At least three different state agencies have been involved with some aspect of the Ballona Wetlands since the state purchased the land seven years ago.
And now two lawmakers who represent the area and three aspiring legislators are beginning to ask questions about how the protected habitat can be maintained in a more efficient fashion.
In addition to the state Department of Fish and Game, which owns the 600 environmentally sensitive acres west of Lincoln Boulevard, the California Coastal Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority also participate in some form of patrol or restoration planning.
But even with the involvement of various state entities, budget cuts have hampered their collective ability to prevent homeless encampments and debris from intruding upon the ecological preserve.
The Mountains Recreation and Conservancy Authority contracts with Fish and Game to patrol Areas A, B, and C and largely focuses on identifying homeless encampments, which have been seen throughout the property. In 2008, funding for the authority was cut and was not restored until the end of 2009, said Dash Stollarz, a spokeswoman for the authority. During 2008 and 2009, none of its employees conducted any patrols in the wetlands.
“Illegal dumping is a big problem,” Stollarz admitted. “We spend a lot of our time on the homeless issue.”
The authority’s spokeswoman said approximately 15 hours a week are dedicated to patrolling the ecological preserve.
Booker Pearson, the chair of the homeless committee for the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa recently took part in a survey of the homeless population in Westchester and Playa del Rey. Pearson, students from Loyola Marymount University and a homeless social services agency, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), visited Area B, west of Lincoln, to count the number of people living there.
“We found at least 60 encampments with people living in the wetlands off of Fiji Way in Marina del Rey (Area A),” Pearson told the local council during a report on the survey on Oct. 5.
Homeless encampments, as well as the abandonment of discarded refuse, have plagued government agencies charged with enforcement of the ecological preserve for years, and often the two are not mutually exclusive.
State officials have recently begun turning their attention to the problem.
State Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D- Marina de Rey) has been in contact with Fish and Game as well as the Resources Agency, which oversees the state agencies involved with environmental protection and enforcement. She has pledged to investigate the reports of illegal dumping and Fish and Game’s enforcement responsibilities in the protected habitat.
“Since personnel in enforcement has also been increased from 227 positions in 2008 to close to 365 (364) in 2010, I will be working with Fish and Game to find a way to provide the appropriate level of enforcement for Ballona Wetlands,” Oropeza said in an interview with The Argonaut last month.
State Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey) has also weighed in on illegal dumping at Ballona.
“The wetlands are protected and preserved and it is disgraceful to dump trash in these protected wetlands,” the assemblyman, who leaves office this year due to term limits, said.
Terri Stewart, a supervising biologist with Fish and Game, said earlier this month that despite increments in certain places in her departmental budget, they do not reflect an increase in enforcement positions at Ballona.
“Even if the budget does show an increase in some places, it does not reflect an increase in local positions or bodies on the ground at the Ballona Wetlands,” she explained.
Coastal Conservancy South Coast Program Manager Mary Small is aware of the reports of trash and e-waste — illegally abandoned computers, stoves, microwave ovens — and acknowledged that it has been difficult for local and state governments to keep the problem under control.
“(The wetlands) are going to require a lot of clean-up,” she said. “(E-waste) is problematic because it could harm the wetlands.”
The conservancy is the agency that will be in charge of organizing public meetings and providing research and analysis, along with grant funding, for the planned restoration effort of the 600-acre wetlands, a long awaited process. Fish and Game, as the government’s lead agency, will implement the restoration process.
“Part of the restoration could include the removal of trash and other debris,” Small said.
The California Coastal Commission is the state agency responsible for certifying any long-term planning initiatives and issuing and reviewing permits related to the Ballona Wetlands, said Charles Posner, a commission analyst.
“If Fish and Game wants to build a fence, they would have to obtain a permit from us, as that is considered to be development in the coastal zone,” Posner said.
The candidates for the 53rd Assembly District seat, which includes the Ballona Wetlands, have been outspoken regarding their concerns about enforcement in the protected habitat.
Democrat Betsy Butler said recent news reports have brought to light the plight of illegal dumping and reduced enforcement in the wetlands and the state must act before it worsens.
“Now that enough of us know about it, we need to find solutions to this problem,” Butler said. “While funding is a big problem, the bottom line is Fish and Game is responsible for enforcement.”
Nathan Mintz, Butler’s Republican challenger, feels having one agency assume the majority of the responsibilities of the ecological preserve would allow lawmakers to know who is at fault when questions on illegal dumping arise.
“How the organizations are designed confuses the public about who’s accountable,” Mintz said. “Make one agency responsible for the wetlands and streamline the accountability, and that would eliminate any finger-pointing.”
John Stammreich, who is running against Oropeza in the 28th Senate District race, said enforcement in the wetlands should be a priority instead of other programs that the state funds.
“While they might have had their funding reduced, the question is was (protecting) the wetlands budgeted properly in the past?” Stammreich asked. “Why is the environmental protection of California so low on the budget scale?”
Both Butler and Mintz say surveillance cameras could also help in the prosecution of anyone who is caught committing a crime by illegally disposing of debris in the wetlands.
Stammerich, who is endorsed by the Republicans for Environmental Protection organization, said protecting state lands like Ballona should be one of the top priorities of any lawmaker.
“We have an obligation to take care of certain things, like our ecological preserves,” he asserted. “We are spending less on the Ballona Wetlands than on other social programs that have not been as effective.”
Stammreich did not specify which programs.
State officials are considering the concept of a wetlands community watch program. This would involve organizing and enlisting members of the public, environmental organizations and Fish and Game to assist the state in keeping the wetlands clean.
“It could be based on the model of the neighborhood watch program,” said Sandy Cooney, a spokesman with the Resources Agency.
Oropeza, who has toured the Ballona Wetlands and recently sent members of her staff to revisit the protected area after reading about abandoned e-waste and trash in The Argonaut, said Fish and Game officials, as the stewards of the property, have to do a better job of keeping Ballona free of debris and e-waste.
“We have given them increased funding for enforcement and staffing. As a result, we need to hold them accountable,” the senator asserted. “The agency’s mission statement makes it clear it is responsible for managing California’s diverse fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats, as well as habitat protection.
“My office will work with them to make certain they determine the extent of the problem and how to resolve it.”
Richard Bloom, a member of the Coastal Commission, did not return calls for comment.