“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into the Monterey Bay.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden
From January 19th to 22nd, Environmental Law Clinic students took a field trip to California’s Central Coast. It was an action-packed week: students toured the Salinas Valley, attended a Salinas River conference, took depositions, and met with a new client.
On the first day, we worked our way down the Salinas Valley, guided by one of our clients, Steve Shimek, Chief Executive of the Otter Project. Shimek showed us where to get good artichokes, but more importantly, he showed us examples of some of the most pressing problems facing the river: water quality (pesticides and other contaminants have built up in the river) and quantity (many portions of the river’s normal course are completely dry).
Next, we traveled down to San Luis Obispo. Our task: to take depositions for our lawsuit against the Cambria Community Services District for illegally constructing a brackish water desalination facility without the proper environmental review or permitting. On Wednesday, January 20th, Richard Griffin, JD ’17 and Nikki Leon, JD ’16, deposed a planning official from San Luis Obispo County. The following day, advanced clinic students Lauren Tarpey, JD ’17, and Julian Aris, JD ’17, deposed a witness from the District. The information uncovered in the two depositions will be vital to the case moving forward.
“We really had to hit the ground running to prepare for the depositions,” said Richard. “We got assigned the case the first week, read massive piles of documents the second week, and by Tuesday morning of the third week we were in a room asking questions to a real witness.”
“It was a lot of work, but incredibly rewarding,” he continued. “It’s the kind of thing I never expected to have a chance to do until after a few years of practicing, let alone before finishing law school.”
Because the depositions ended in the early afternoon, we had time to go and see the illegal desalination plant we are fighting to enjoin. We saw for ourselves its toxic evaporation pond, its poorly conceived mechanical sprayers that have been used to spew chemicals of unclear content into the air (right next to a state campground), and its ship-container-like components.
After that, we drove a few miles up Highway 1 to be inspired by one of California’s great conservation success stories: the elephant seal (pictured). These strange creatures—whose hobbies appeared to include groaning, sliding their bodies along the sand in an awkward but remarkably speedy manner, and flipping sand at each other with their fins—were brought back from the brink of extinction by environmental protection efforts.
On Friday, the final day of our trip, we split into groups. The student teams working on water and endangered species issues attended the Salinas River Symposium in Paso Robles to learn more about the Salinas River, its history, the current challenges it faces, and the stakeholders invested in its well-being. Both teams are working on cases aimed at improving the river’s quality and restoring its formerly abundant wildlife.
The other students headed down to Nipomo to meet with new clients—the Mesa Refinery Watch Group—who are working to stop a proposed rail spur project at a nearby refinery. Phillips 66 is trying to construct a facility that would enable them to acquire crude by rail, a project that faces widespread community opposition. (After the field trip, Claudia Antonacci, JD ’17, and Rylee Kercher, JD ’17 drafted a letter and gave a presentation at a County Planning Commission meeting, providing a thorough, well-reasoned explanation of why the County is legally entitled to deny the project.)
Although we all completed important tasks related to our various projects on the trip, the sights we saw gave us invaluable context to the day-to-day legal work we do on our clients’ behalf. We are of course cognizant of the objectives of our lawsuits and letters and comments in the abstract, but to see the sites we’re working to protect with our own eyes helped us to understand and internalize what is at stake. When you gaze into the murky drainage ditch feeding directly into the Salinas River; when you see deer gracefully loping toward a man-made, chemically saturated pool of stagnant, briny water—you remember on the most fundamental level what you’re fighting for, and you don’t forget it.