Scaled-down compromise version of Hahamongna sediment removal project unanimously approved; activists unsure about the future of current lawsuit
Published : Wednesday, November 8, 2017 | 6:41 AM
Controversial sediment removal plans for the Hahamongna area of the Arroyo Seco at Devil’s Gate Dam are moving forward again after a surprise compromise amendment by Supervisor Kathryn Barger was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
Barger’s amendment will reduce the amount of sediment removed from 2.4 million cubic yards down to 1.7 million cubic yards and put a cap on the number of total truck trips involved in the project, which is estimated to eventually cost $100 million.
“This modified approach prioritizes safety, addresses environmental concerns and mitigates disruption for our local residents,” Barger said in a statement following the meeting.
The compromise produced cautiously optimistic reactions from opponents to the so-called “Big Dig” project, which some local organizations have fought since its 2014 unveiling.
Members of the Arroyo Seco Foundation brought a lawsuit against the LA County Flood Control District in 2016, when the District sought approval to dig out millions of cubic yards of sediment behind the dam to remove a threat that heavy rainstorms could inundate the dam and flood homes along the Arroyo Seco Channel.
The project has been on hold since being halted by Superior Court Judge James Chalfant in March of this year, and the County is still required by the lawsuit to appear before Judge Chalfant with its modified decision in December.
Barger’s amended motion to reduce the total amount of sediment removal by 0.7 million cubic yards seems to have made all the difference with the project’s opponents.
“I went there prepared to really give a rip-roaring speech and in fact, Supervisor Barger really sort of surprised me, and crafted what I think is a very fair and reasonable compromise project,” Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek explained. “So I had to change direction in terms of my remarks, and I supported her proposal.”
The Mayor added, “It didn’t give us everything that we wanted, but I think it’s gone a long way towards addressing the needs of the Arroyo, and so I think she and her staff did a really great job.”
Tornek allowed that he felt the most important thing about the decision is that it actually means the project will move forward.
As he explained following the County Board of Supervisors’ meeting in Downtown Los Angeles, “Everyone on every side of the issue agreed that we need to remove some sediment because the bath tub is pretty full, because of the Station [Fire] in 2009, and all the sediment that came washing down after that.”
Tornek said both the City and activists opposed to the original “Big Dig” proposed in 2014 agreed that some sediment removal was necessary to reduce the risk of flooding but that because of disagreement over how much should be be removed and how fast, the project’s progress was stymied.
“They should’ve been digging it out this year,” Tornek observed, “but they couldn’t because of the litigation. Now I think we’re in a place where that will be able to get started — maybe not this second, but early next year we can begin to address the public safety issue.”
Arroyo Seco Foundation Director Tim Brick reacted cautiously to Barger’s amendment.
“It is something that was a surprise,” Brick said. “Supervisor Barger introduced an amendment that scaled down the project from 2.4 million cubic yards down to 1.7 million cubic yards. That’s a big change. That’s 700,000 yards less, and now they probably won’t need to use as many trucks as well, so that affects the long term prominent impacts of the project. So it’s probably a good change.”
Brick also explained that the County will be working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ecosystem study in the Arroyo Seco, integrating more into the current stream restoration program.
“That’s a really good step,” said Brick, “we’re really pleased about that.”
Concluded Brick, “It’s a big step in the right direction, and we’re still cautious. Again, a lot of the impacts on the neighborhoods—the air pollution, the diesel trucks, and the quality of the habitat, those are the things we’re so cautious about, but it’s definitely a big step forward.”
Pasadena Audubon Society Program Manager Kym Buzdygon said that while her organization supports the reduction in sediment removal as “a step in the right direction … we still have several concerns…”
Buzdygon said the Pasadena Audubon Society believes the project is still larger than is necessary for flood control and that its footprint should also be reduced in order to conserve more of the habitat on the west side of the basin.
She said that during the Board meeting a County official was unwilling to say exactly how many truck trips per day would occur during the execution of the project, and that he maintained that 400 truck trips a day remained a possibility.
“400 truck trips a day, on a route that impacts many schools, remains of significant concern to residents living near the project,” Buzdygon said.
Also, Buzdygon said, “the mitigation ratio as of today remains at 1:1, which is insufficient to mitigate for the valuable riparian habitat that is being destroyed.”
Local resident and president of the Fund For Wild Nature, Marnie Gaede, offered a supportive reaction.
“It’s not a complete done deal,” Gaede said. “You never know in court what’s going to happen, but I’m still hopeful, and the fact that we’ve got it reduced by 700,000 cubic yards is definitely the right direction.”
According to the statement from Supervisor Barger’s office, the motion will also incorporate the development of an early warning system to notify downstream residents and businesses of any issues related to similar Los Angeles County Flood Control District facilities.
The Supervisor also directed the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works to work with the Army Corps of Engineers on the completion of the Arroyo Seco Ecosystem Restoration Study, which will identify opportunities for aquatic and riparian restoration along a 10 mile reach of the Arroyo Seco downstream of Devil’s Gate Dam.
The County will also initiate a new ongoing maintenance program as part of the amended motion.
As Mayor Tornek acknowledged, “There has to be an ongoing maintenance program, and the County is committed, and so is [Supervisor Barger], to making sure that happens. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves in the same position within a few years again.
Arroyo Seco Foundation attorney Mitchell Tsai was more cautious than optimistic about the project moving forward anytime soon.
Tsai said that Barger’s amendment did resolve many issues, but noting that the Foundation is unsure whether it still wants to pursue the lawsuit.
Said Tsai, “The County is still going to have to get approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board. So they still have 3 agencies to sign off on them, and also their streambed alteration agreement with the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife will need to be redone based upon the new environmental impact report and the revision.”
“So they’re still a long way away,” Tsai continued, “and they have to have their mitigation plans approved. They’re a long way away from moving dirt.”
And a long way from where things stood in March.