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Short-term fix for Bouquet water impasse moving ahead

Posted: April 6, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: April 5, 2014 9:15 p.m.
 

A temporary quick fix to the Bouquet Canyon water impasse is under way, but a more permanent solution that would allow the creek to flow freely appears stymied for now, officials from various agencies said.

Los Angeles County declared a local emergency on behalf of Bouquet Canyon residents on Feb. 25. Wells are running dry at many of the homes in the area and for the county’s LARC Ranch, which houses severely mentally disabled people.

In some cases, homes have been without any water for two months or more. LARC Ranch began trucking in water two weeks ago. The ranch has been forced to import 401,800 gallons of water since Bouquet Creek water slowed to a trickle, said spokesman Tim Whyte.

But unlike some other areas of California, the water shortage in part of Saugus isn’t due to the drought. Indirectly, it’s due to a little fish.

Bouquet Creek has become so silted up over the years that any significant volume of water released from the reservoir at the top of the canyon overflows onto Bouquet Canyon Road, making the winding canyon thoroughfare unsafe for motorists.

And the creek has not been subject to cleaning out for years because it is home to the unarmored threespine stickleback, a native fish species classified as endangered under both federal and state law.

Downstream residents are seeing only about a fifth of the amount of water usually released from Bouquet Canyon reservoir, said Jim Yannotta, Los Angeles Aquaduct Manager for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns the reservoir.

The local emergency declaration approved by county supervisors called for a temporary solution: building gates at the top and the bottom of the canyon so the road can be closed at times, allowing safe release of more water to downstream residents.

That project won U.S. Forest Service approval last month, and construction is under way, said Edel Vizcarra, planning deputy to Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who called for the declaration.

“The posts for the gates are in place, and the gates themselves are fabricated and should be up in the next couple of weeks,” Vizcarra said Wednesday.

But the second part of Antonovich’s proposal – removing silt from the creekbed so water can flow without flooding the road – is proving tougher to achieve. Accomplishing this would mean disturbing the habitat of the unarmored threespine stickleback.

National Environmental Protection Act permits would be required to do the work on sensitive federally owned land, Vizcarra said, so an exemption from the permit requirement would be needed for quick action. Most property in the picturesque canyon falls within the Angeles National Forest and thus is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

“The exemption gives us the ability to do the cleanup, but we still haven’t heard from the Forest Service,” Vizcarra said.

Neither has the office of Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, who on March 11 sent a letter to Chief Tom Tidwell of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service, saying he fully supports the proclamation passed by county supervisors urging “the U.S. Forest Service and any relevant federal agency to waive the requirements of (the National Environmental Protection Act) for this unique circumstance.”

District Director Morris Thomas said Thursday the congressman remains optimistic about reaching a resolution on the issue.

Agencies involved in the water impasse include not only the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles County and the U.S. Forest Service, but also a water district representing downstream farmers in Ventura County and the agencies that have designated the unarmored threespine stickleback an endangered species.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is committed to “diligently working with the various agencies and some of the local residents on a resolution,” spokeswoman Betty J. Courtney said Thursday.

The silted-up creekbed – which was cleaned out regularly until it was deemed a habitat for the stickleback – “has created a complicated dilemma for the various agencies,” Courtney said.

But, she added, the department “cannot authorize ‘take’ of a species designated as fully protected.”

The term “take” is defined by the state’s Fish and Wildlife Code as meaning hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill, or attempt to hunt, pursue, catch, capture, or kill.

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