It’s a hot September afternoon at the magically magnificent Descanso Gardens. I’d accepted the invitation to attend Shifting Soil: Sediment Management Policies in LA by the Council for Watershed Health. The council assembled a panel of experts. The top dogs in their fields gave a short presentation in the following order:
- Dr. Pete Wohlgemuth, US Forest Service
- Gary Hildebrand, LA County Department of Public Works
- L.B. Nye, Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board
- Tomas Beauchamp, US Army Corps of Engineers
- Jeff Pratt, Ventura County Public Works Agency
- Greg Woodside, Orange County Ground Water Basin Management
- Tony Zampiello, Main San Gabriel Basin Water District
Dr. Shelley Luce, Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission
- Tim Brick, Arroyo Seco Foundation
- Dr. Cheryl Swift, Whittier College
- Lynette Kampe, Theodore Payne Foundation
The County of Los Angeles Flood Control District is updating its strategic sediment management plan for the long term. Tragic mistakes like the loss of the ancient oak grove in Arcadia are as a result of using outdated methods/plans for removal and placement of sediment. “Dumb engineering,” as one panelist put it.
It’s a whole new world, and the humans have just realized they are not invincible. Conquering nature is no longer a good plan. The mindless addiction to cementing everything and anything down, keeping “it” out, sterilization of nature–the idea that prediction equals control with no negative consequence is an illusion.
Here’s the rundown on the event that I attended:
Nancy Steele* welcomed everyone, and then introduced the first speaker. Dr. Pete Wohlgemuth, US Forest Service. He’s “talking geology.” Dr. Pete cited the 6 factors of sediment dynamics with a graph: 1) The San Gabriel mountain ranges are too steep, 2) and getting too high (mountain ranges growing?)…3, 4, 5, I thought I was going to die. When he mentioned a book, The Control of Nature by John McPhee that he liked, I perked up again. I’m always interested in a good book recommendation. Ever read Cadillac Desert?
This is Gary Hildebrand, Assistant Deputy Director of Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.
Mr. Hildebrand is very knowledgeable about the history of the dams and waterways in the Los Angeles area. He said that the system needs to be revised to reflect what we know today– that Public Works has been using the same plans/methods since the 1920s.
It was good to hear Hildebrand acknowledge that sediment has commercial value and is not useless. Let that be a mitigating factor in costs intrinsic to developing a new approach, Mr. Hildebrand.
L.B. Nye, an environmental scientist and a representative from the only regulatory agency present at this symposium; the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. Regulations are nothing to be dicked around with, but “they can be misinterpreted sometimes” (Jeff Pratt interjected later). Just ask the “Arroyo Lover.” Thank you, I think I will: Isn’t the intent of enacting a regulation to protect something?
Ms. Nye tried to explain what a CRAM is… giggles. [C.R.A.M.] is a California Rapid Assessment Method. This new tool sounds expedient but dumb because it relies on only visual assessment on site of any wildlife present, etc. Tunneling arroyo toads are not going to be noticed, so many m a n y others overlooked. More like CRAM IT nature, and what is “compensatory mitigation?”
She mentioned a recent permit request from Vulcan Materials in Azusa to expand their rock mine on a wilderness parcel they own in the foothills. Just look at the website for SAVE OUR CANYON, and compare it to the Vulcan Materials site. Let your imagination run wild there for a minute, but don’t get lost.
This is Tomas Beachamp from the Army Corps of Engineers. The super dam builders.
Actually, the official tagline under the seal of a red castle is: BUILDING STRONG® And Taking Care Of People!
Tomas explained that under federal law, the corps will build the thing (whatever it is) but maintenance and operation of the “thing” has to be turned over to local authorities. Tomas is assigned to Inland Sediment Management. His colleague (not present) Monica Eichler is assigned to Coastal Sediment Management.
This is Jeff Pratt, Ventura County Public Works and he is highly technical and talks fast. He uses a special GIS (Geographic Information System) program add-on hydrology software in Ventura, and has created 3D models that include all possible scenario calculations specific to each individual project or problem. [ I don't think our city engineer Dan Rix used anything like that to calibrate the additional truck loads of sediment he threatened with the life of those lovely, sweet palms he planted in Hahamongna 25 years ago. How can he even entertain the thought of chainsawing down his own children? Please somebody, I need a nap.]
