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Six years after the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park owners and operators agreed to improve water quality, inaction and failure to comply with federal law causes a shutdown.

The Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park (Riding Park) must immediately halt all equestrian activities with more than 25 horses due to the responsible parties’ failure to fulfill the 2018 Consent Decree (CD) requirements that would bring the facility into compliance with the Clean Water Act (CWA). The CD required the owner and operators to construct infrastructure to retain a 25-year, 24-hour storm, as required by law, or cease large equestrian operations at the venue by April 15, 2024.

For the past six years, Orange County Coastkeeper (Coastkeeper), a regional nonprofit organization protecting water quality, has attempted to work with the responsible parties to protect San Juan Creek and its terminus at Doheny State Beach without hindering equestrian activities.

In 2017, Coastkeeper filed a lawsuit against the City of San Juan Capistrano (the City) and The Ridland Group (TRG), which manages and operates the Riding Park, citing multiple violations of the CWA. In 2018, the parties entered into a CD representing a collaborative effort and clear course of action to protect water quality in the Creek while continuing equestrian operations at the Riding Park. Coastkeeper granted two extensions beyond the original five-year timeline, but the Riding Park has not met the obligations required for continued equestrian events after missing the recent April 15, 2024 deadline.

To comply with the federal clean water laws and improve water quality in the Creek, the City agreed to, among other actions, retain runoff during a 25-year, 24-hour storm event at the Riding Park. Stormwater infrastructure would prevent contaminated runoff from the Riding Park containing manure, trash, and high bacteria levels from entering the Creek. The City entered into a lease with TRG, putting the City’s obligation to construct the project on TRG. Despite showing promising concepts for infrastructure in 2022, TRG has not submitted finalized engineering plans to the City or any relevant permitting agency, much less commenced construction, leaving the Creek vulnerable to continued pollution from equestrian activities.

The City has shown progress in fulfilling other CD obligations that have resulted in improvements to the Creek. As outlined in the CD, the City has restored and stabilized the Creek bank, funded restoration projects benefiting the San Juan Creek Watershed, and removed the illegal “Arizona Crossing” in the Creek. To comply with the CWA and avoid breaking federal law, the City, which owns the property, must halt any Riding Park activities operated by TRG that conflict with the CD. City representatives have expressed to Coastkeeper a commitment to abide by the CWA and CD.

“We have demonstrated a willingness to work with and support both parties to address the Riding Park’s water quality issues,” said Garry Brown, founder and president of Orange County Coastkeeper. “However, we are six years and two extensions out, and full compliance is not even near. The current circumstance is unacceptable and a threat to our waters.”

The Creek, which runs alongside the Riding Park’s western border, is an important waterway for aquatic habitat and empties into Doheny State Beach, a popular beach for parents to teach their children to surf. Regrettably, the Creek is currently listed by the State of California as “impaired” due to high levels of bacteria, phosphorus, and nitrogen — the same pollutants associated with the Riding Park. Coastkeeper is dedicated to improving local water quality to protect the people and wildlife of the San Juan Creek Watershed.

Coastkeeper hopes that the City and TRG will address the failures to comply with the CWA requirements for large equestrian facilities, though it is prepared to take additional legal action if necessary. If the City and TRG are able to engineer the Riding Park to comply with the CWA, Coastkeeper will support the reopening of the Riding Park as an equestrian event center.