Malibu's bid for $20 million in federal funds to shore up a decades-old landslide and prevent flooding in Las Flores Canyon has been rejected, stunning city officials who blame the decision on state Sen. Tom Hayden's objections to the project.
City officials sought federal funds to try to stop the slow-moving landslide in east Malibu, contending that it accelerated after the 1993 firestorm.
But the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the request, saying that the project was not eligible for emergency funding because the movement of the Rambla Pacifico slide "does not constitute an immediate threat."
"What we do is protect life and property in an emergency," FEMA spokesman Morrie Goodman said. "Malibu has to solve [its] own topographic problems."
Malibu City Manager David N. Carmany charged that FEMA was persuaded to deny funds for the project by a letter from Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who represents the area, to FEMA Director James Lee Witt. Hayden suggested defraying costs by charging residents assessment fees and warned Witt that the city's proposal to rechannel Las Flores Creek would destroy the waterway's natural beauty.
Hayden, who wrote that he had the support of a number of environmental groups, offered an alternative: Build a second stream alongside Las Flores Creek to handle the flooding in storms.
"If Malibu wants my cooperation" on this project, Hayden said in an interview, "they have to stop blaming me for problems that have been a long time in the making."
Carmany said the city plans to appeal the decision, enlisting the help of the area's congressman, Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills).
FEMA spokesman Goodman said Hayden's letter did not influence the decision because the agency's action was based on the data available on the landslide.
Goodman said FEMA does not do restorative work, adding that the agency helped Malibu last winter by funding the removal of any immediate threat created by the slide.
"FEMA has spent over $1 million for mud removal and slide stabilization this year," he said.
Part of the agency's funds are set aside for disaster prevention projects. But Malibu competed with other fire-ravaged communities, such as Altadena, Laguna and Pasadena Glen, for that pool of money. And state officials ultimately determine where the money would be best spent. Goodman said funds for the 1993 fire simply have been exhausted.
"There are problems all over the state, and FEMA can't take care of all of them," he said.
City officials said they expected approval of the project because FEMA had already spent $775,000 to study how to buttress the landslide, prevent future flooding by moving Las Flores Creek and build a larger bridge at Las Flores Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway.
Among the reports Malibu supplied to FEMA to justify the project was a June 9 survey summary by Bing Yen & Associates, an Orange County geo-technical company hired to help monitor the slide. The preliminary survey said that from March to May, the lower portion of the Rambla Pacifico slide moves 30 to 70 feet a year. It said this year's heavy rainfall contributed to the movement.
The hillside began slipping in 1978. In 1984, it destroyed eight houses and closed Rambla Pacifico. During the March storms, five houses on or near the road slipped off their foundations because of shifting earth.
Goodman said Malibu needs to seek a long-term solution through local and state aid. The preliminary data from Bing Yen & Associates only confirms his belief that "there appears to be a long-term problem that is exacerbated by fires and annual rains," he said.
The FEMA rejection letter concedes that the slide is active, but says "its movement appears to be consistent with historic records of movement and not related to current disaster events."