Coastal Commission Fines LADWP Almost $2 Million after It Destroys Rare Plants above Highlands

The power line, and the poles that need to be replaced, follow the red line.

At the California Coastal Commission hearing on November 4, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was fined nearly $2 million for failure to have a permit for infrastructure work that destroyed Braunton’s milkvetch plants (which are endangered) and upsetting the topography of the land.

In 2019, the DWP began an infrastructure project to replace roughly 220 wooden power poles with more fire-resistant steel poles in the Santa Monica Mountains above the Palisades Highlands.

According to Business Insider, Pacific Gas & Electric Company power lines have caused more than 1,500 California wildfires in the past six years. San Diego Gas & Electric now has 60 percent of its lines underground.

An August 2019 L.A. Times story (“Aging DWP Equipment Is Wildfire Risk, L.A. City Controller Warns”) reported that the Controller urged the DWP to speed up repairs of utility equipment to reduce the risk of sparking wildfires.

That same month, the Times reported that DWP crews had “used bulldozers to construct a graded road as part of a wildfire prevention project in the Pacific Palisades Highlands and in the process may have destroyed hundreds of Braunton’s milkvetch plants.”

At the Coastal Commission’s virtual hearing this month, it was noted that the DWP did not have a permit, nor Coastal Act authorization. A cease-and-desist order had been issued by the CCC.

Palisades resident Neven Karlovac, who participated in the Zoom meeting, reported that in addition to the staff report, representatives from several organizations (including the Sierra Club) and several individuals spoke.

“I had three minutes to present my concerns about the need to reduce our fire risks and to preserve the natural environment and urged approval and quick restart of the project,” Karlovac said. “I also confirmed a speedy recovery of the plant colony above the Highlands.”

The CCC staff (which can be found at report) noted, “Unpermitted activities impacted 9.15 acres of native habitat within the Coastal Zone and an additional 18.83 acres outside the Coastal Zone.

Braunton’s milkvetch plants  (green) that were “destroyed” in August 2019 had made a comeback in October 2020. This photo was taken by a resident along the Highlands trail in October.

“Within that 9.15 acres of habitat impacted by the Unpermitted Development in the Coastal Zone, an estimated 182 individual specimens of the endangered Braunton’s milk-vetch were removed by DWP. The impacted area also includes approximately 2.72 acres of federally listed critical habitat for Braunton’s milk-vetch.”

Circling the News contacted DWP and asked why the utility company had not received a permit before starting the needed pole replacements.

Spokesperson Deborah Hong responded on November 5: “LADWP reached a settlement with the California Coastal Commission to mitigate impacts related to replacing aging power poles in Temescal Canyon.

“The original poles were installed between 1935-1955 and will be replaced with weathered steel poles that meet updated California Public Utilities Commission fire safety regulations,” Hong continued. “The poles service communities in West Los Angeles and the Pacific Palisades.”

Brian Wilbur, the LADWP Director of Power Transmission and Distribution, said “The Coastal Commission has been a key partner in helping LADWP put into place a plan to improve power reliability to thousands of customers. The new power poles are made of wind- and fire-resistant weathered steel, which is critical for safety. By working together and collaborating with the Coastal Commission, we are looking forward to restarting the project with a focus on providing safe, reliable power to our customers.”

Hong said that LADWP worked closely with state and local agencies, including the CCC, the Mountains Recreation Conservation Authority, Topanga State Park, and the County of Los Angeles Fire Department to develop a construction and mitigation plan to ensure pole replacement work would continue while preserving the endangered plants.

The Consent Orders also requires DWP to restore the additional 18.83 acres of damaged habitat located outside the Coastal Zone, all on California Department of Parks and Recreation property by restorative grading, removing non-native vegetation and planting native vegetation.

The Temescal Ridge Fire Road, where a majority of the unpermitted development occurred, is a popular public access trail that allows hikers access to the Santa Monica Mountains. The Coastal Act protects scenic and visual qualities of coastal areas and limits landform alterations.

The DWP will pay $575,000 into an account held by the State Coastal Conservancy, and will pay $272,500 to California Department of Parks and Recreation to be used for habitat enhancement and the removal of non-native vegetation from the surrounding area.

The DWP will also pay $1,100,00 to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority for the purpose of acquiring property of similar ecological value in the SM Mountains.

The total amount that the California Coastal Commission is requiring from the DWP is $1,947,500. (One resident pointed out that taxpayers will likely pay for the fine through higher utility rates.)

The reason for such a stiff fine, according to the document, was that the DWP caused significant harm to coastal resources within the Coastal Zone, as it damaged and destroyed ecologically important vegetation, such as the federally listed endangered species the Braunton’s milk-vetch, that constitutes “major vegetation” as that term is used in the Coastal Act.

The plant, which can reach five feet in height, only grows on small limestone outcrops (calcium carbonate). According to the California Native Plant Society, this plant is a chaparral species and requires “wildfire or other disturbance to propagate. The beanlike seeds require scarification to break down their tough seed coats before they can germinate. The seeds persist for years in the soil until fire allows them to sprout, with populations of the plant springing up in an area that has been recently swept by wildfire.”

Section 30253 of the Coastal Act states: “New development shall do all of the following: (a) Minimize risks to life and property in areas of high geologic, flood, and fire hazard. (b) Assure stability and structural integrity, and neither create nor contribute significantly to erosion, geologic instability, or destruction of the site or surrounding area or in any way require the construction of protective devices that would substantially alter natural landforms along bluffs and cliffs.”

(Editor’s note: In October 7 Post (“LETTERS: Endangered Plants and Surplus Ballots”) Circling The News received a letter from a reader, who wrote “I was hiking today on that trail above the Highlands and noticed a thriving colony of Brauton’s Milkvetch by the side of that very spot where workers bulldozed some plants when they broadened the fire road.

“The plant may be officially endangered but it is clearly growing vigorously in the Santa Monica Mountains! What is done is done but the protection of these plants obviously cannot be used as an excuse for any further delay of the pole replacement project.”)

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3 Responses to Coastal Commission Fines LADWP Almost $2 Million after It Destroys Rare Plants above Highlands

  1. Betsy Handler says:

    The DWP absolutely must not be allowed to raise consumers’ rates in order to cover this fine. Is there any mechanism or provision in the settlement to insure this?

  2. Tony Lynn says:

    SO I will look forward to my DWP bill increasing. Why not just TERMINATE the person\s responsible?? Why will WE be punished for this stupidity??

  3. John Robert Wilson says:

    DO YOU EVER GET THE FEELING THAT WE HAVE TOO MANY DIFFERENT COMMISSIONS IN OUR STATE????

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