Topanga Lagoon Study Underway

By Michele Johnson

An impressive array of participants from governmental agencies and environmental groups introduced themselves in the opening minutes of the Topanga Creek Watershed Committee meeting held on Saturday, June 16.

VOL.25 NO. 14
July 12 - 25, 2001



This is what everyone's talking about--the mouth of the Canyon as it used to be.

Billed as the most important meeting of the summer, it featured a preliminary report on the ongoing Topanga Lagoon and Watershed Restoration Feasibility Study. The Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) has pulled in an impressive array of grant money--a total of $564,000--from the California Coastal Conservancy, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, the State Water Resources Board, and the California Department of Fish and Game. The money will be spent to study and, if the studies pan out, to eventually restore not just the lagoon but flood-damaged areas of Topanga Creek. The project will be years in the making. This is simply the first stage, a four-year process in itself. The RCDSMM is actively seeking input from the community throughout the whole process.

The long-range goals are succinct, but impressive--to create a self-sustaining lagoon, improve water quality, minimize flood hazards, restore endangered fish habitat, and maintain recreational opportunities--all without modifying the surf break at the mouth of the creek.

Rosi Dagit, RCDSMM biologist, opened the discussion with a brief description of the Topanga Watershed--12,400 acres, the third largest draining into Santa Monica Bay. It's also "the least altered and most biodiverse," even though, after the new census, Topanga numbers 13,000 residents and counting. So, Dagit said, the question is now, "How can we make sure we don't screw up?"

Kevin Reagan, Data Manager of GIS Systems Wizard, pulled together an array of maps showing the changes the lagoon, roads and bridges at the mouth of the Canyon and beyond had undergone in the last 120 years. Using aerial photos and old maps overlaid on new, it was obvious that the lagoon had shrunk and the road position changed dramatically, especially after the big flood of 1938.

Chris Webb, Project Manager of Moffatt & Nichol, the engineering group that is overseeing the study, outlines their efforts so far. Moffatt & Nichol's job is to identify opportunities and constraints, model existing conditions, and then develop three alternative configurations to restore the lagoon and watershed.

Webb listed a huge range of "opportunities" available to look at as options to reach the goals.

Buying the Los Angeles Athletic Club (LAACO) property and rezoning it as park land took the top place on the list. Opportunities also included the following possibilities: remove fill and silt from the creek and lagoon; lengthen the bridge over the lagoon; create a boardwalk around the lagoon; restore canopy cover in the narrows; remove invasive vegetation, exotic species and woody debris; conduct prescribed burns in the watershed; preserve and enhance recreational opportunities including surfing, fishing, hiking, birding, picnic and equestrian opportunities; amend land use plans to restrict development.

A lot of emphasis was placed on flood control. Several key spots have been identified that contribute to flooding. One is the lagoon itself, which has narrowed to the point that it can't handle storm run-off that then backs up and floods land upstream. Other problem areas are the "narrows" area below the S-curves, the school crossing at Topanga Canyon Boulevard and "Topanga Lake," on north Topanga Canyon Boulevard, caused by a landslide in the '90s. Approaches to mitigate those problem areas are in the works. Removing fill is a key component to any flood control. Sediment in those areas, Webb points out, fills the bottom of the creek and plants grow, further constraining the creek. Stagnant "polio ponds" also proliferate.

County Public Works' efforts to fill the problem areas with rip-rap and boulders have actually exacerbated the problem, as the fill is undermined and eventually falls in the creek only to be replaced again.

What's next? Well, Moffatt & Nichol's must have its report ready by early November, and will meet with the community to discuss it at the December Watershed Committee meeting. About the same time, Caltrans finishes its Environmental Corridor Study, covering some of the same ground. All the studies, will be integrated. Over the next several months, Moffatt & Nichol will meet with all stakeholders, including landowners, Caltrans, Beaches, LAACO and the Topanga Citizens' Floodplain Advisory Committee chaired by Rabyn Blake.

Q & A

After the presentation, questions were asked. How's the water quality? "Amazingly good," said Dagit. Amphibian life is flourishing. An audience member pointed out that one study showed no evidence of pathogens from septic systems.

Lower Canyon resident Carol Winter stood up to say, though "your concerns are our concerns," she wants to feel "lower residents are a part of this dialogue."

Dagit said that "physical constraints" independent of people are being looked at at this point, and that the study is meant to be a starting point for discussion. Lagoon feasibility, she said, has been an issue since 1996, long before the LAACO land buy developed. The timelines are "completely separate." Also, Dagit pointed out, this is not just about the lagoon, but is a comprehensive plan for restoring the watershed.

