Big Dig Court Hearing Could Have a Notable Impact

Devil’s Gate Dam
Photo courtesy Los Angeles County Public Works
Los Angeles County is continuing its process of removing about 1.7 million cubic yards of sediment from behind Devil’s Gate Dam at Hahamongna Watershed Park. The countywide flood control district is involved in a lawsuit brought by the Arroyo Seco Foundation and Pasadena Audubon Society over the project and is currently in negotiations.

The Arroyo Seco Foundation and Pasadena Audubon Society are currently in negotiations with the Los Angeles County Flood Control District over the controversial Devil’s Gate Dam project in the wake of a judge’s ruling regarding the nonprofit groups’ December 2017 lawsuit over the so-called Big Dig.
The organizations have sued over the environmental impact report for the project, stating that the reduction of the operation’s scope from 2.4 million cubic yards to 1.7 million didn’t consider if new or additional mitigation measures or alternatives are needed to reduce its impact on nearby habitat, air quality, dust issues and the types of trucks that are used.
If a compromise is not reached, there is a possibility the project could be stopped, a county official said.
The two sides are scheduled to meet on Tuesday, July 30, in a Los Angeles courtroom.
Unless there’s an agreement, “It’s possible the judge could direct us to stop while we reissue and recirculate the environmental impact report with modifications to the project,” said Dan Lafferty, a deputy director for the county Department of Public Works. “That is a potential outcome.”
Officials have said the county-supervised project, whose first phase began in late November, is expected to eventually include up to 425 daily round trips by approximately 95 diesel trucks through the intersection at Berkshire Place and Oak Grove Drive and onto the 210 Freeway. The haul trucks are expected to meet model year 2010 emission standards as well as other requirements, officials said.
On April 2, the county Board of Supervisors agreed to retain a consultant to place air-quality monitoring devices at the site and evaluate the data publicly along with other actions.
Supervisors approved the project in November 2017 to remove 1.7 million cubic yards of sediment behind the dam at Hahamonga Watershed Park to increase flood protection and restore habitat within the Arroyo Seco Watershed. Work to clear out trees and vegetation began in late November 2018.
Sediment removal began on May 21.
Negotiations between the two sides began after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge issued a tentative decision in favor of the Arroyo Seco Foundation and local Audubon Society.
The county’s environmental impact report lacked information about the impact of the revision in the amount of sediment to be removed as well as possible alternatives available as a result of the reduction, Judge James C. Chalfant said on June 17.
“The [supervisors’] modification to the reduced project, which prevented it from meeting a principal project objective, was new, significant information,” Chalfant said.
The board modified the project in November 2017 when Supervisor Kathryn Barger presented a motion to reduce the maximum total volume of sediment to 1.7 million cubic yards.
A representative for Barger said the supervisor is unable to comment on pending litigation.
The modification for the project was made after the foundation and the local Audubon group had sued the county in December 2014 over the environmental impact report and the project approvals. As approved that year, the county’s proposal was to excavate 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment that had gathered behind the Devil’s Gate Dam since the 2009 Station Fire.
The dam supports the Devil’s Gate Reservoir, a water storage basin in Hahamongna Watershed Park in the upper portion of Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco Watershed. Pasadena owns the land used by the reservoir, and the Flood Control District has a flood control and water conservation easement.
Because of sediment flows after the Station Fire, the reservoir no longer can safely contain another major debris event and the outlet works are at risk of becoming clogged and inoperable, according to the judge’s statement of facts.
In April 2017, the Superior Court ordered the district to set aside certification of portions of the environmental impact report to address concerns including requiring the use of model year 2010 sediment removal dump trucks instead of model year 2007.
A new lawsuit was filed in December 2017 by the foundation and Audubon group days after the court moved to correct the county’s environmental impact report.
“All along we have been saying our goal is not to stop the project but rather to minimize the negative impacts,” said Tim Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation. “We never really tried to stop the project. We hope we don’t stop the project, but we do want to minimize its negative impacts.”
La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board President Brent Kuszyk said in an email the district is following the lawsuit closely.
Kuszyk signed off on a letter, sent to Barger on July 11, explaining the district’s concerns over the project including dust and air quality monitoring. A representative for Barger said a response would be sent but no date was given.
Esther Kornfeld, one of the founding members of LCF 4 Healthy Air, which consists of local parents and activists, was pleased with Chalfant’s tentative ruling.
“The tentative ruling demonstrates how thoughtful and diligent Judge Chalfant is and that he understands and recognizes the extent of the various issues and risks the Devil’s Gate Project poses,” Kornfeld, a paralegal, said in a statement. “Our group hopes that the newest development in the [foundation’s] litigation will result in additional improvements to the project that will protect the environment and public health.”
Lafferty said he is hopeful the two sides will find common ground during the upcoming settlement negotiations.
“At that point, the project would move forward with whatever modification the settlement negotiation says needs to be made,” Lafferty said.
Those who wish to give feedback about the project can visit dpw.lacounty.gov/swe/devilsgate, email devilsgateproject@pw.lacounty.gov or call (626) 458-2507.

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