Viewpoint: Sounds Like a “Shake-Down” to Me

The milkvetch plants (green) that were “destroyed” by the DWP had made a comeback along the Highlands trail in this October 2020 photo.

After my November 10 CTN story (“Coastal Commission Fines LADWP Almost $2 Million after It Destroys Rare Plants above Highlands”), several readers commented that the money to pay the Coastal Commission fine should not be recovered by charging LADWP customers higher rates.

Let’s recap.

About 220 wooden power poles were placed in the Santa Monica Mountains above the Pacific Palisades Highlands between 1935-1955. This is one of the major power sources for this area.

Many of the wildfires in California are being blamed on utility companies, who have failed to upgrade their power lines, leading to vast, destructive fires caused by fallen lines.

According to “Business Insider”, Pacific Gas & Electric power lines have caused more than 1,500 California wildfires in the past six years.

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

DWP started to replace wooden poles with steel poles in summer 2019 and then a hiker discovered that the utility company had inadvertently destroyed Braunton’s milkvetch, an endangered plant. Construction stopped. It was determined there was no permit from the California Coastal Commission and a cease-and-desist order went out.

According to the California Native Plant Society, in order for the plant to propagate it requires “wildfire or other disturbances.”

“The bean-like 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.

“It is a pioneer species, one of the first to grow in a disturbed area and one that is soon crowded out by plant species that appear later in ecological succession. Wildfire suppression in the hills and mountains surrounding Los Angeles prevent the plant from reproducing.”

This is a quandary.

For this plant to survive, it needs fire (or another disturbance to propagate). The last thing people in the Highlands need is a fire roaring through that area, which likely happened in the century before housing went in.

If there had been a fire above the Highlands last summer or fall (2019), who would have been financially responsible? Would it have been the DWP, since the poles were ancient? Or would the financial burden have gone to the California Coastal Commission since they halted the construction? (In December 2019, Pacific Gas and Electric agreed to pay a $13.5 billion settlement to fire victims and then filed for bankruptcy.)

Pacific Gas and Electric now routinely shuts off power during extreme weather conditions to prevent sparking wildfires.

Luckily, a surprising thing happened in the area where DWP had been working: a slew of milkvetch plants started growing. A reader sent photos of the plant this October. That of course would make sense, because according to the Native Plant Society, a “disturbance” will cause the plant to propagate.

At its November meeting, the Coastal Commission wasted no time in fining DWP almost $2 million for not having a permit, citing the destruction of the milkvetch as one of the reasons.

That seems excessive, especially since the DWP is funded by residents, who feel utility bills are already too high. But Coastal Commission defenders argue that large fines are necessary to help “motivate” large corporations to abide by the law.

It makes sense that DWP will pay $272,500 to the California Department of Parks and Recreation for habitat enhancement and the removal of non-native vegetation from the surrounding area. After all, the company didn’t have a permit.

It also makes sense that the DWP will pay $575,000 into an account held by the State Coastal Conservancy, until the project is completed.

But why is the DWP paying $1,100,00 to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority for the purpose of acquiring property of similar ecological value in the SM Mountains? That smacks of a shakedown.

If a resident wants to contribute to the MRCA for the purpose of acquiring property, they can send in their money.

But the utility shouldn’t be fined excessively because the California Coastal Commission feels DWP can afford it.


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One Response to Viewpoint: Sounds Like a “Shake-Down” to Me

  1. Finn-Olaf Jones says:

    Maybe the MRCA desperately needs to replace the income it lost when its customers discovered the tickets it was issuing on its bogus “red light” cameras on fake intersections were completely unenforceable. Of course, they could simply just re-rent that depressing ghost town they created at the mouth of the canyon to the school and community center that once thrived there and paid a lot to be there before they were evicted. MRCA could also try to rent out its beautiful and well-furnished guest pavilions which are rotting out from disuse. They could also reopen that wonderful store in the parking lot that’s been gathering dust for a decade. Or reopen the beloved pool in the corner of the park that is now a ghost field. But that would mean the MRCA would be forced to actually serve its customers rather than constantly trying to pickpocket them, this time through their DWP bills.

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