RCDSMM board member David Gottlieb said that since 93 percent of Southern California wetlands have disappeared in the last 100 years, it is our obligation to take advantage of the "very formidable and honorable funding to restore wetlands."

Carol Winter responded that "this sort of do-good stuff has to take into consideration that all through Topanga land is being taken," specifically from low-rent districts. Dagit pointed out that the landowner is making the decision here.

Topanga resident and Senior Field Deputy Susan Nissman protested that no one has forgotten Lower Topanga residents. On the contrary, she said, the fight to stop the Upper Canyon Summit Valley development was waged "to preserve water quality and lifestyles in Lower Canyon." And still, she went on, "This Canyon and the people living in it are paying lots of attention to the Lower Canyon."

The RCDSMM's new education coordinator, Tricia Watts, outlined her plans to work with kids in the Canyon to educate them about the watershed and tackle restoration projects in the Canyon with their help.

At Topanga Elementary School on Saturday, November 3, there will be a hazardous waste round-up, the first held in Topanga since 1998.

Susan Nissman also announced the creation of a Weed Management Area in the Santa Monica Mountains.


There was a hearing on wireless facilities on Thursday, June 28 at the County Planning Commissioner's offices downtown. Some voiced concern that the County is not coordinating requests for additional wireless equipment

It's not feasible to put the phone lines underground, since it costs "a million dollars a mile," said Nissman, and the fund used for that purpose has been spent in Malibu. When the fund is built up again, Mulholland is next on the list. Nissman suggested we call for a County task force to work on coordinating wireless company requests.

A subcommittee will be formed to finalize the revisions of the Draft Topanga Creek Watershed Management Plan and report back to the Committee with its final recommendations.

The next meeting of the Watershed Committee will be held on Thursday, July 26 at the Top O' Topanga Center Room from 6 to 8 p.m.


RE: location

By Bonnie McCourt

On Thursday, June 28, a relocation meeting was held between California State Parks officials and tenants from Lower Topanga. Unlike previous meetings between the tenants and the American Land Conservancy, which had taken place on such short notice that the tenants' lawyer was unable to be there, this meeting was quite well attended. With a bit more notice, and the fact that tenants believed this a more legitimate forum since they were hearing directly from representatives of the Parks Department, the tenants turned out in force. And so did State Parks officials.

The tenants were armed with questions. The State Parks officials had six spokespersons with answers, and a Sheriff's deputy and four Park Rangers armed with guns.

At times emotions ran high, but the tenants believe they have a lot to lose.

What started as an audience of over 100 began to thin out within a half-hour. The first man to leave said simply, "Nothing is being said here."

But in fact much was being said. The tenants who remained had many concerns. The State Parks officials had many reassurances.

The tenants expressed their concerns: "Why are you trying to move us so fast? The development of Tuna Canyon is much more of a threat to the land than we are." "How can we comment on a non-existent plan? Our fear is that the plan will increase density and then it will be too late." (The Parks Department has projections of 750,000 visitors a year when the park is finally open, compared with 47 households and 10 businesses currently existing there.) "Why pay us to move when you have $1 million in rent from people who have been good stewards of the land?"

Warren Westrup, Acquisitions Chief for State Parks, assured the tenants that this relocation meeting was to help State Parks determine fair compensation for the tenants' eventual displacement. "If you don't talk to us," Westrup said, "we'll have to guess about the issues. If we make the assumption that $3 million will be enough for relocation and it turns out to be $6 million, it'll be too late."

Later in the meeting State Parks Manager Clayton Phillips got a good laugh. "We don't know what we're talking about," he said, laughing, and acknowledging his Freudian slip, quickly finished the sentence, "until we have a plan in place." For many at that meeting it was exactly the point they were trying to make.

After almost three hours, the meeting ended on quite a civil note. Even though in typical Topanga style the debate was hot, the guns had proven to be unnecessary.

Roy Stearns, press representative for State Parks, thought the meeting had gone "quite well," and that the tenants had asked "excellent questions." "We need to treat these people with dignity and respect. They have been good stewards of that land and that's why we see it as such a good thing." But he added, "Our job is to preserve and protect. We are not in the landlord business."

When asked why the Rangers had been armed, Stearns said they "didn't think there were any dangerous people there," that it was "standard for our Rangers. They patrol remote areas in parks and, unfortunately, there are people in this world who don't respect the rights of others."

Frank Angel, lawyer for the Lower Topanga tenants' association, also thought the meeting went well. Although it was still "too early" in the process, he was glad the idea of long-term leases had not been ruled out. He added that more time is needed to study the impact of future management plans for the property. He was determined that his clients will get "comparable terms"-- comparable to the terms granted by State Parks in previous parkland acquisitions both in Northern and Southern California.

