Chatsworth Nature Preserve

Preserving the Preserve

This page is established to record efforts to improve the quality of the Chastworth Nature Preserve. The letter that immediately follows is in response to a proposal to use a portion of the Reserve as a mitigation for lost habitat at the Sunshine Canyon Landfill site.

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San Fernando Valley Audubon Society

Incorporated as California Audubon Society 1913

P.O. Box 7769 Van Nuys, CA 91409-7769

“For nature education and the conservation of wildlife”

November 13, 2010

David Attaway
Environmental Supervisor
City of Los Angeles, Department of Recreation and Parks
221 N. Figueroa Street, Suite 100
Los Angeles 90012.

Dear Mr. Attaway:

The purpose of this letter is to comment on the Initial Study and Draft Mitigated Negative Declaration re: DOCUMENT NO. NG-10-375-RP CHATSWORTH RESERVOIR WETLANDS AND RIPARIAN MITIGATION PROGRAM.  This letter is being submitted on behalf of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society (SFVAS), a 2,000 plus member 501c(3) charitable organization, whose territory includes the Chatsworth Reservoir (AKA Chatsworth Nature Preserve), hereinafter also called the “Nature Preserve” or, simply, the preserve.

INITIAL CONSIDERATIONS

Lack of Effort by Planners to Solicit Public Comment

At the outset, it is necessary to address and document the appalling deficiency of stakeholder representation during the process leading up to the public distribution of the aforesaid document.  SFVAS has been deeply involved in the preservation and management of the Nature Preserve ever since the abandonment of Chatsworth Reservoir as a water storage and supply reservoir in 1969, or earlier, a period of more than forty years.  Subject to the access restrictions of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), which owns the property, SFVAS monitoring of bird life at the preserve has been ongoing and, at times, detailed.  Involvement has included an Annual Christmas Bird Count, part of a nationwide effort taking place under the auspices of the National Audubon Society, which has been heavily relied upon as a bird monitoring tool by scientists for many years.  In addition, SFVAS has interfaced with a number of other non-governmental organizations, the City of Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power, and the County of Los Angeles Planning Commission concerning the preservation and management of the preserve’s biological resources.   Despite this long and productive history of involvement, SFVAS was not mentioned as a stakeholder or data contributor in the planning process.

Nor were the many other stakeholders mentioned; including, the California Native Plant Society, Santa Susana Mountain Parks Association, Chatsworth Neighborhood Council, Friends of the Los Angeles River, and others.  Apparently, little effort was made by Republic Services or the Department of Recreation and Parks (RAP) to identify and include stakeholders in the process.  Only the Southwest Herpetologists Society and the Canada Goose Project, active but relatively small organizations, are mentioned as contributing organizations.  This deficiency of stakeholder involvement has led to what must be considered a suspect process, one that is designed to promote the interests of a very narrow range of stakeholders, especially Republic Services.

The California Environmental Quality Act is designed to prevent exclusionary dealings between a few select stakeholders.  Such actions constitute a violation of CEQA or CEQA guidelines, which require the solicitation of comments from the public (CEQA Guidelines 15002j).  The 30 day comment period begun by the public dissemination of the aforesaid document is insufficient to rectify this deficiency.  Therefore, the process must begin anew at some point to allow for the effective inclusion of stakeholders in meetings with Republic Services, RAP, and DWP.

To be sure, because access to the preserve is limited, due to security concerns, many stakeholder groups lack sufficient ability to exercise their interest or expertise through on-the-ground investigation of the proposed “mitigation” site.  Some effort must be made by the planners to provide convenient access to stakeholders in order to achieve a more complete and balanced evaluation of the proposal.  There is no cognizable reason as to why this cannot be done.

The Proposed “Mitigation” Does Not Constitute an Actual Mitigation

The proposed mitigation site at Chatsworth Nature Preserve has been publicly owned for decades and has been formally recognized as an open space Nature Preserve since 1997.  It has functioned continuously, informally and formally, in that role for decades and supports, and has supported, a wealth of wildlife, including a number of species not seen elsewhere in the San Fernando Valley.  Among these are mule deer, bobcat, gray fox and mountain lion, as well as numerous species of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and plants for which it is better known.

