When fire and water mixes…

September 7, 2009 § 3 Comments

From tThis home in Montrose was gutted by mud, rocks and water that came through the back of the house. 1934.  Los Angeles Public Library. Photo 29145.

"This home in Montrose was gutted by mud, rocks and water that came through the back of the house". 1934. Los Angeles Public Library. Photo 29145.

You get a big, messy debris flow glunking down from some very steep mountains, smothering everything in its path, including that house built well, right in its path.

This massive Station Fire, which has been written about so eloquently, cogently, and concisely in so many places, has County flood managers bracing for the onset of the rainy season (generally October-March). In other words, very soon.

And if you’re a creekfreak, you know what that means:  vegetation removal in the “channels,” and this year, big-time debris basin maintenance (where a lot of creeky habitat has taken up shop) as well.  Indeed, an AP story reports the process is underway:

“The basins are being examined to determine how much they may need to be cleaned out to create capacity, and channels are being examined to make sure they are free of obstruction such as overgrowth, Pestrella said.”

Every year, the County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers engages in a difficult ballet (it may feel more like hand-to-hand combat) with environmentalists over how much vegetation can be removed from rivers and streams soft-bottom channels.  The engineers’ arguments are that the channels were designed for storm capacity based on the assumption of no vegetation in the channels.  To allow trees etc to remain is to reduce the capacity of the channels – and that’s an enhanced flood risk.  Environmentalists look at the performance of past storms with vegetation and argue for maintaining the native vegetation (there’s a range of positions on the enviro side, but that’s generally the bottom line).  And the agencies responsible for issuing these permits usually comes up with a way to allow some clearance, while offsetting the loss of habitat with mitigation.

I said usually.  Mark Gold, Executive Director of Heal the Bay, reports in his Many Rivers to Cross post on Spouting Off that this time around the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the first line of defense for upholding federal water quality regulations, approved the County’s 401 Certification (that’s Clean Water Act lingo for water quality certification) by letting a year go by without administering a decision.  In whose universe do permits (even impactful ones) get automatically approved if they’ve not been reviewed within a given time period? I’m all for expediency,but approval-by-neglect is a policy begging for exploitation.

Just ask Mark.  He says:

What hurts is that the application did not commit the county to provide adequate protection for existing aquatic life beneficial uses, nor did it require any meaningful further mitigation requirements for lost riparian habitat as a result of channel maintenance.

He also notes that there were 100 segments of waterway covered under this permit.  So to protect ourselves from the fire-denuded mountains, our homely rivers/channels that have soft bottoms and riparian habitat will also likely be denuded.  And if this is so, it is habitat that loses, once again.

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