But clearly all may not be well. Although in a Parks Department acquisition timetable handed out at the meeting it was indicated that water quality evaluation is scheduled for September, according to their press release dated June 29, they claim the tenants are polluting: "On numerous occasions in past years, the septic tank system within the residential area has overflowed and polluted Topanga Creek...." When asked the source of this information in his release, Roy Stearns said it was an "assumption" based on the fact that after heavy rains Santa Monica Bay has reported high coliform bacteria counts. When it was pointed out that, according to Rosi Dagit, biologist for the RCD, no studies have yet been undertaken that were designed to identify specific contamination sources, Stearns had Parks Assistant Deputy Director Steve Kapps call back to clarify their position. But Kapps only reiterated that the statement was indeed based on "assumption" and had no scientific study to back it up.

This "assumption" has already been repeated as fact in a July 3 article in the Los Angeles Times ("State to Buy Topanga Canyon Coastal Acreage for Parkland," p. B3). Kenneth R. Weiss reports "...the relatively clean water upstream becomes laden with bacteria farther downstream when it passes by houses equipped with septic tanks along the creek in an area that used to be wetlands. As a result, the coastal waters around Topanga Beach. . .are among the most polluted in Santa Monica Bay."

A report on the July 9 meeting between State Parks and interested citizens addressing acquisition issues will appear in the Messenger.


New Sheriff in Town


Captain O'Brien (right), passes the reins to Captain Glazar.

By Penny Taylor

There's a new Big Kahuna at the Lost Hills Sheriff's Station. Captain John O'Brien has retired and Captain James N. Glazar is stepping in.

How the heck do you figure a guy who's as tall as Marshall Dillon, still believes in Mayberry RFD, obviously has some kind of political savvy to put him in the position he's in today, and used to hang out at the old Corral? Yeah, you read that right, he not only is aware of Topanga's old Corral, but he's been there, done that.

To look at him, Captain Glazar fits the image of a power executive--the suit, the tie, the stature--but there's a ripple in this staid, perfectly geometric aura that's probably a result of growing up in the Sixties and, right along with the rest of us, watching Andy Taylor and Aunt Bee raise Opie.

Captain Glazar put in two years with the Santa Monica Police Department before hiring on with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He worked out of Malibu from 1971 through 1977 and has already served with the Sheriff's Department for 32 years. He put in time in a Topanga patrol car back in the early '70s. Topanga was still Topanga back then, and he and his partner worked the night shift. Once in a while they'd stop in at the Corral and his partner would play a couple of songs.

Allen Emerson, head of Arson Watch, has known him for 15 years and says, "He's a great guy."


Captain Glazar appears to be sensitive to Topanga and its issues. He spoke of Mayberry RFD not so much in a literal sense, but more in the sense of a Sheriff's Department being cognizant of the needs of the citizens--approachable and willing to work to solve problems on an individual basis. He pointed out that when most people have contact with the police it's under stressful, unpleasant circumstances. A deputy will see the same kind of thing day in and day out and this may be his 15th call of the day, but each is trained to treat every call as if it is the first, and to recognize it's important for the individuals involved.

But just how is a Captain--who's in charge of a department that oversees not only Topanga, but Malibu, Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Westlake Village and unincorporated areas, with a population of over a 120,000 people and an area of 188 square miles--to maintain a small town, individual approach within the rank and file members of his department?

Glazar believes it can be done by encouraging people to follow the lead of officers like Deputy Frank Bausmith who, for 12 or 13 years, has been a professional with a small town cop approach in dealing with unique situations and individuals.


Lieutenant Patrick Hunter, who sat in on our interview, pointed out that Lost Hills gets anywhere between 12 and 15 letters a month from citizens commending the response of deputies. Often the cases will be domestic and neighbor disputes.

I'd already heard one story from a woman who had come into the store where I work and described how her husband had beaten her, and when the deputies showed up they sat down and called around on a Sunday to find a judge who would issue an immediate restraining order. They didn't leave until she was taken care of.


The fire season is coming up and Captain Glazar is not new to the problems we all face. He was the Day Shift Watch Commander during the Malibu fire in November 1993, and upon hearing of the situation in Old Canyon he called the Emergency Operations Bureau and told them to respond the entire department for evacuation and other duties. At any given time he can get us 40 to 50 cars from outlying areas. He ended up being the Dayside Incident Commander for the duration of the emergency.

