Last Thursday, the Regional Water Board voted to approve a Waste Discharge Requirement (WDR) for the Los Angeles County Nature Control District’s “channel maintenance” activity. After all, to the County, our LA, Santa Clara and San Gabriel Rivers are flood control channels, not living ecosystems and habitats.
Don’t get me wrong, the need for flood control and debris management is enormous as demonstrated in the aftermath of the Station Fire and the flooding in San Pedro and Long Beach. But flood protection is no excuse to violate the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws.
By law (and common sense), habitat destruction must result in mitigation of lost habitat. This is how the Coastal Commission has implemented the coastal Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act for nearly 35 years, but this is not what happens when stream and river habitat are destroyed in the name of flood control. Until our rivers are protected the same way as the coast, restoration plans for the LA and San Gabriel Rivers and Compton Creek are a pipe dream – literally. What is the point of multi-billion dollar river revitalization, if we don’t recognize those resources as natural habitat?
The Water Board’s action occurred after a long presentation by the County and a neutral position that sounded an awful lot like support from the LA-San Gabriel River Watershed Council. The Council’s representative, Ellen Mackey, actually had the nerve to show a slide of Dorothy Green at the beginning of her presentation. Dorothy, who spearheaded the unsuccessful litigation against the LA River concrete wall escalation project in the nineties, must have looked down at the charade below with utter chagrin and disappointment.
In support of a tougher WDR that would actually hold the County accountable for maintaining over 45 linear miles of rivers and streams with natural habitat (or approximately 1000 acres, which is equivalent to two Ballona Wetlands), were the friends of the Santa Clara River, the Santa Monica Baykeeper, and Heal the Bay. In the past, the Friends of the Los Angeles Flood Control Conveyance have been extremely supportive of these efforts. The end result was that the Regional Water Board split the difference. The resulting WDR has a few teeth, which is better than an expired Section 401 certification (a section of the Clean Water Act relating to dredging and filling of waters of the United States), so the Water Board did create some accountability for the County.
However, the Board missed a chance to change the way that the Flood Control District maintains stream habitat. No one should use a bulldozer to remove native vegetation under any circumstance. Habitat should be biologically assessed before and after maintenance activity. Destruction of native habitat like willow trees should result in mitigation requirements for the loss of that habitat. The County shouldn’t be allowed to mitigate losses just once, and have that suffice for all future habitat losses because habitat comes back and organisms thrive until the next time the bulldozers come.
Make no mistake, the state did not seize the opportunity at hand. Once again, environmental incrementalism, this time through loosely regulating annual flood control maintenance, is not enough to return nature to our urban rivers and streams.