State officials who oversee the Department of Fish and Game and an organization that works with the agency say budget cuts have hampered their efforts to keep the Ballona Wetlands free of unsightly and potentially hazardous waste.

The California Natural Resources Agency, which is charged with restoration, protection and management of the state’s natural, historical and cultural resources, responded to a Sept. 23 Argonaut story that depicted trash and other abandoned items n including a microwave oven and a television set n in a parcel of land known as Area B, near the Culver and Jefferson boulevards intersection.

Environmental advocates have complained for years that land that they fought to protect and save has been used alternatively as a campground for the homeless and a dumping site for others.

State Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D-Marina del Rey) whose district includes the Ballona Wetlands, promised to look into reports from her constituents about cardboard boxes, wooden pallets and other items that have been abandoned in Area B after an inquiry by The Argonaut earlier this month.

“I will pursue this matter so we can ascertain the location of the reported dumping and Fish and Game can determine ownership of the parcels in question to identify a responsible party,” she pledged.

Wetlands advocates have asked state officials to provide a barricade that would prevent unauthorized intruders from entering the ecological preserve.

State officials say Fish and Game has been limited, like nearly all government agencies, by staffing reductions and furloughs. The land manager position for the wetlands was eliminated last year along with operations funding, they say.

Fish and Game, which has been responsible for the wetlands since 2003, has not returned calls for comment on the illegal dumping, but Oropeza has spoken with them.

“I have contacted Fish and Game regarding the dumping and hope to hear back after they look into this,” she said.

Sandy Cooney, a spokesman with the Resources Agency, which supervises Fish and Game, said that all parties, government and citizens, should do their part to help keep the 600 acres of environmental preserve as pristine as possible.

“We have been in contact with Sen. Oropeza’s office, and we’re all in agreement that we should collectively ensure that this property is protected,” Cooney told The Argonaut.

Ballona Institute Co-Director Robert “Roy” van de Hoek is heartened that Oropeza is asking state officials to review what policies they have in place to keep the wetlands clean.

“To have a state senator who has shown interest in her state lands shows real hope,” he said. “I know that she has seen some of the wetlands firsthand and I’m glad that she has expressed her concern about the illegal dumping in Area B.”

Van de Hoek, a restoration biologist, said toxins from discarded appliances like microwave ovens could wreak havoc on many of the native wetland species.

“Whether it’s radiation aspects from a microwave oven or Freon (an organic compound commonly used in solvents and repellants) from a refrigerator or computer waste, that will affect microbes and nutrients if they get into the soil and make it unsuitable for plants,” he explained. “Also, the sheer bulk of a TV can prevent plant life from growing because it covers soil, and if there’s no plant life, there will be no butterflies, no birds and possibly no insects.

“This could alter what we call ‘the food chain’ in nature, and if they’re becoming habitual, it becomes a very negative impact on an ecosystem.”

Due to the proximity of the groundwater tables in the Ballona Wetlands, water systems could be harmed, van de Hoek said.

Susie Santilena, a water quality scientist with Heal the Bay, said chemicals like Freon from an abandoned refrigerator might not pollute the watershed because of its chemical makeup.

“Freon tends to separate out and volatize, or evaporate,” Santilena explained. “That would be more of an air quality issue.”

But Santilena agreed with van de Hoek that certain chemicals could be hazardous to the water table if they were to seep through the soil.

“It really depends on what type of toxin it is,” the Heal the Bay scientist said. “Some metals that are soluble, like copper, could be very toxic to the watershed.”

The biodiversity of the wetlands, for which a highly anticipated restoration plan is being discussed by state officials, could be harmed if trash and potentially dangerous poisons are not removed soon, according to van de Hoek. “The first principle of restoration is not to lose any of the biodiversity,” he noted.

Oropeza shares the concern about further pollution of the ecological preserve.

“Alarm bells should sound when anyone becomes aware of any kind of waste, but particularly electronic waste, or e-waste, being disposed of improperly because there are many chemicals and components of e-waste that are particularly harmful and dangerous to the environment,” the senator said.

Fish and Game officials have done the best that they could under the current fiscal circumstances, said Dr. Shelley Luce, the executive director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

“I think they’ve done an admirable job,” Luce, whose organization works with Fish and Game regularly, said. “They have increased patrol of the wetlands, this while having their employees furloughed and their budget slashed.”

Marcia Hansom, co-director at the Ballona Institute, took issue with the notion that the abandoned items in Area B is a localized situation, as was suggested by Dr. Edith Read of the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands last month.

“In some areas it looks like a landfill out there. It’s unbelievable,” Hansom said. “This latest incident that was reported is just one of many incidents and there are many other places where this has occurred. So I was surprised to hear Dr. Read say that this was a localized situation.”

Like his co-director Hanscom, van de Hoek is not a fan of how Fish and Game has managed the wetlands.

“As caretaker of the land, I think they’ve done an appalling job,” van de Hoek, who has clashed with Fish and Game officials in the past, asserted. “They’ve had the land for seven years now and I haven’t seen any improvement in how they’ve taken care of Area B.”

Others say Area A, near Fisherman’s Village in Marina del Rey, also has many homeless encampments as well as other parts of Area B behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey.

Luce said Fish and Game has repaired fences and installed barricades along Culver Boulevard to keep out trespassers. In addition, they have worked with the Coastal Conservancy to clean up Area C, near the Little League fields off Culver. “But they need all of us to call them when there’s a problem in the wetlands,” she said.

Cooney said state officials were considering the concept of a wetlands community watch program that would involve members of the public, environmental organizations and Fish and Game to keep the area clean and healthy.

“It could be based on the model of the neighborhood watch program,” he said.

Cooney said groups such as the Ballona Institute, the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, the Ballona Creek Renaissance in Culver City, the Sierra Club, Heal the Bay and Loyola Marymount University might consider joining such an initiative, which is still in its conceptual stage.

“This property is held in the public trust and we are all to be responsible for ensuring that this land is protected,” the Resources Agency spokesman implored. “We can’t do it alone.”

Van de Hoek admires the state Parks Department and would like to see them assume control of the Ballona Wetlands.

“They are more geared to preservation and restoration, as well as many more rangers than Fish and Game,” the biologist stated.

Oropeza said it was premature to discuss a change in land stewards or considering allowing another agency to oversee the pending revitalization of the protected environmental preserve.

“Although TV sets being dumped is a problem, the potential harm may not warrant re-opening the restoration plan and EIR at this point,” the senator cautioned. “If we get additional information, we will of course urge the appropriate agencies to get involved as warranted.”

Cooney said future talks about a wetlands watch program could take place soon, but stressed that the public should also be vigilant to alert the state to any illegal activity.

“We can’t do it alone,” he reiterated. “We’re really all in this together.”

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