He's already working with Deputy Chief Mike Dyer and members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He views the function of the Sheriff's Department during such emergency times this way: "It's their fire. The Sheriff's Department's job is to find out what they need and just do it."

As for his own job, "When I'm here I work very hard. When I leave work I leave it here."

Glazar fully intends to retire out of Lost Hills, so he'll be around for a while, but then he'll get to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren.

The question remains: Can our Sheriff's Department really be small town cops, with the big city problems and every-increasing change in the demographic population of our unincorporated town of creekers, aging hippies and BMW bedroom community residents? Only time will tell.


$2 Million Approved for Land

Congressman Brad Sherman has made gains--literally--in his effort to secure federal funds for land purchases within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA), as the House of Representatives recently passed the Fiscal Year 2002 Interior Appropriations Bill which included Sherman's $2 million request.

"The passage of this provision is a big step," said Congressman Sherman. "I am optimistic that the Senate will also recognize the importance of investing in these lands. The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a priceless natural treasure."

The money is needed to protect crucial natural resources and recreation lands. Also important, the money will allow the park to honor its commitment to land owners who have been waiting for years to sell their property to the park.

The SMMNRA attracts over 33 million visitors each year, and the mountains and beaches of this national park are within an hour's drive for 1 in 17 Americans--over 16 million people. The park is home to over 450 animal species and more than 50 threatened or endangered plants and animals, among the highest concentration of such rare species in the United States.


Traveling Coach


Phil Jackson, coach of the L.A. Lakers basketball team, celebrates their repeat NBA championship victory with a motorcycle ride through the Canyon. Jackson (above center, with restaurant owners Kathi and Pat Burke) stopped for breakfast at Pat's Topanga Grill. It is assumed that Jackson did not order Chalupas.


Just Where Is Goldstone?


Helicopters hard at work putting out the Henry Ridge fire.

By Penny Taylor

It was a "nothing" fire, to quote someone at the scene on Henry Ridge, Thursday, June 28--just two-and-a-half acres of burned brush, probably started by a weedwhacker hitting a rock during brush clearance or possibly by a careless cigarette. It smoldered unnoticed as the workers clearing the property stopped to have lunch. When they began driving up the rutted dirt road, one of them looked in the rearview mirror and saw flames. They had no fire extinguishers, but they did have bottles of water. It wasn't enough.

It wasn't a dry day, it wasn't a windy day, and no homes or lives were lost. It was a "nothing" fire, but it was the third fire in just three weeks. The sequence of events that occurred may have made a difference on a dryer, windier day. So why not learn from this "nothing" fire before the real fire season kicks off, so we can stack the odds for averting potential disaster in our favor?


When Engine 69 passed me going northbound on Topanga Canyon Boulevard I chalked it up to a traffic collision and kept driving. I was going to get to work on time. (Really, I was.) But in the parking lot at the Center I looked up and saw the smoke. It looked like it was coming from East Hillside. Worse than that, it looked like it was coming from the area of my house on Hillside. I admit I panicked.

Call Fire Fighter Ken Widen was at work in the Valley when his pager went off. The verbal directions indicated the fire was around Colina and Entrada. His MDT (Mobile Data Terminal) indicated an address of Colina and Entrada with a note that said some person thinks it's below Henry Ridge.

The fire was in fact on Henry Ridge, but Topanga Canyon can be a deceiving creature.

Rick Pfeiffer, our newest Fire Captain, was on duty. Right away he knew it wasn't on Colina, but thought access to the fire would be from West Hillside. Realizing it was further south, Engine 69 backtracked to Greenleaf and accessed Henry Ridge by going up Goldstone.

This was the second piece of good and bad luck. Captain Pfeiffer had gone out on a rattlesnake call on Henry Ridge two weeks before. He was going to go up Goldstone, but there is a sign that says, "No Access To Henry Ridge." It's a professional sign, it's a large sign, and it looks like a County sign but it isn't. The sign was put there by neighbors to "keep tourists out." Goldstone is a private street. On snake day, Captain Pfeiffer accessed Henry Ridge by another route, but then saw from above that Goldstone did in fact connect Greenleaf to Henry Ridge. So on Thursday, the day of the fire, in spite of the sign, he knew he could go up Goldstone to Henry Ridge.

Unfortunately, out-of-area emergency vehicles responding to the fire passed up Goldstone, going further up Greenleaf. This mistake was attributed partly to leaves obscuring the street sign and partly to the "No Access To Henry Ridge" sign. Engine 70 had to turn around, a Battalion 5 utility truck missed the turn, as did a team of fire fighters from Camp 13, two sheriff's deputies and yeah, me, too.

