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State wants Army Corps to restore damaged L.A. River habitat

Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board gives the corps 60 days to submit a plan to restore damage it caused at the Verdugo Wash and Sepulveda Basin.

October 31, 2013|By Louis Sahagun
  • Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers secure jute netting to stabilize topsoil and minimize bank erosion along Haskell Creek in February 2013 after bulldozing the area two months earlier.
Members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers secure jute netting to stabilize… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

A state regulatory agency on Thursday gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 60 days to submit a plan for restoring 49 acres of wildlife habitat that it plowed under at two locations along the Los Angeles River without proper authorization.

The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered the corps to mitigate the unauthorized dredge and fill operations at the Verdugo Wash in Glendale and Sepulveda Basin in the San Fernando Valley in a manner that will support the water quality, vegetation and wildlife that existed before they were graded.

"If satisfactory resolution of this matter is not forthcoming," the agency warned in a letter signed by Sam Unger, executive officer of the board, "the water board intends to sue the Army Corps in the United States District Court."

"Our action today will prevent unauthorized projects that result in habitat destruction from happening in the future," Maria Mehranian, chair of the board, said in a statement, "and supports the Los Angeles River revitalization efforts by the water board, city of Los Angeles and other stakeholders."

Although the corps is not subject to state environmental laws, the board has the authority to implement and enforce federal Clean Water Act protections. Section 401 of the act requires the corps to seek and obtain state water quality certification for dredged disposal into waters of the U.S.

In an interview, Jay Field, a spokesman for the corps, said, "We will be carefully reviewing the letter and working to resolve the concerns addressed in it."

On Dec. 10, 2012, Army Corps bulldozers, mowers and mulching machines stripped nearly all the greenery from a 43-acre swath of Los Angeles River flood plain just west of the 405 Freeway and south of Burbank Boulevard, wiping out habitat for mammals, reptiles and hundreds of species of birds.

The agency declared at the time that its "vegetation management plan" for the area did not require an environmental impact report because it would not significantly disturb wildlife and habitat.

The area, which includes the Haskell Creek, Encino Creek and Pot Hole Pond tributaries, existed as a wildlife preserve adjacent to the Sepulveda Dam for more than three decades. In 2010, it was reclassified as a corps "vegetation management area" with 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.

Environmental groups led by the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society believed the agency would avoid removal of native willow and cotton groves, elderberries, coyote brush and mule fat. Much of that vegetation was planted decades ago under a corps program to create the wildlife preserve.

Removal of the vegetation, the board said, impaired aquatic habitat by increasing direct sunlight exposure and water temperature in stretches that were home to bass, carp, sunfish, catfish and fathead minnows.

Separately, the corps removed 6.5 acres of vegetation and sediment from the Verdugo Wash between Oct. 24, 2011 and Nov. 7, 2011, without seeking certification from the board, which did not learn of the project until after it was completed.

Historic and aerial photos showed that the corps "undertook few, if any, precautionary measures to prevent the discharges of oil and grease from its heavy machinery into the confluence of the wash and Los Angeles River," the board said, or to prevent removed sediment and debris from clogging the Los Angeles River channel.

Kris Ohlenkamp, conservation chairman of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, supported the board's action.

"It's absolutely the right thing to do — and what we've been asking for all along," he said. "It's nice to have the state on our side."

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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