Heal the Bay and other groups call for greater transparency and public accountability

By Gary Walker

The opaque Ballona Wetlands restoration process has faced seemingly endless delays Photo by Jonathan Coffin

The opaque Ballona Wetlands restoration process has faced seemingly endless delays
Photo by Jonathan Coffin

Very few topics can unite the disparate landscape of Westside environmental advocacy organizations so often at odds with one another, but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has managed to find one that comes pretty close.

The state wildlife agency announced last week that the long-awaited draft environmental analysis of Ballona Wetlands restoration plans will be delayed yet again, this time until mid-2017, sparking an avalanche of condemnation.

The report is a necessary first step to begin restoration of the wetlands, and there have been more than a half-dozen official delays of its promised release since the state took control of the 600-acre ecological reserve in 2003. As of 2015, the report was due out this summer. This latest announcement kicks the can down the road another year.

Heal the Bay, which has largely kept above the fray of disagreement over how best to restore the wetlands, has created a petition at change.org demanding the immediate release of the report in progress.

“This is unacceptable. We demand to see the EIR/EIS now. Further, we want to know why the EIR/EIS is so delayed. What assurance do we have that the new timeline will be met?” reads the petition, which links to a blog post titled “The Ballona Boondoggle.”

Heal the Bay Science Director Dr. Katherine Pease said frustration has boiled over with the latest delay.

“It’s been really disappointing to a lot of the groups that have been working on this and waiting for many years. The fact that it’s been delayed again is really frustrating and confusing,” Pease said.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with the California Coastal Conservancy and The Bay Foundation to supervise Ballona restoration efforts, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers being tapped for assistance.

“The delay is due to the identification, discussion and resolution of various questions and concerns from the project agencies involved,” said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jordan Traverso. “The lead agency for the draft environmental impact report for the state is the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The lead agency for the draft environmental impact study for the federal government is the Army Corps of Engineers. Both agencies are reviewing and addressing these questions and concerns.”

The analysis will consider the benefits and drawbacks of multiple restoration strategies, a starting point for the public hearing process.

“Preparation of the environmental review is taking longer than originally anticipated — not uncommon with documents of this complexity, but we remain committed to preparing a detailed, scientific evaluation of project effects before making a decision concerning this important natural resource,” Traverso said.

The nonprofit Friends of Ballona Wetlands isn’t satisfied.

“What ‘studies’ could possibly remain to be done at this point, after more than 25 years of them? … We understand that lengthy review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and concerns about litigation are contributing to the delays, but litigation has always been part of the history of the Ballona Wetlands. These delays are inexcusable,” reads a statement by Edith Read,  who heads the group’s science, restoration and education committee.

Travis Longcore, a professor of urban ecology at USC who has studied the wetlands, has a different opinion.

“I’m happy that they take as much time as they want because I haven’t seen anything thus far that I can support. EIRs for these projects always take a long time … but they can also be used to rationalize or justify a project,” said Longcore, science director of the Urban Wildlands Group.

Douglas Fay, one of the leading critics of the restoration planning process, isn’t looking forward to the report’s release because he worries the state’s restoration will do more harm than good.

“Every day that they delay blatantly and maliciously killing all of the life in an ecological reserve is a good day,” he said.

Despite their different reactions to the delay, both Pease and Longcore said the state should hold meetings to give the public a better idea of what’s going on behind the scenes.

“There always seems to be an excuse, and the latest one doesn’t even make clear what some of the issues are that are creating the delay,” Pease said.

“I think there has been a breakdown of public trust surrounding this project,” said Longcore. “There’s been no regular venue where project leaders have been meeting scientific advisory members and in turn engaging with the public.”

Pease is worried that further delay will continue to put native plants at a disadvantage to invasive species.

As time goes by, she said, “the wetlands are getting worse.”