Republic Services wishes to create a wetland at the preserve, where none has previously existed, in order to satisfy a mitigation requirement for its destruction of riparian wetlands in the Sunshine Canyon area.  The company has referred to the mitigation area as a “seasonal wetland.”  The company is not attempting to restore wetlands that have been previously sacrificed for corporate or other use, including its own property used for landfills or other purposes, in the surrounding Santa Susana Mountains.  This area is being rapidly developed for housing and other uses, and the natural environment there is in desperate need of protection.  The mitigation site at Chatsworth Nature Preserve was apparently selected, in part (see below), because it is located in the same Council District as the Sunshine Canyon area being impacted.  This Council District (District 12) is simply a line drawn on a map.  It is a line that can be re-drawn at any time.   Thus, the selection of the site is based on arbitrary, capricious, and ecologically irrelevant criteria.  For this reason and others (see below), the proposed modifications do not constitute an actual mitigation within the intended meaning of CEQA and other laws, rules, regulations, or guidelines.

Little information has been provided publicly on the nature of the wetlands to be sacrificed, and the area is not accessible to the public; therefore, it is impossible to know whether the planned new wetland will contain the same structural and functional elements as the wetlands to be destroyed.  However, in general, sound science would require that true mitigation sites would be best located in areas having similar environmental settings to those being destroyed.  The mitigation site at Chatsworth Nature Preserve has no direct connection, ecologically or geographically, to the sites that have been or are being destroyed.  Therefore, in addition to what has been described in the previous paragraph, even if the proposed mitigation selection site is valid under CEQA, the proposed modifications do not constitute an actual mitigation, because they cannot reproduce what is likely being lost as a result of the landfill activities.  Consequently, no mitigation credit is due Republic Services for this action.

The Proposed Modifications Will Disrupt Existing Ecological Functions

The upshot of the above is that Republic Services seems to be attempting to usurp already existing open space for its own purposes in attempting to avoid true mitigation for its destruction of riparian wetlands in the Sunshine Canyon area.  The proposed mitigation site already functions as wildlife habitat and is not necessarily in need of “improvement” or “restoration.”  The existing wildlife habitat functions include relatively open foraging area needed by many species of raptors, which are recognized as Species of Special Concern, by the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG).  These include Red-tailed Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, White-tailed Kites, Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, and American Kestrels.  Owls undoubtedly use the area as well; however, due the owls’ nocturnal habits and limited access to the site, no definite observations have been attempted.  Predatory mammals, such as bobcat and gray fox, may also use the site.  The creation of a wetland in this area would disrupt existing ecological functions.

WATER ISSUES

Diversion of Box Canyon and Woolsey Creeks

Republic Services proposes to channel water from Woolsey Canyon and Box Canyon Creeks, currently channeled to outflow directly to Chatsworth Creek, to the newly created wetland.  Unfortunately, both creeks originate in the Simi Hills to the west and may be seriously contaminated from run-off or sub-surface flows from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a superfund site.  There is no indication in the Draft IS/MND that the water in these creeks has been tested for chemical or radiological contamination.  Such contamination may result in toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic or other detrimental effects on wildlife utilizing it for extended periods of time, such as would occur in a seasonal or permanent wetland.  Therefore, the diversion of these two creeks must not proceed until they are properly sampled for contaminants over an annual cycle and results indicate no significant contamination is present.

Irrigation Water

The Draft IS/MND states that irrigation will be needed for the initial establishment of wetland and other vegetation in the proposed mitigation site and that the irrigation system will be built and paid for by Republic or its agent.  Such construction may result in additional disruption to ecological functioning of the site and to areas along pipeline routes.

However, of greater importance is the diversion of water from the city’s potable water supply for a non-critical use during a period of time when the rest of the city is under emergency water conservation restrictions.  It sets a destructive precedent.  The transfer of a significant quantity of water over an approximately five year period for irrigation could result in even tighter restrictions to correct further reduced water availability.  This will be seen as unfair by the public at large and, consequently, will reduce the credibility of the mandated restrictions as a water conservation measure leading to reduced public cooperation.  This usage also conflicts with recent policy initiatives from the Mayor’s office, DWP, and the Bureau of Sanitation, as described in the publication Securing L.A.’s Water Supply and others.  These policy initiatives are designed to promote the use of recycled waste water for large scale irrigation projects, such as the proposed mitigation, so as to relieve pressure on potable water sources.