There are actually several ways into Henry Ridge and most all of them were used. Engine 67 responded from the Palisades and tried to access the Ridge from behind Topanga Elementary School. But you can only get a patrol vehicle in that road, not an engine, so they ended up accessing it through Goldstone. Engine 125, out of Las Virgenes, came in from Old Canyon via Summit to Summit.


In the end there were engines and patrols from stations 67, 68, 69, 70, and 125, two teams of fire fighters from Camp 13, two helicopters, several utility vehicles and two water trucks. The helicopters and water trucks were critical in fighting this fire since there are no fire hydrants on Henry Ridge, only well water and tanks. The helicopters, which hold 360 gallons of water each, were flying to HeliSpot Area 69A, located by the water tanks near Top O' Topanga, to fill up with water and make repeated drops on the hillside. It was the helicopters that put out the main fire, and Chief Brian Hughes of Battalion 5 kept them on-scene longer than usual because of the lack of water on Henry Ridge. The helicopters were also landed on the large flat area above the fire to transport fire personnel.

Pat Mac Neil of the Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (T-CEP) activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). Allen Emerson, head of Arson Watch, called in Renee Gander, Topanga's own "Mother Nature," to man the Arson Watch phones. Randy Neece dropped what he was doing at the Canyon View Training Ranch For Dogs and headed Plans and Intelligence along with John Hollis, while Carol Feer took the time to help others man the hotline phones. Vic Richards manned the T-CEP radio. Pat's husband, Jack Mac Neil, went to the fire scene to radio back firsthand information to the EOC.


Several things should be learned from Thursday's events.

First: To better report a fire, get to know the Canyon now, before there's anything to report. Go out on your porch with a compass and figure out what's north, south, east and west, so if the time comes you can report the fire as north of your location, or whatever. Your accurate directions can cut down on response time.

Second: Private roads are nice, but if you're going to put up signs, keep in mind that it may not be only "the tourists" you're keeping out. On most emergencies in Topanga there are out-of-area emergency personnel responding--sheriffs, CHP, ambulances, fire fighters. They don't necessarily know the area and they aren't soothsayers. Some maps show that Goldstone doesn't go through to Henry Ridge when it really does.

Third: The narrow roads and canyons in Topanga can be real bottlenecks. It took Engine 69 about 15 minutes to get up Greenleaf and Goldstone because it had to stop and back up for vehicles coming downhill, or to wait for vehicles coming downhill to back up to a spot wide enough for the engine to pass. Greenleaf is a perfect example of an access nightmare. In the event of a fire, don't follow engines in, and try to keep off the road leading to the fire.

Fourth: Check out the street signs in your neighborhood. If you can't see them easily, emergency crews won't be able to see them any better. Ask the County to clear foliage around these signs.

Yeah, it was a "nothing" fire, but we need to learn from it because we live in Topanga and we know it's going to happen again.


Life's a Beach!

By Penny Taylor

Want to surf the beaches? Take a bus. Now some more adventurous souls might suggest you could surf Topanga Creek starting behind the General Store and, in addition to regular surfing gear, wear a helmet and knee pads to avoid bodily damage around the rocks in the S-curves. This would be extreme surfing and would make for great reality TV in the winter.

But it's summer and I thought the lower water table might be a problem, so I asked Curtis Hein, who grew up in the Canyon and has surfed the beaches since he was knee-high to a tadpole.

His response was a look that suggested I be committed to a mental facility, so I abandoned the surfing idea and came up with the idea of a bus.

Actually it wasn't my idea. The Beach Bus is sponsored by Supervisor Yaroslavsky and Councilwoman Miscikowski. And you don't have to be a surfer--beach lovers of all kinds can enjoy the camaraderie of heading for the sun and fun in a big yellow limo that masquerades as an off-season school bus and holds more than the family SUV.

Small coolers, beach chairs and surf boards are all welcome.

Pickup points in Topanga are: Viewridge Road at 9:05 and 11:55 a.m., the entrance to Topanga Elementary at 9:15 a.m. and 12:05 p.m., and behind Topanga Creek General Store at 9:20 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. The bus drops off at Topanga, Will Rogers and Santa Monica Beaches. Return trips leave Santa Monica Beach at 1:00 and 3:40 p.m.

Base fares are $.50, and $.25 for seniors or people with disabilities. A handicap-equipped vehicle can be arranged by calling (888) 524-6287 in advance, or for further information call (888) 769-1122. Or check out the schedule at

Oh, and if you're crazy enough to surf down the creek this winter let the Messenger know in advance so we can get a good photo.


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