Why LA County wants to risk an endangered bird to clean Devil’s Gate Dam
|July 12, 2016 - Although LA County Flood Control District basically ignored endangered species in their environmental impact report for the Devil's Gate Dam cleanup, they have now applied for an "incidental take permit" that would allow them to destroy vital habitat and actually kill the Least Bell's Vireo, a federally endangered species that is an important indicator of ecosystem health.|
|San Gabriel Valley Tribune|
The spillway at Devil's Gate Dam in the Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena flows with water from the latest storms on Thursday, December 30, 2004. (Photo by Mike Horner)
PASADENA >> The Los Angeles County Flood Control District needs permission from a state environmental agency to destroy an endangered bird and its habitat in order to remove 2.4 million cubic yards of sediment from behind Devil’s Gate Dam.
The district has applied for an “incidental take’’ of the least Bell’s vireo, a rare songbird listed on both federal and state endangered species lists, spotted in the reservoir area and the Hahamongna Watershed Park on several occasions from 2012 to 2015.
According to the 213-page application lodged with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the county will avoid killing the nesting pairs by delaying removal of dirt and debris until April, after the breeding season is over. If the permit is approved, the cleaning out of the dam will run from April 15 to Nov. 30 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays from 2017 to 2022.
Directly taking the birds can be avoided, but an incidental take may be tougher, according to the permit. The county district will use bulldozers and other heavy machinery to pull out debris, twigs, mud and sediment affecting 70.8 acres, with “permanent impacts” to about 53 acres of area where the least Bell’s vireo lives and breeds.
The county intends to avoid hurting the nesting pairs by taking only 0.8 acres or 25 percent of the 3.1 acres of scruffy, riparian habitat where a pair of the endangered birds nest. A second nesting area inhabited by the least Bell’s vireo will not be directly affected by vegetation removal, the permit claims.
The birds could indirectly be affected by the noise of the equipment. Literature from the National Wildlife Federation says the shy, olive-colored birds are “very sensitive to human disturbance, including night lighting” and “may abandon an area if there’s excessive noise.”
Digging into the marshy sediment could unleash swarms of Argentine ants, which have been known to “attack and kill bird nestlings,” according to the permit application.
“By filing this incidental take permit, they (county) are now admitting that they are going to harm the least Bell’s vireo, maybe even kill it,” said Timothy Brick, managing director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation.
The county district’s engineers say removing the sediment is necessary to keep the dam operating efficiently and to protect Pasadena and South Pasadena homes downstream in the event of a major flood. The dam, located in Hahamongna Park, catches water and debris from a large watershed area north of the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
After years of hearings and the approval of the project environmental impact report by the county Board of Supervisors in November 2014, the project has been stalled. The Arroyo Seco Foundation and Pasadena Audubon filed a lawsuit in February 2015, alleging the county ignored the possible impacts of the endangered species.
Gary Hildebrand, assistant deputy director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, wrote in a written response that his agency and the Flood Control District will be restoring riparian habitat around the park that will attract more nesting least Bell’s vireo birds.
The permit claims the area has been degraded by invasive plants. The county plans on removing these and replacing them with mulefat and willow, plants that form the birds’ natural environment. By enhancing about 41 acres of riparian habitat in areas outside the project boundary, the overall park area can attract up to seven pairs of the birds.
“The project includes an extensive program of native habitat creation and restoration that has a strong focus on improvements within the reservoir area to support a robust population of nesting least Bell’s vireos,” Hildebrand wrote.
The county will discuss the project, its restoration plans and presumably the new permit at a series of community meeting starting 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Jackson Elementary School in Altadena, followed by meetings Thursday at the Rose Bowl Home Locker Room and one at 2 p.m. Saturday at the La Cañada Community Center.
“We would love to work with them to come up with a sustained sediment management plan,” Brick said. “The county needs to treat it like it is a river, not a maintenance area.”