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DWP Holds Possibility of Lasting Contribution of Nature

Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is particularly suited to work with city, agency to manage Chatsworth Reservoir property.

September 20, 1998|JOSEPH T. EDMISTON | Joseph T. Edmiston is executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy

Nearly a century ago, William Mulholland's vision of reliable water supplies for a thirsty Los Angeles brought a remarkable system of water delivery and storage to the burgeoning metropolis.

Chatsworth Reservoir, near the headwaters of the Los Angeles River at the far western edge of the San Fernando Valley, was an important component of that masterful Department of Water and Power empire. But surely even the visionary Mr. Mulholland could not have foreseen that his legacy would take on a new, controversial dimension at the end of the 20th century.

Chatsworth Reservoir, not used for water storage since 1973, is intricately tied to economic realities that have caused the DWP to evaluate sale or other use of its properties.

Park and open space proponents and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy are concerned about ensuring the permanence of the last large natural area on the Valley floor, a critical component of the inter-mountain wildlife corridor.

The reservoir site, more than 1,300 acres of land where the Valley meets the Simi Hills, is a remarkable if de facto wildlife preserve and natural habitat. It is home to bobcats, mule deer, badgers, gray foxes, coyotes, and bird species by the dozens. Canada geese depend on the site as they make their way south along the Pacific Flyway on their yearly migration.

Valley oaks, the stately deciduous monarchs standing guard along the perimeter of the reservoir land, are remnants of the valley oak savanna plant community that is greatly diminished statewide. Rare or unusual plant species, such as the red-flowered form of bush monkeyflower, and salt-pan-type vegetation, continue to thrive. The property presents a serene, pastoral scene, notwithstanding the controversy over its fate.

City Councilman Hal Bernson has long led the charge to guarantee that the reservoir is permanently devoted to a natural park and wildlife preserve. And indeed, the DWP has kept a careful eye on the property, preserving it and maintaining it at considerable expense as a closed facility.

The sheer size of the property and escalating current land values have certainly not escaped the notice of DWP commissioners as they look at white elephants on their ledger sheets. Getting the dollar signs out of the eyes of some water and power commissioners won't be easy.

Mostly flat land, flanked by residential uses and other open space, the Chatsworth Reservoir beckons not just the bottom-line entrepreneurs hoping to convert land into cash, but coyotes in search of fat rabbits, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts eager to explore the land and park planners seeking to preserve rare and special open space.

The conservancy has for a number of years indicated its interest in entering into an agreement with the DWP to assume management of the reservoir property. The conservancy, caretaker of more than 30,000 parkland acres and equipped with a well-trained ranger and field staff, is especially well situated to work with the city and DWP in protecting and managing the reservoir and other DWP properties in the Valley.

The management proposal was briefly considered then apparently put on hold this spring by DWP, with the indication that the Chatsworth Reservoir and other sites would be evaluated for their revenue-generating potential. The DWP commissioners should remember that any attempt to sell the property would trigger the conservancy's right of first refusal at the original acquisition price, under state law. What did Mulholland pay for land in Chatsworth in the early part of the century? It probably wasn't the $50-million-dollar figure some are pinning on the site today.

The DWP can make the determination that in addition to water, open space, beauty and wildlife habitat are the highest and best use of Chatsworth Reservoir, and all the sites in the Santa Monica Mountains, including Encino Reservoir, Stone Canyon, Franklin Canyon and Hollywood Reservoir. The legacy of DWP has been pure water for the residents of Los Angeles, but surely the agency can make a lasting contribution of priceless nature in the middle of the city, a gift that could not come at a more opportune time.

The Valley was annexed by the city of Los Angeles largely because of DWP. Now, when there is talk of Valley secession from the city, what better time for DWP to present a lasting gift to the Valley and its children: permanent preservation of the 1,300-acres of Chatsworth Reservoir and all the reservoir sites.

It would be a new chapter in the William Mulholland legacy.

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