August 2, 2008

Effort Targets Mud Flows

By Alfred Lee

SIERRA MADRE - County officials have authorized the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works to step in and begin a $2.4million emergency construction project to install mudflow protection measures in Sierra Madre.

The Board of Supervisors approved the department's plans to enlarge the Sturtevant Debris Basin and its debris dam and to install three rail and timber structures at various locations in the city.

The construction, approved by the supervisors Tuesday, is considered necessary because April's 584-acre Santa Anita Fire left burned debris on the hills above Sierra Madre, increasing the potential for mudslides when the storm season begins Oct. 15.

A May 22 mudslide in the area cost approximately $50,000, but officials estimated that 95 percent of the burned debris is still on the hillside and will come down during future rain storms.

"A moderate storm could deliver tens of thousands of cubic yards of sediment to resources at various locations in the city of Sierra Madre," stated a report to the Board of Supervisors from Dean Efstathiou, the county's acting director of public works.

"These structures are in the bottoms of river courses, below burned watersheds, where we think a significant amount of sediment will come down," said Christopher Stone, principal engineer for the county department's water division.

"We hope to trap that sediment to keep it from impacting houses down below that," he said.

Sturtevant Basin, which sits off Lotus Lane, is to be enlarged - at an estimated cost of $1.5 million - from its current capacity of 1,400 cubic yards to 5,500 cubic yards, primarily by increasing the height of its dam. Officials consider the other four debris basins in the area to be adequate.

The three rail and timber structures will be installed at the One Carter property, the Stonehouse property and at the end of Yucca Trail. The estimated price tag is $900,000.

Stone said he anticipated construction to start by early September, after design plans are fully developed. The county will handle design, emergency contracting, construction and grant applications for the project, which is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act in the immediate interest of public safety.

Apart from the county's project, Sierra Madre is finalizing paperwork for a $140,000 grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service to put up additional barriers. City officials also are working on a grant for the anticipated cost of debris removal.

Officials say that in a worst-case scenario, the cost of the coming mudslides could be up to $1.1 million.

"The worst case is we get that great big number and all the mud comes off the mountain at one time in a 10-year rain storm, and we have a huge mess on our hands and significant property damage," said Sierra Madre Public Works Director Bruce Inman. "The best case is, frankly, anything less than that."

The last time the city faced a similar situation, Inman said, was in the winter of 2000, when a significant mudslide caused more than half a million dollars in damage to Santa Anita Canyon Road and deposited mud in homes in Arcadia and the eastern portion of Sierra Madre.

The county has targeted 140 addresses as the most vulnerable, and officials are making educational outreach efforts to those residents.

"They're targeted because the mud's got them targeted," Inman said. "They can sandbag their property, they can construct mud barriers using pipe and timber - essentially, they can take the information provided to them by the county's engineers and take it seriously."

As for the cost of managing the fires back in April, that has not yet been added up, nor have the ultimate financial responsibilities been determined.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates Sierra Madre's portion of the fire to cost $2.8 million, although city Administrative Services Director Karin Schnaider cautions the USFS estimation to be "the high number."

"Any fiscal impact directly to the city in its cost of operation won't be known for about six months," Schnaider said.

The city has applied for a federal grant - a Fire Management Assistance Grant - that would cover 75 percent of that ultimate cost.

If a Governor's Proclamation from the state were granted, the state would cover another 75 percent of the remaining 25percent - leaving Sierra Madre's actual obligation, if successful in its requests for financial assistance, at about 6percent of its apportioned cost of the fire.

"There are so many agencies involved," Schnaider said. "It's still under review what will be covered and what won't be covered."

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