Environment & Science

Crews clear storm basins, but LA County warns costs could run into hundreds of millions of dollars

With thunderstorms possible later this week, crews today will continue clearing basins that form a "line of defense" for mountainside residents who live below the Station Fire burn area.

But Public Works officials have issued a cost-related warning. Clearing debris after storms in and below the Station Fire burn area could eventually cost several times more than the estimated $90 million that local, state and federal agencies spent fighting the largest blaze in Los Angeles County history last year.

Over the next three to five years, debris removal due to seasonal storms in the area damaged by the 250-square-mile Station Fire could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Public Works Deputy Director Mark Pestrella told the county's Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

Digging out catch basins that protect foothill neighborhoods in Los Angeles County could cost up to $30 million this winter alone, Pestrella said.

Debris basins, which are designed to trap rocks, mud and timber but to let water flow, form "the first line of defense to protect the communities" below, Supervisor Michael Antonovich said.

Antonovich, whose district includes erosion-vulnerable mountainside neighborhoods, said the dam-like structures from La Canada Flintridge to the Ventura County line "need to be cleaned out immediately."

Getting rid of the muck – an estimated 1 million cubic yards of it – is part of the problem, Antonovich said. Several county sites designated for dumping sediment are nearly filled to capacity, he said.

At Antonovich's recommendation, the Board of Supervisors waived daily and weekly tonnage limits at the 435-acre Sunshine Canyon landfill for 90 days to accommodate the emergency need.

The supervisors also directed staffers to seek temporary waivers of limits and fees from state and local agencies at Sunshine and Scholl Canyon landfills.

Pestrella, citing the mounting costs, indicated the county's need for more space is far from temporary.

Because of the Station Fire's devastation of mountain watersheds, the Public Works Department's 20-year plan for managing sediment placement will now likely serve the county for only five years, Pestrella said.

Light showers expected today pose no threat to the burn areas, but a more powerful storm – one that has a slight chance of producing thunderstorms – is expected Friday, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm Friday night into Saturday has potential to bring up to two and a half inches of rain to south-facing slopes, said NWS meteorologist Curt Kaplan.

Regardless of the forecast, and regardless of how many times the work must be repeated, cleaning out basins that protect homes high in Tujunga, Glendale, La Crescenta and La Canada Flintridge will remain a priority until they are all cleared, according to county Public Works officials.

By this evening, 10 of the 30 key basins in and below burned mountain watersheds are scheduled to be 100 percent cleaned out, according to a Department of Public Works timetable. The most recent timetable calls for having all the basins cleared by March 23.