A pristine wilderness area northeast of Fallbrook is at the center of a heated controversy, pitting local residents against a multibillion-dollar Fortune 1000 construction company. Five years ago Granite Construction announced its plan to develop a mile-long, 1000-foot-deep open-pit mine just north of the San Diego County line, near the town of Rainbow and west of the I-15. The proposed 155-acre project, named Liberty Quarry, would extract an estimated 270 million tons of aggregate materials over a period of up to 75 years.
Now, residents of Fallbrook, Rainbow, and Temecula are fighting to stop the quarry, which they say would endanger the Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, pollute their air, and subject them to the effects of the explosions required to excavate the rock — an estimated five blasts per week.
Granite Construction, however, maintains that the quarry would provide new jobs for the area and a cheap supply of aggregate, a construction material in high demand and short supply in Southern California.
On June 4, more than 500 residents attended a public hearing of the Riverside Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), an independent, state-mandated regulatory commission. The huge crowd spilled out into the lobby and nearby streets.
The purpose of the hearing was to decide whether to allow the City of Temecula to annex nearly 5000 acres of land, including the site of the proposed quarry. Approving the annexation would have stopped the mine in its tracks, as Temecula has a preexisting land-use plan that prohibits strip mining. However, after hearing nearly ten hours of testimony, the commission voted against annexation. The Riverside Board of Supervisors will now determine the quarry’s future, perhaps by the end of the year.
The quarry site is in a mountainous area southeast of the Santa Margarita River, the last fully protected, free-flowing river in Southern California. The Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve, which extends from Riverside County into San Diego County, comprises 4422 acres of the river valley. At the northeastern border of the reserve, the river begins its descent through the Temecula Gorge, whose cliffs at their steepest are over 230 feet high and near vertical. The river winds through rolling terrain, creating a patchwork of riparian zones shaded by willow, elderberry, and sycamore trees and dotted with coastal wood fern. The reserve is home to 184 species of animals, including golden eagles, bobcats, grey foxes, and California’s only native freshwater turtle, the western pond turtle. Managed by the San Diego State University Field Stations Program, the reserve provides protected sites for research on Southern California ecosystems.
Dr. Matt Rahn, director of SDSU’s Field Stations Program, says the property is an “amazing, one-of-a-kind location.” The reserve is home to endangered, rare, and endemic species and contains unique resources that are the last of their kind in the region. “It’s what Southern California looked like 100 years ago,” he says.
“The research conducted at the reserve is consequential to the nation and the state,” he continues, “answering important questions on climate change, fire ecology, air quality, water quality, and endangered species.”
How would the quarry affect the Santa Margarita River? Rahn says he is waiting to see the environmental impact report, scheduled for release within 30 days. “Given the large scale of the proposed quarry, we may experience impacts on water, air, seismology, habitat, species, light pollution, and noise pollution,” he says. “These impacts may in turn impact our research on the reserve.” Another concern, Rahn notes, is that the quarry site sits within Southern California’s inland-to-coastal wildlife linkage, a corridor between the coastal Santa Ana Mountains and the inland Palomar range.
Rahn says that the scope of the impact on the reserve’s programs is difficult to predict. “However, I can tell you that some long-term projects are hesitant to start work here, given the stigma that now looms over the reserve.”
Just north of the SDSU reserve is a 22-acre avocado grove owned by Fred Hayes. He is one of a number of avocado growers opposed to the quarry. Hayes worries that the quarry’s need for water would have a devastating effect on local growers. A report released by Granite indicates that the quarry would use up to 162,925,500 gallons per year.
“If, in fact, Liberty Quarry becomes a reality, at worst, it could virtually destroy the avocado industry in this area, and at best, it would have the probability of putting 30 or 40 producing groves out of business,” says Hayes. He points out that growers are already under a 30 percent cutback in water due to the statewide drought.
Hayes attended the commission hearing and, together with Ohannes Karaoghlanian, another local grower and a member of the California Avocado Commission, made a 15-minute presentation to the board. Hayes says that the public hearing was a “mere formality,” that the commissioners had already made up their minds.
“I was, to say the least, disappointed by the LAFCO ruling against the City of Temecula’s annexation — disappointed but not surprised,” says Hayes. “I had the sense that the hearing was merely to go through the motions when I saw the LAFCO staff had recommended against approval of annexation at least a week prior to the hearing,” he says, referring to the staff report released to the public one week earlier. “In my opinion, the LAFCO commission hearing was a farce.”
Wallace Tucker, chairman of the Fallbrook Land Conservancy, was also disappointed with the commission’s decision. “They had good reasons to accept the request for annexation — local control of land use, integrity of the countywide habitat plan — yet they punted the issue to the county,” he says.
Tucker believes that the proposed quarry would destroy the wildlife corridor and compromise a world-class research facility. “It also has the potential to adversely affect air quality for several miles around the quarry and the water quality in Rainbow Creek and the Santa Margarita River.” Rainbow Creek flows east and south of the quarry site.
Another local resident at the public hearing was Jerri Arganda, who lives in Rainbow. Arganda, founder of Rainbow Against the Quarry, a citizen action group, says her group is working hand in hand with a Temecula-based group, Save Our Southwest Hills, to stop the quarry.