Agencies argue over plans for land near dam
By Lisa Faught
PASADENA -- An endangered toad could win federal protection for its habitat along the upper Arroyo Seco, but local public agencies are croaking about the possibility that it could put their plans on hold.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is pushing to designate an estimated 700 acres of wild land above Devil's Gate Dam as critical habitat for the arroyo southwestern toad, an endangered species known for its distinctive trill and penchant for sandy streams.
While the toad may not necessarily live there now, the federal agency wants to protect the prime toad habitat as a precaution.
But local public agencies -- including the city of Pasadena, Los Angeles County Public Works and Raymond Basin Management Board -- have taken a stand against designating Hahamongna Watershed Park as critical habitat for the toad.
Officials fear it could hamper plans for the land, including projects at Hahamongna Watershed Park, cleanup at JPL and removal of debris at Devil's Gate Dam. In most cases, the designation would not affect private landowners, but projects with a federal permit or federal funding would require the go ahead from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Once the designation is made, it can really restrict the most innocent of uses. It could even potentially prevent a hiking trail from going through the area," said Rosa Laveaga, Arroyo Seco park supervisor. "The work we're doing is to restore the area. It could be a bureaucratic nightmare."
Although the designation would not halt development, local environmentalists hope the critical habitat designation will add an extra level of protection.
Don Rogers, spokesman for the Pasadena Audubon Society, said the organization supports designating Hahamongna Watershed Park as critical habitat for the arroyo toad, which has lost an estimated 75 percent of its habitat to urban sprawl and dams.
"It means someone with eyes and a big stick is watching the area to make sure no environmental damage is done to it," Rogers said. "It will provide balance."
But Pasadena city officials fear the designation will keep the city from building soccer fields in Hahamongna Watershed Park, overturning years of work on the $1 million Arroyo Seco Master Plan and a fragile compromise between soccer players and environmentalists.
City officials worry their plan, which calls for nine soccer fields on 10 acres with an option for 11 fields, will be subject to approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service, Laveaga said.
"All the proposed improvements to the park could be threatened or postponed," Laveaga said.
For JPL, which was listed as a Superfund site in 1992, the designation could affect the way officials clean the soil and groundwater of volatile organic compounds and perchlorate, found in rocket fuel.
Peter Robles Jr., environmental health and safety manager for the NASA management office at JPL, encountered a similar scenario in desert tortoise habitat in the Antelope Valley.
Robles said laws protecting the tortoise allowed cleanup to continue but forced the crew to take extra measures, such as fencing off equipment and manually hauling equipment instead of driving trucks through tortoise habitat.
"The species takes pre-eminence in your decision-making process," Robles said. "It costs a little more, it takes a little more thought, but it's always doable."
Last June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the proposed critical habitat for the arroyo southwestern toad, which includes 478,000 acres in eight counties throughout California. The proposed critical habitats provide shallow pools and open, sandy streams key to toad survival, although the toad may not live there.
Evidence of the toad living in Hahamongna Watershed Park is scant, but a biologist for the Angeles National Forest once reported hearing the toad's distinctive call, Laveaga said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release the toad's final critical habitat designation on Friday, which could include sections of Hahamongna Watershed Park and Upper Arroyo Watershed.
Although the designation could require more oversight for projects with federal permits or funding, Jane Hedron, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service office in Carlsbad, said the toad's listing as endangered provides more teeth.
"This is not going to bring development to a grinding halt," Hedron said. "Even without the critical habitat designation, they are still protected from 'take,' something that would harm or harass or kill the species."
-- Lisa Faught can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4496, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.