By Jennifer Henion
Triplicate staff writer
The bureaucratic layer cake that has confused and delayed Del Norte County gravel extractors seems to have been cut for now.
After a two-year wait and several government roadblocks, local cement makers and gravel and sand suppliers are now closer to winning permission to collect their product.
"Just about everyone who does anything relating to construction is affected by this. Any of the building contractors around here use materials from the Smith River," said Jay Sarina, planner for the Del Norte County Community Development Department.
Gravel and cement, used for county road repairs and nearly all local construction projects, is supplied by local operators.
And nearly all the gravel comes from the banks of the Smith river.
The problem over the last couple of years is that gravel extraction permit applications have been processed too slowly by the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Permits have either come too late in the year for the extractors to complete operations, according to Sarina, or the permits have not come at all because Army Corps officials have been busy with "other matters."
"We're less than 120 days from the stop date and it's squeezing everybody out," said Don Kelly of the local California Fish and Game office and proponent of local gravel-extraction operations.
Kelly made that statement in a June meeting with officials of Fish and Game, the California Coastal Commission, the Army Corps, the Del Norte County Supervisors and several private gravel operators.
Frustrated with the delays and the effects on the local economy, Supervisor Clyde Eller and others called in Congressman Mike Thompson to help.
Using his federal-level influences, Thompson was able to call together the colonel of the Army Corps of Engineers from San Francisco and all the pertinent officials from NMFS last week to meet with the local operators.
"It appears that it worked. That meeting had a lot of the decision makers involved. People were enthusiastic when they left because the colonel was taking the responsibility to streamline the federal process," Sarina said.
For ranchers Blake and Stephanie Alexandre, that state and federal process costs thousands of dollars, involves deciphering a complicated environmental studies and preparing a two-inch-thick document for four different government agencies all for just 10,000 cubic yards of rock to use for their own ranch roads and barn foundation.
It is a particularly difficult process for them, said Stephanie Alexandre, because they are not fluent in the bureaucratic language necessary to be heard by the agencies.
"I still don't totally understand it," she said.
The Alexandres are close to winning all their permits, however, because of local political pressure exerted at the two latest meetings with the Army Corps.
They received a letter of permission from the Corps last week, they hold permission from the county and Fish and Game and have only to wait for a decision from the Coastal Commission expected next week.
Complicating the issue is that little rock has been deposited on the banks this year by the river's flows, according to Alexandre. The amount of rock deposited each year depends on rains and water-volume flowing which brings the rock from upstream.
Currently there are seven private and industrial gravel extractors on the Smith River. Del Norte County owns two operations on Rowdy Creek which supply materials for local road repairs.
With the permitting delays of the last two years, most of those nine operations are depleting their rock stockpiles, according to Sarina.
If gravel and concrete companies do not keep a large enough stock, it hurts their business and the local economy, he said.
"It prevents them from bidding on certain jobs. If they have to bring gravel in from out of the county, you're talking about trucking costs, et cetera," he added.
Sarina said he is optimistic that, because of Congressman Thompson's efforts, the permitting process will be faster and easier in the future.