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California agency says U.S. removed wildlife habitat without permit

Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board directs the Army Corps of Engineers to provide information about its elimination of woodlands in Sepulveda Basin.

January 16, 2013|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • Botanist Ellen Zunino walks with San Fernando Valley Audubon Society members Ann Ohlenkamp and Dave Weeshoff in the Sepulveda Basin vegetation management area where the Army Corps of Engineers removed wildlife habitat without permission of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Botanist Ellen Zunino walks with San Fernando Valley Audubon Society members… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

A state regulatory agency Wednesday said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to obtain a required permit before it removed 43 acres of wildlife habitat in the Sepulveda Basin and filled in a pond used by migrating waterfowl.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has directed the Army Corps to provide information by Feb. 11 about its decision to eliminate woodlands and potentially foul the Los Angeles River with sediment. Sepulveda Basin is an engineered flood control zone for the river.

"The corps did not notify us before it proceeded to destroy wetlands, and that is a great concern to us," said Maria Mehranian, chairwoman of the water quality control board. "The federal Clean Water Act requires anyone working in wetlands to obtain a permit from us. They failed to do so."

PHOTOS:  Sepulveda Basin habitat cleared

The board will determine later whether enforcement actions are needed to prevent such unauthorized activities in the future, the agency said in a letter to the corps.

Col. Mark Toy, head of the corps' Los Angeles District, was unavailable for comment. But corps spokesman Jay Field said, "We are working with the Regional Water Quality Control Board to provide information we believe will address any concerns."

Separately, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorities are looking into possible violations of endangered species protections in the Sepulveda Basin.

On Dec. 10, corps crews cut down the swath of basin greenery just west of Interstate 405 and south of Burbank Boulevard, destroying what had been a lush urban refuge for kingsnakes, bobcats and white pelicans.

The area existed for three decades as a designated wildlife preserve. In 2010 it was reclassified as a corps "vegetation management area" and given a new five-year mission of replacing trees and shrubs with native grasses as part of an effort to improve access for corps staffers, increase public safety and discourage crime.

The management plan has been temporarily halted, pending the outcome of ongoing discussions with the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society and the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Areas Steering Committee.

Toy has spent much of the last two weeks meeting privately with critics of the project including the Audubon Society, Sierra Club and state Sens. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) and Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills).

On Tuesday, San Fernando Valley Audubon Society President Dave Weeshoff and Conservation Chairman Kris Ohlenkamp asked corps officials in the Pentagon to revoke the 2010 plan and replace it with a new project designed to "return the area to a diverse native habitat that supports wildlife and fulfills the public's need for a natural outdoor experience in the middle of the city."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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