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Pacoima Reservoir

Pacoima Reservoir

To many, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (LACDPW) may seem like an obscure entity. The reality is that its decisions impact all of us, usually in very constructive but sometimes in destructive ways.

Case in point is the ongoing issue of removing sediment, built up over many years, at the Pacoima Reservoir behind the dam.

First, let me offer you a pertinent backdrop: The County is responsible for managing 14 dams with three more under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers. We have 162 debris basins, 500 miles of open channels, 36 sediment placement sites, and 27 groundwater re-charge facilities.

The Pacoima Reservoir itself provides drinking water for 45,000 residents—important but a mere drop in the bucket for what is needed in Los Angeles. With heavy rains each year and the Santa Ana winds blowing between 50 and 60 miles per hour, the dam serves a dual purpose: it provides drinkable water and serves to hold back seasonal flood waters.

Our groundwater and debris basins together provide about one-third of our potable water. By the way, if you want to know why your water bill has skyrocketed of late, it is mostly due to our two recent dry years. The LADWP brings water via the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens River in the eastern portion of the Sierra-Nevada Mountains to Los Angeles. It provides a goodly portion of our drinkable water. However, since there has been no appreciable snowpack, we have had to supplement our water supply through a contract with the Metropolitan Water District at three to four times the cost!

Hopefully, we shall get sufficient rain and snow this year to help make up for the deficit. When that happens, our water bills will decrease. In the meantime, remember we can always save by being more mindful of how we use our water.

Now, back to the sediment issue. Though what I am discussing pertains to the Pacoima Reservoir in particular, the information applies to many of our other sites as well. Numerous people have already registered concerns over how the Arcadia site was managed. They don’t want what happened there to be repeated in the Northeast Valley. Arcadia’s wetlands were decimated, hundreds of trees were lost, and the park the residents wanted was never created.

Many people moved to the Sylmar/Pacoima area because of its verdant scenery—beautiful mountain views, pristine wilderness inviting family nature walks—equestrian trails, and the healthy air—just some examples among the multitude of other reasons.
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There has been persistent anxiety over how the Sylmar area and its environs have for too long been used as a dumping ground (May Canyon, for example) by the County. Fine dust is traveling through the air, imperceptible by the human eye but able to penetrate door and window screens. Residents are experiencing bronchial and eye issues, let alone exacerbation of other health complications. People have to keep doors and windows closed in an effort to keep excessive silt out. One resident claims the level of his land has literally risen by 3 ½ inches over the last 3-4 years due to this drift.

I have been to the May Sediment Placement Site (SPS), the landfill located near Olive View Hospital—can you imagine the SPS being situated there?! Approval had been given to take its lower boundaries all the way down to the street adjacent to residences that were already there! My first question (and this was years ago) was: Why did the various government departments authorize this sediment placement so close to residential neighborhoods in the first place? There had been promises to water down the soil several times daily, then to contour and re-landscape the site in order to return it to its earlier aesthetic appearance, and perhaps more importantly, to mitigate health and relarted issues. It seems to me that what has transpired regarding this site is unconscionable.

Determinations should not be primarily based upon cost-savings. What ought to be taken into consideration first is what is best (with all its ramifications) for the affected population. For instance, a broad spectrum of health consequences, which can result from how the project is administered, would likely create a burden on residents who find they must seek medical assistance (and those who do not currently have health insurance will assuredly become a burden on the taxpayer who has to foot the bill).

As for the Pacoima Reservoir, the law demands that the sediment (that is now bringing the dam to its critical levels) must be removed within certain parameters. This is indeed a prodigious task and the rulings affecting it place great responsibility on the decision-makers! This particular dam, built in 1929, (and copied in design by the much larger Hoover Dam) has accumulated millions of cubic yards of sediment. The recent fires of 2008 and 2009 have quickly added to the accumulation of debris.

The amount that needs to be removed now equals seven times the volume of the Rose Bowl, but by the time the project is completed in about 10 years, even more sediment will have accrued. The cost will range from $85 to 180 million, depending on which option is selected.

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Because the County has offered several options, there have been and will continue to be community meetings to give residents an opportunity for their input. There is concern, for instance, that the land around the reservoir in question contains carcinogens. Further testing must be demanded and rightfully so.

  • The option most despised by residents is for trucks to carry out the debris by using one or both of the community’s main thoroughfares—Hubbard and Maclay streets. This method would be less expensive up front but would be costly in the long run in other ways: damage to those two streets (whose use was not designed for such purposes in the first place). In addition, increased air and water pollution are not just some minor side effects.
  • The proposal that makes the most sense to the community is the costliest up front. It would require building and using permanent back roads to remove the sediment. This plan would boost the economy through job-creation that cannot be outsourced. This method would dramatically reduce air and noise pollution, congested traffic conditions (which are already bad), and reduce health concerns--altogether this concept is a lesser burden on the taxpayer.

The next question is where to deposit the sediment. Could it be cleaned and recycled for use along streets and highways to build up a barrier to future flooding? Could it be placed in areas for future open space recreational activities? Some possibilities currently on the table include placement in gravel pits, landfills, and new sediment placement sites in nearby canyons.

The Big Tujunga resolution to its problem was to dump its sediment on national forest land. The citizens of the Sylmar/Pacoima area suggest two possibilities:

  • Use the Vulcan Pits and/or
  • Utilize Los Angeles forest lands near the Kagel Mountains.

The Maple and Cougar Canyons, already near the reservoir, would provide a satisfactory location on the condition that the County not use those areas for dumping debris from other areas within the County (the May property is already being utilized for that purpose with the concomitant burden of up to 300 trucks a day running up and down the roads).

For more information on this program and its options, please contact the Department of Public Works Sediment Management website where you will tap on the Pacoima Reservoir button, or you can Please plan on attending future meetings. The resolutions reached will affect all of Los Angeles County because it will create a model—for good or bad. However, if precedents are set without sufficient community input, we have no one to blame but ourselves!

Another important organization very much involved in this process (almost from the beginning) is CASM under the strong leadership of Dan Feinberg. CASM was originally Citizens Against Strip Mining but has now broadened its mission. Dan and/or his organization can be contacted in the following ways: (this website offers a number of links that might be of interest to you); e-mail at; or phone directly at 818-415-1261. CASM has an abundance of information to share on this issue.

CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) meetings will be held in January 2014 (specific dates to be determined). This is a Scoping meeting (to determine the breadth of the project). What will follow is a DEIR (Draft Environmental Impact Report). Additionally, I think it is significant that many of our Los Angeles City Councilmembers have been instrumental in assisting the residents in answering questions and concerns and offering their own input.

Learning the CEQA process is enlightening, but being part of the decision-making is priceless. I would like to think that the LACDPW will do the right thing, but it is up to us to help guide its decisions. Let me reiterate (and I cannot say this enough), the upshot of all of this can be determined by your input. Every voice echoes a long way!

 Rosemary Jenkins
CityWatch LA

Tuesday, 29 October 2013