LOS ANGELES (CBS) — San Gabriel Valley residents and environmentalists Tuesday called for an investigation into last week's destruction of a grove of coast live oaks and sycamores.
The Department of Public Works cleared the 11-acre site near the Santa Anita Reservoir, which contained 179 oaks and 70 sycamores, in a matter of minutes, according to John Quigley, one of the "tree sitters" who protested the plan.
Quigley said it looked "like a scene from Avatar," the 3-D movie blockbuster in which greedy humans tear down a vast, sacred tree on another planet in order to recover a valuable mineral.
"I've never seen that much destruction of life by human hands in such a short period of time," he added.
In a phone interview, a DPW spokesman said the move was necessary given the county's "emergency situation" in the wake of a series of devastating fires in 2009-10.
"It's hard to imagine an emergency with 75 degrees and a sunny sky," said Bob Spencer.
But experts from the U.S. Geological Survey estimate that there are millions of cubic yards of sediment that will flow from the region's mountains over the next 10 years, he said.
The trees were removed to make room for about 250,000 cubic yards of that sediment, on a site that was purchased decades ago by the county as part of long-term flood control planning.
To give a sense of the scale involved, 400 hundred cubic yards would fill the Rose Bowl.
The failure to remove sand, rocks and boulders behind the Santa Anita dam might plug or damage the dam's gates, critical for flood control, water conservation and, ultimately, water supply for Sierra Madre and Arcadia residents.
But Quigley and other advocates said the county could have pursued other alternatives, including trucking the sediment to a gravel pit in Irwindale, calling the destruction of the trees a "crime that was ... perpetrated by the county," and calling for an investigation.
Other solutions were considered, Spencer said, but the only viable alternative was to transporting the mud and detritus from debris basins to another site, which by one calculation would have resulted in 120 truck trips per day, every day for two years. The local homeowners association was "vehemently opposed" to that option, Spencer said.
"Removing vegetation is not what we want to do — it's a last resort for us as well," Spencer said. He pointed to flash flood destruction in Orange and San Bernardino counties in December as evidence of what might happen in Los Angeles without aggressive flood control.
But the demonstrators outside the Hall of Administration today were not satisfied by the agency's explanation.
The DPW "deceive(d) the local community, the local city government and the County Board of Supervisors regarding the real goal of this project, which is to massively expand sediment storage capacity at the site, creating a regional sediment dump," said Camron Stone, who lives within a quarter-mile of the former woodlands area.
At a meeting before the board last week, DPW official Chris Stone assured the supervisors that the Arcadia site would be used only "for that area, specifically for Santa Anita Dam, now and in the future."
Having failed to save the Arcadia oaks, the activists now hope to influence future flood control projects through what they envision as a "citizen's oversight board," said Manhattan Beach resident Susan Rudnicki, who joined the group outside the Hall of Administration Tuesday.
Rudnicki and other woodland advocates said there was not sufficient public notification of the plans for flood control. Spencer countered that notices were posted in the same Arcadia library where those interested in saving the oaks tacked up their own flyers and that public hearings were poorly attended during the agency's three-year planning process.
Activists said they want a chance to get in on the planning process early and influence the county's decision-making on similar flood control projects.
Spencer said that his agency was looking at other long-term solutions to the county's sediment challenge, which seemed to leave open the possibility that environmentalists and county officials could find common ground.
One near-term project may offer the first chance for more cooperation between the two groups — work related to Devil's Gate Dam is proposed for September.
A presentation made to the Pasadena Hahamongna Watershed Park Advisory Committee by officials from the Flood Control District in November includes a plan to remove about 15 acres of willow trees in order to clear sediment around Devil's Gate Dam. That 1920 structure was the first dam built by the county to control the Arroyo Seco watershed.
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