Protecting the Waters of San Juan Creek Protects Us All

Horse manure that ends up in san juan creek
Horse manure pushed from the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park to the San Juan Creek

Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park at San Juan Capistrano is a 40-acre equestrian riding park that sits next to the San Juan Creek. The Riding Park’s operator, Blenheim Facility Management, and the City of San Juan Capistrano have mismanaged the facility for years, resulting in horse manure and other harmful pollutants discharging into San Juan Creek, contaminating water all the way to Doheny State Beach.

At the Arizona Crossing at San Juan Creek, polluted water flows into our waters

Contaminated water from horse facilities contributes to high levels of bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus harming San Juan Creek, including critical habitat for Southern California Coast Steelhead – an endangered fish species. Families run the risk of getting sick from splashing in the water contaminated by bacteria from facilities that don’t satisfy standards for properly managing pollution. This is not acceptable.

How does Coastkeeper protect Orange County’s waters through legal action?

Coastkeeper specializes in water quality enforcement and has made great strides in improving water quality for all of Orange County during its 18-year history. Through legal enforcement, Coastkeeper has developed stronger permits that regulate stormwater and urban pollution, and successfully worked with more than 70 local facilities to prevent industrial runoff and help them come into compliance with the clean water laws.

What is Coastkeeper’s role in protecting San Juan Creek?

Horse manure that ends up in san juan creek
Stormwater flowing from the stables to San Juan Creek is visibly growing algae caused by nutrient found in horse manure

For more than seven years, the City of San Juan Capistrano has received complaints from residents and regulatory agencies about pollution that the Riding Park has been discharging into our local waters. In the fall of 2016, after years of the City failing to adequately address the chronic water quality issue from the Riding Park, local residents and others notified Coastkeeper of the pollution and we performed our own investigation. After conducting multiple site visits and reviewing publicly available information from regulatory agencies, Coastkeeper confirmed the public complaints and uncovered additional violations of the Clean Water Act.

PVC_pipe_in_creek_bank_-_sept_3_2016V2.jpgOn March 31, Coastkeeper submitted a 60-day notice letter to the City and Blenheim, intending to file suit. In April, our legal team met with officials of the City of San Juan Capistrano and toured the Riding Park facility with City representatives and Blenheim representatives. Unfortunately, senior staff members from the City and their counsel left the inspection early, instead of completing the tour and fully understanding the severity or the ongoing pollution. We then requested that the City provide a comprehensive plan to obtain proper permits and fix the issues outlined in our notice letters with a timeline for completion, but the City failed to provide such a plan. 

On June 2, with a plan still lacking, Coastkeeper filed a Clean Water Act complaint in Federal Court. The lawsuit cites multiple Clean Water Act violations at the Riding Park, Reata Park and Arizona Crossing – a manmade road through San Juan Creek.

After our initial suit, we also discovered that the Riding Park confines enough horses to be classified as a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and it hasn’t been following the appropriate standards to manage its animal waste or wastewater.

What is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO)?

Riding_Park_Pollution2.jpgFacilities that confine 150 or more horses for at least 45 days in a 12-month period concentrate animal waste and wastewater and are managed differently than other animal facilities. Due to the number of animals confined in a relatively small area, these facilities are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations or “CAFOs”, and are required to obtain a permit under the Clean Water Act.

CAFO permits regulate animal waste and wastewater generated at facilities like the Riding Park to protect water quality from harmful pollutants associated with animal waste. Facilities are required to prevent waste from leaving the site due to environmental and human health harm posed by animal waste and wastewater discharges. If not properly managed, animal waste can run off into our waters during storms or during non-storm events, such as when facilities are cleaned or when animals are washed.

How Coastkeeper is holding the City and Blenheim accountable

On July 5, due to the seriousness of illegally operating a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, we took further legal action to protect the public and aquatic life from harmful pollution flowing from the Riding Park into local waters. With an amendment to our existing lawsuit, we aim to hold the City of San Juan Capistrano and Blenheim Facility Management accountable for unpermitted operations of a large-scale equestrian event center that qualifies as a Large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (facilities that confine 500 or more animals for at least 45 days in a 12-month period). The Riding Park has the capacity to board up to 1,100 horses at one time, and boarded over 8,300 horses total during 2016.

Riding_Park_Pollution1.jpgThe amended complaint completes our allegations of Clean Water Act violations by the City of San Juan Capistrano and Blenheim Facility Management. The allegations in Coastkeeper’s complaint are serious and chronic violations of the Clean Water Act impacting those who use and enjoy San Juan Creek and Doheny State Beach. Those allegations include:

  • Owning and operating an unpermitted horse Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation discharging to San Juan Creek and Doheny Beach without effective pollution controls.
  • Owning and operating a facility discharging storm water from industrial areas to San Juan Creek without a permit.
  • Threatening local water quality by failing to properly regulate discharges under the City of San Juan Capistrano’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System Permit.
  • Filling portions of San Juan Creek and onsite wetlands with dirt and debris, including construction debris, without consulting with state or federal agencies and without obtaining proper permits.

What are the next steps in the case?

Coastkeeper was scheduled to meet with the City of San Juan Capistrano on July 13, but the City canceled the meeting on the afternoon of July 12 and has yet to reschedule. To date, the City and Blenheim have shown no real understanding of the allegations Coastkeeper has outlined in its notice letters, presentation, or complaints. Coastkeeper continues to move forward with litigation and on the afternoon of July 13, Coastkeeper visited the Riding Park and documented ongoing and continuous violations of the Clean Water Act, as well as previously unknown discharges to protected waterways.

The City has until July 27 to respond, Coastkeeper hopes the City and Blenheim recognize the severity of the water pollution issues at the Riding Park and implement a comprehensive plan to resolve the Clean Water Act violations.

Protecting San Juan Creek protects everyone

San Juan Creek is an important local waterway to Orange County and currently listed by the state of California as “impaired” under the Clean Water Act for bacteria, phosphorus and nitrogen (Phosphorus and nitrogen can cause algal blooms. For more information on how algal blooms can harm your health see this video by the EPA) . It provides critical habitat for endangered Southern California Coast Steelhead, and it empties into Doheny State Beach – a popular surfing and swimming destination and one of the most polluted beaches in California due to its high bacteria levels.

View full amended complaint here.

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