nature reserve and acts as a holding pool for the Sacramento River Delta. On its way, the creek provides habitat for several native species, including the Swainson’s hawk, spade foot toad and others. The project’s environmental impact report (EIR) calls for the replacement of that habitat at another location.
Waegell says the EIR ignores how the project will contribute to water pollution downstream, especially in the form of sediment.
Aside from ignoring the potential cumulative impacts of the project, Waegell says the companies, and the county, have failed to look at alternatives to more mining in an already heavily mined area.
One alternative is the use of more recycled material to meet area needs. Granite and Teichert also own significant gravel reserves nearby that are already permitted for mining, including one just upstream from the new site that has the potential for over 66 million tons of aggregate.
Waegell’s argument is bolstered by the opinion of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which noted both cumulative impacts downstream and the lack of consideration of alternatives as major concerns.
According to the U.S. EPA’s review of the project, '(b)ecause that 66.3 million tons could meet the Sacramento region’s aggregate needs for approximately eight years … we do not understand the need for additional mining at this time.’
The companies maintain that the EIR was thorough, and that the area can be restored to its former health. Moreover, Scott Wolcott with Granite says opponents of the project are ignoring the impacts to air quality and traffic that would occur if more gravel had to be brought in from other areas.
‘You’ve got to get your gravel from somewhere. You just can’t pull something out of the ground without having impacts,’ Wolcott adds.
Waegell lost his suit in Sacramento Superior Court last year, and is now appealing in the state’s Third District Court of Appeals.
But even if Waegell loses in court again, there is a chance that the project could be halted by federal agencies. The project still has to get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates the filling of wetlands. That agency may yet refuse to issue a permit based on the findings of the U.S. EPA.
When he isn’t agitating to save Morrison creek, Waegell is out cruising the countryside in his pickup truck, peering behind the oleander, planting acorns and caring for young oak seedlings along the back roads.
He is no novice when it comes to defending creeks. In the 1960s and ‘70s Waegell was active in trying to get other farmers to pay more attention to the damage agriculture can do to creeks. Back then he wasn’t thinking about suburban development, or later the impact of aggregate mining.
‘We’ve always just looked at creeks as sort of drainage ditches. Just a way to get the water off of your land,’ Waegell says. But in fact a creek like Morrison, which is thousands of years old, is part of a whole system that stops erosion, encourages grass and soil formation and provides natural flood protection as well as habitat.
'Now we’re starting to look at them more as riparian habitat, and as resources that can really enhance the community.'