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Rivers and Watersheds

Los Angeles Times, October 10, 2008

Advocacy group challenges proposed suspension of Los Angeles River kayaker
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says Army Corps of Engineers was retaliating for Heather Wylie's objections to agency's decision weakening Clean Water Act protections for the river
By Bettina Boxall, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Heather Wylie's kayaking trip down a stretch of the Los Angeles River one Saturday in July was more than a little weekend urban adventure.

Wylie, a project manager in the Ventura field office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, joined local environmentalists to make a point: You can float a boat down the concrete-lined river channel, even if what you're paddling through is mostly street runoff and treated water from sewage plants.

Wylie's bosses were not happy. Two weeks later, they moved to suspend Wylie without pay for a month, saying she had flouted corps policy with the boat trip and e-mails she sent to office colleagues.

On Thursday, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an advocacy group, filed a whistle-blower complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, charging that the corps was retaliating for Wylie's objections to the agency's decision that weakened Clean Water Act protections in the river's upper watershed.

"I was protesting what my agency was doing because it was in contravention of the law and not in the public interest," said Wylie, 29.

Earlier this year, the corps decided that only four miles of the 50-mile-plus river were navigable, a standard that figures into whether seasonal streams and wetlands feeding the river's upper reaches are covered by the Clean Water Act.

If most of the L.A. River is not considered navigable, that could make it easier to develop the foothills and mountains in its upper watershed.

Wylie, who has worked for the corps for more than four years, has made no secret of the fact that she thinks the agency was wrong in declaring only a small portion of the river boat-worthy.

In an unusual move, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in August that it would make the final call on what waters in the L.A. River are navigable.

In an Aug. 7 memo to Wylie released by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Wylie's boss wrote that she had sent "unauthorized and inappropriate" e-mails to 15 staff members complaining about the corps' interpretation of a 2006 Supreme Court ruling on what waters qualify for Clean Water Act protection. It also accused her of participating in "an unauthorized boating expedition."

The memo's author, regulatory division branch chief Aaron Allen, referred The Times to a public affairs officer who could not be reached for comment.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said Wylie, who was off duty when she paddled down the river, has a 1st Amendment right to speak out.

Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton