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Al Martinez

Citizens Find a Hole in Official Argument

July 15, 2002|Al Martinez

Every so often community activists are called upon to clarify for otherwise confused bureaucrats the realities of a situation that is causing problems. In one case, for instance, the Army Corps of Engineers learned from activists that a large hole in the ground with water in it is quite probably a lake.

This realization seems to have not only brought a victory to the activists and the community of Lake View Terrace, but has also taught a lesson of humility to the aforementioned corps. I'll explain.

In the Hansen Dam recreation area at the eastern end of the San Fernando Valley there are two bodies of water, one of about 35 acres, the other a much smaller pond. They exist at the confluence of the Little and Big Tujunga washes and over the years have developed a unique ecosystem.

A larger lake existed in the beginning, but at some point filled with silt. It was subsequently deemed a "borrow pit" by the Army Engineers, which meant that soil was dug from it to be used elsewhere. But dredging created a 60-foot-deep hole. And the hole eventually filled with water again.

And what seemed to be a lake was born. Anyhow, it sure looked like a lake.

It was a large, shining body of water surrounded by a variety of trees and vegetation with two "willow islands" in the middle. The lake attracted all kinds of birds and fish, and was amazingly serene and beautiful just a honk away from the freeway.

Then one day, a local resident taking his morning stroll spotted chunks of concrete and steel reinforcing bars in the west end of the lake. A high, shrill alarm sounded in his heart.

The resident was Dennis Kroeplin, a retired wildlife officer. Walking farther, he saw that earth fill had been dumped into the smaller pond ... fill that consisted of not just dirt, but shopping carts, bicycle parts and old tires.

Outraged, Kroeplin got together with others in Lake View Terrace who helped to ignite the community. Locals jammed a meeting with representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, who didn't have a chance. They were prey in the eyes of eagles.

Kroeplin and others came equipped with facts, figures and statements from a half-dozen federal and local environmental agencies. They read sections of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Wildlife Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act to prove that the corps was violating its own mandates.

But when they demanded that the junk be removed from their lake, a spokesman for the corps replied, "It's not a lake. It's a hole in the ground." A hole in the ground with water in it. The very reference stirred the crowd to an even greater pitch of indignation.

The steel and concrete debris was from a project to repair a nearby "swimming lake." The corps spent $15 million creating that concrete edifice, but it sprung a leak and had to be fixed for an additional $3 million. The junk from that job was dumped into the natural lake because, the corps explained, it would cost too much money to take it elsewhere. Sludge from the Whittier Narrows, complete with shopping carts, etc., was dumped into the smaller pond.

Letters, phone calls and e-mails went out to Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), L.A. City Council President Alex Padilla, in whose district the lake exists, and Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who represents an adjacent district. Hand bills were circulated.

The corps, under siege, explained somewhat feebly that its intent was to create a shallow wetlands where the lake exists. It was made clear that what the locals wanted was what they had, minus the junk dumped into both holes in the ground with water in them.

With pressure from Berman, Padilla and Greuel, resistance from the corps faded. The dumping was stopped and corps ecologist Carvel Bass admitted that the organization had failed to involve the community in its wetland plans and had similarly failed to even get a dumping permit.

Padilla, a former engineer, says the Army Corps manifested a typical engineer's mentality. "To them," he said, "it was just a hole with water." Corps spokesman Fred-Otto Egeler verified that by identifying the two bodies of water as borrow pits, adding, "They have nothing to do with lakes or ponds!" But, he added later, the debris-dumping into whatever they are has ended.

Notwithstanding the corps' inability to grasp the situation, Padilla is trying to get the city involved in removing the stuff from both lakes.

I spent a morning walking with Kroeplin and activist Debra Baumann around what ought to be called Lake Defiance for what it represents, the people taking on a bureaucracy with the passion of guerrilla fighters. It was idyllic. A crow cawed in the distance and a great blue heron skimmed the surface from island to island. Swallows soared above us. A horse and rider clopped by, trotting along a pathway circling through willow, pepper and eucalyptus trees.

Only fools would not see this as an environmental jewel worth saving.

The Army Corps of Engineers blundered into a citizen's army fully equipped to take it on. "Dennis Kroeplin was Paul Revere," Baumann said as we walked around the lake. "We were the Minutemen."

A gleaming white egret ruffled its feathers on a sandbar. The sound whispered into the quiet morning.

*

Al Martinez's columns appear Monday and Thursday He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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