To correct this situation, assuming the proposed mitigation can overcome the objections stated above, a small satellite wastewater treatment plant could be constructed on nearby land, preferably outside of the preserve boundaries.  Treated wastewater could then be used for irrigation.  Republic Services should bear the full burden of costs for the treatment plant and irrigation system.  These costs could be recouped, at least in part, by abandoning the modifications to Box Canyon and Woolsey Creeks, if the water from those creeks is found to be unacceptably contaminated.

ROLE OF THE DEPARTMENT OF RECREATION AND PARKS

RAP Lacks Expertise and Resources to Manage a Nature Preserve

It is questionable as to whether RAP is capable of managing any portion of the preserve as it is intended — as a Nature Preserve.  RAP lacks the expertise and the resources for such an undertaking.

In the first case, RAP does not have the skilled staff needed to effectively manage a Nature Preserve.  The department lacks a biologist or any other personnel skilled in such an undertaking.  Even many Park Ranger positions have been cut from its payroll and current rangers have been transferred to Griffith Park leaving all other parks underserved by the rangers.

RAP is also plagued by a lack of funding resources.  While the initial contribution from Republic Services may provide funding in the short term, perhaps five years, the long-term lack of both funding and skilled staff will defeat any attempt to manage the Nature Preserve in the manner intended.  Such undertakings require long-term commitments of resources, especially funding, and the will to carry them out.  The Draft IS/MND states the following:

“The amount of the management endowment is currently being negotiated but will have sufficient funds to cover all projected maintenance activities following the five-year establishment period.  Anticipated long-term maintenance activities include non-native species control, vegetation thinning in created earthen channels if flows are compromised, additional planting for erosion control purposes, repair of engineered structures if required, and trash removal.”

The existing documentation released to the public contains no cost estimates or references to the amount of money needed to properly manage the property.  Apparently, no figure for the amount of management endowment has yet been determined, as indicated by the quote above.  There is no guarantee that, in an inflationary or other detrimental economic cycle, the amounts targeted will actually be sufficient to maintain the property properly.  The amounts needed must be uncertain, or they would not need to be negotiated.  Furthermore, the anticipated maintenance activities overlook possible water requirements, needs for additional planting for maintenance of the wetland vegetation itself, and other needs for erosion control besides planting, among others.  Therefore, the claim that there will be “sufficient funds to cover all projected maintenance activities” is purely speculative and appears self-serving.

RAP Lacks the Managerial Will to Manage a Nature Preserve

Indications are that even if RAP had the necessary funding, the managerial will does not exist.  RAP is oriented primarily towards promoting recreational activities in its holdings – not preserving natural areas.  This orientation is explicitly recognized in the  Draft IS/MND, in which RAP has left the door open to a variety of uses that are incompatible with the functioning of a Nature Preserve, by stating that “up to 96 acres of adjoining reservoir property will also be transferred to RAP for open space and potential future public parkland.” (Draft IS/MND, April 3, 2008, p. 1, and Figure 3)  In addition, the Draft IS/MND states that “BFI would purchase approximately 40 acres of existing Chatsworth property for the development of a wetlands area and associated passive nature park” (Appendix A, p. 36, Chatsworth Reservoir Wetland/Riparian Mitigation Program For Sunshine Canyon City Landfill Sylmar, California, June 2006), and “All land transferred to DRP would be designated as recreational open space.” (Ibid.)

The terms “public parkland,” “passive nature park,” and “recreational open space” quoted require precise definition and explanation.  The ambiguities created by the use of such terminology could ultimately endanger the maintenance of the property as a Nature Preserve.  The only use of any land currently considered part of the Nature Preserve to be transferred from DWP to RAP must be explicitly recognized as being maintained as part of the preserve, and only part of the preserve, in perpetuity.

RAP Has Performed Poorly in Managing Other Natural or Semi-natural Areas

Experience with RAP management of other natural, or semi-natural, areas argues against the department taking charge of a portion of Chatsworth Nature Preserve.  For example, in the Hansen Dam Recreation Area and at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area, RAP has shown only sporadic effort in attempting to control invasive plant species, illegal fishing, and dogs running wild.  RAP has shown much greater interest in promoting recreational activities in or around these locations than they have in preserving or restoring the natural environment.  At Hansen Dam, RAP has spent millions of dollars on a “children’s museum.”  At both Hansen Dam and Sepulveda Basin, sporting events and commercial filming activities seem to be given higher priority, as does planting exotics for beautification rather than habitat maintenance.  A number of the exotics planted and maintained by RAP are considered invasive species.  The best example of this is California pepper tree, Schinus molle.  Perhaps more to the point, within the past year or so, RAP mistakenly allowed the removal of vegetation at Sepulveda Basin in an area known as “Hummingbird Hill.”  This was an area of flourishing native plants painstakingly planted for the specific purpose of creating wildlife habitat on an eroding hillside.  Yet, RAP allowed its removal in one day.

