Hoping to protect a wetland area in Thousand Oaks, state and federal regulators today will ask the county to consider modifying plans for a flood control basin that may threaten a sensitive habitat.
The county originally intended to remove ground water from the basin by continuously pumping it into a storm drain for up to five years without studying the impact on the neighboring wetland.
Environmentalists and government officials on the local, state and federal levels have expressed concern that the pumping could drain the wetland.
And they have criticized the county’s willingness to move ahead with the project without any environmental review.
In recent days, officials from the Ventura County Flood Control District have agreed to study the impacts of the basin on surrounding areas, but said they would do so only when construction of the basin is complete.
“Having an (environmental impact report) after the fact, rather than before the fact, is just ludicrous,” Mayor Elois Zeanah said during a heated Thousand Oaks City Council meeting Tuesday. “It looks like a disaster out there. A lot of questions are unanswered.”
After hearing from county officials Tuesday, the City Council voted to draft a letter to county supervisors listing its concerns with the project.
And today, state Fish and Game officials, along with regulators from two federal agencies, will meet with county flood control deputies to discuss the future of the project.
The basin, which is a 30-foot-deep crater that extends to the border of property owned by developer Nedjatollah Cohan, has long been a project under consideration by the county, county Public Works Director Art Goulet said at the City Council meeting.
When negotiations with Cohan fell through, he said, engineers began scouting other sites, including the present location.
The project finally received approval late in the fall, after the County Board of Supervisors agreed that the threat of flooding was greatly increased by the Green Meadow fire.
The purpose of the project is to catch debris from the hillsides that could clog flood channels. Once the growth has returned to fire-scarred hills, the ditch will be converted to a water detention basin, which would slow the flow of flood water during a major storm.
The project, county officials said, is a preventive measure that could protect hundreds of homes from being damaged.
Because the county approved the project as an emergency measure, the Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to provide 75% of the $878,453 needed to construct it. And the emergency nature of the project allowed the county to begin work without the normal environmental review.
But over the past two weeks, flood control division engineer Ed Gunen said pressure from state and federal agencies forced the county to install three monitoring wells that will determine if water being pumped from the basin is flowing into the wetland.
He said monitoring will begin in three weeks, once construction of the basin is complete.
Should the monitoring reveal that water is being diverted from the wetland, the county will be forced to look for alternatives to pumping the ground water, said Ken Wilson, a Fish and Game environmental specialist.
In a letter to the Flood Control District, Wilson said alternatives could include:
* Not excavating the debris basin below the level of the ground water.
* Ceasing the pumping of water from the basin entirely.
* Pumping water during the rainy season only, and returning pumped water to recharge wells instead of pumping it into a storm drain.
Gunen said that the most likely solution would be to pump water only during the rainy season, and that the county has already planned to cease pumping in the summer. But to halt pumping entirely would diminish the effectiveness of the basin, he said.
And county officials said Tuesday that halting excavation to wait for monitoring is not feasible.
“You can’t turn a contract on and off like a spigot,” Assistant County Counsel Daniel Murphy said at the council meeting. “If you did, you would incur tremendous liability” because the contractor could sue for breech of contract.
Supervisorial candidate Trudi K. Loh offered up one tongue-in-cheek recommendation for dealing with the liability: “I suggest it come out of the supervisors’ salaries, since they made the incorrect decision” when they voted to allow the project.
But council members Judy Lazar and Alex Fiore defended the supervisors’ decision, noting that the declaration of emergency came shortly after the Green Meadow fire ravaged Newbury Park’s hillsides.
“In good faith, the Board of Supervisors did move to protect the residents of the Newbury Park area,” Lazar said.
Whatever the intentions, Mary Weisbrock, president of the environmental group Save Open Space, said she believed that construction should halt immediately.
“This project is having a significant impact on the environment under the ruse that we have an emergency situation here,” she said.
But Goulet said the emergency will persist for up to five years, until the fire-scarred hillsides recover and enough vegetation grows to anchor the dirt and prevent avalanches.
“You would feel rather foolish if you stopped work today and had a major gully-washer tomorrow,” he said. “Watersheds don’t heal in the course of one growing season. My board has told me we do have an imminent threat.”
FEMA officials, who froze funds for the project when the environmental questions arose, said they will use today’s meeting to better gauge the possible threats that arise from pumping the basin.
Goulet said he is confident that FEMA will eventually release the money.
Matthew Mosk is a correspondent and Stephanie Simon is a staff writer.