Mr. Pratt prefaced his comments by first conceding the completely different challenges he faces in Ventura as compared to Los Angeles. Here we have a ground water crisis due to extreme urbanization and massive amounts of loss due to impervious cement in watery areas…that were once earthen rivers and streams. In Ventura, his greatest problem is flash flooding in the four watersheds under his care and control. Pratt said, they made mistakes in sediment placement too before changing their old ways. They used to hire contractors to haul sediment away and dump it–only to find out later that the contractors dumped it on parcels they owned by streams. TRANSLATOR: Sediment when dumped by heaping truckloads into watery areas makes land. New land to build on. And, that’s how Los Angeles was made, boys and girls.
Here is Greg Woodside, Orange County Ground Water Basin Management. He talked a little about the history of Prado Dam, and the challenges his team faces servicing the dam among surrounding protected wildlife habitat. Woodside described the contents of sediment removed from Prado as clay, sand, and silt with an “armoring” and/or “coarsening.” He did mention taking out non-natives and managing natives with a bit of dryness or “coarsening” in his delivery. Everyone’s a critic. You’ll have to listen to the entire recording and judge for yourself (see Audio Links below).
Tony Zampiello serves on the San Gabriel Valley and central basin of Whittier Narrows Watermaster board. The Watermaster was created as a result of a lawsuit in 1973 to comply with the judgement. There are only a few water basins in California that operate under a Watermaster. Mr. Zampiello works closely with the San Gabriel Protective Association, and the Metropolitan Water District. He mentioned in his comments that critical habitat designations are to be respected, and that sediment buildup in the “river” occurs because concrete steps were installed long ago to slow the water down. What river?
It wouldn’t be a symposium about dams, water, habitat, and sediment without Tim Brick. He wanted to inject us with positivity by pointing out: “We used to burn our trash!” “We used to have 7.5 gallon flush toilets!” “We recycle storm water!” He mentioned stream restoration projects as being important fr the future. Tim calls for a re-evaluation of how we live with water and the nature of where it comes from. New eyes for a new era.
This is a bad photo of Dr. Cheryl Swift of Whittier College (right) and Lynette Kampe of the Theodore Payne Foundation.
Dr. Swift described how native and non-native species co-exist and adapt in habitat areas. Willows, for example, need to sprout on their own. Planting willow trees is not a very successful proposition. It is these woody dominant species that create habitat for wildlife in sediment basins. She mentioned how the Arroyo toad likes to burrow into the sediment near willows, and that there was a bumper crop of the endangered toad in the Tujunga River this year. She is particularly knowledgeable about the plants and animals that adapt in watershed habitats. When Alder trees fall over in floods, that is how they reproduce. Their roots become shoots. Nature evolves. It learns to thrive in adversity.
Dr. Swift said, Hahamongna (as it is today) is not natural. It exists only because of the Devil’s Gate Dam. “People forget, this is a river.” We need to learn from watching what nature does to solve problems.
Lynette Kampe of the Theodore Payne Foundation gave a very uplifting speech. Her defining moment was when she remarked that people who love wildlife habitat she calls, “Charismatic Mega-Flora” and then as if we were all butterflies she said, “I may have caught you!” She wove together the beautiful words and visions of the famous botanist, Theodore Payne. She storied the reasons for his foundations interest to participate in solving the problems of preserving open space, wildlife, and wilderness areas while balancing the needs of human engineers to solve the problem of sediment. Ms. Kampe made a proposal to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works to take all of the woodland areas off of the sediment placement list, and rededicate that land to remain as it is for people and animals to enjoy in its natural state.
AUDIO FILES (I have the crappiest audio equipment)
My brain is like Jello™, at this point. Not only that, it hurts me. The family business used to be in quarries and cement in the foothills. One of my cousins almost had to name her firstborn Roxanne Gravel but thankfully, she had a boy. I kid you not! Can somebody please save me? The only charismatic mega-flora superhero I know is Princess Hahamongna, and she is r e a l l y out there. Catch her Friday nights at 9 on the Poobah Record Store podcast with the weekly Ecology Report.
[In ancient Greek mythology, ambrosia (Greek: ἀμβροσία) is sometimes the food or drink of the Greek gods (or demigods), often depicted as conferring ageless immortality upon whoever consumes it.It was brought to the gods in Olympus by doves, so it may have been thought of in the Homeric tradition as a kind of divine exhalation of the Earth.]