Invasive plant species could totally defeat any effort at creating a reasonably functioning wetland.  RAP must be committed to the effective removal and control of invasive plants as required by law.  No permit for the proposed modifications should be issued by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, unless RAP can demonstrate that an effective plan is in place and that funding and resources have been dedicated to achieve this purpose.  To the extent possible, this should be done without the use of toxic chemicals.  At the same time, RAP must proceed in a similar fashion to assure that native plants flourish and are not mistakenly removed.  While illegal fishing is not an issue at Chatsworth Nature Preserve, the possibility of dogs running wild in the preserve is a possibility, depending on how RAP interprets the terms “public parkland,” “passive nature park,” and “recreational open space” as noted above.

OTHER ISSUES

No Interior Fencing Should Be Built

If a portion of Chatsworth Nature Preserve is transferred from DWP to RAP, the preserve will come under dual management.  The newly created wetlands and other property transferred to RAP will have to be identified in some manner as being RAP property.  RAP personnel will have to have access to the property, currently under the control of DWP’s LAWSDAC unit.  Individuals accessing the property must normally notify LAWSDAC before entering, and security is maintained by DWP’s security team.   The documents are silent as to how dual management of the preserve would alter security arrangements and access requirements.

One way to resolve these issues would be to construct a fence around the RAP holdings to set them apart and identify them, so that RAP personnel can access RAP property without interacting with DWP or entering DWP property.  However, such fencing would greatly interfere with wildlife movement and would present additional obstacles to public access (see below).  Therefore, even though the documents do not specify that fencing will be constructed, SFVAS wishes to point out in advance that such fencing would be incompatible with the maintenance of a Nature Preserve and must not be built.  This should be clearly stated in the final documents.

Continued Public Access

DWP currently allows a number of non-governmental organizations access to the Nature Preserve for scientific research, nature study and appreciation – activities that are compatible with the functioning of the preserve.  These groups include the Southwest Herpetologists, Canada Goose Project, and, from time to time, SFVAS, among others.  Access is arranged through a single point of contact.  Dual management of the preserve presents a problem in determining who may authorize access to the entire preserve.  Accessing only a portion of the preserve at a time is not normally desirable.  These access issues are not addressed in the documents; but they must be addressed, if impact is to be accurately determined.

No Commercial Filming Should Be Permitted in the Preserve

The documents are silent on the issue of commercial filming.  However, as noted above, RAP has allowed commercial filming at other natural or semi-natural areas it manages to the detriment of those areas.  Commercial film operations frequently cause direct damage to the environment through noise generation, bright lighting, trampling, releases of toxic chemicals, deliberate destruction or land modification as part of a story line, and heavy equipment operations often over an extended period of time.  The documents are silent on whether commercial filming would be permitted on RAP controlled property in the preserve.  SFVAS wishes to point out in advance that such activities are incompatible with the management of the preserve and must be prohibited.

CLOSING

It is regrettable that RAP has not made more aggressive efforts to engage stakeholders.  Many of the issues discussed above could have been addressed earlier in the process.  As noted initially, the only way to correct this situation is for the process to begin anew, so that all stakeholders can provide input.

SFVAS does not categorically oppose wetland creation at the preserve, but what ever is done at the preserve must be done right with due consideration for the issues raised in these comments and comments that might have been offered had the process been more inclusive from the start.  In addition, SFVAS seeks to assure that CEQA guidelines re: mitigation are properly implemented and that existing open space is not usurped by corporations or governmental entities seeking a cheap, easy way out of more rigorous compliance.  Finally, RAP must correct the deficiencies noted above before it can realistically assume management of a portion of the preserve.

SFVAS appreciates the opportunity to comment on the proposal.

Sincerely,

Mark B. Osokow,
Board Member, SFVAS
Chair, San Fernando Valley Bird Observatory
Chair, Recycled Water Advisory Group

David A. Weeshoff,
President, SFVAS