By Gary Walker
Facing yet another postponement of the long-planned restoration of the Ballona Wetlands, local environmentalists are shaking their heads in frustration over the fifth delay of the state-sponsored restoration effort already stalled for several years.
A necessary environmental study needed to break ground on the project “could be released sometime in spring 2014, but that target could be delayed again,” Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jordan Traveso told the Argonaut. “It is simply taking longer to complete the draft than was originally scheduled.”
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Coastal Conservancy are the agencies involved in the restoration effort. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also plays a significant role.
“It is unfortunate that the [environmental report] process is taking longer than we expected. It is a massive undertaking that requires and deserves a very thorough analysis,” said Shelly Luce, executive director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.
The commission, which has its offices on the campus of Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, has done a great deal of the research, testing and gathering of evidence and information on wetlands species and habitat in the Ballona Wetlands.
The Annenberg Foundation is planning to build a nature center in what is known as Area C of the Ballona Wetlands that would include an auditorium, classrooms, a public lobby, exhibits on wildlife and domestic animals, facilities for an animal adoption and care program and veterinary facilities for animals.
Detractors of the nature center say the state is allowing the influential nonprofit Annenberg to build on a protected wetland because the foundation has pledged a $1-million donation to the restoration effort.
To Ballona Land Trust President Walter Lamb, the latest setback is a prime example of what his organization thinks are behind-the-scenes troubles between the foundation and the state agencies.
“To us, it isn’t a good reflection on how the actual project itself would be managed. There has been a lot of tension between Annenberg, Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and the Department of Fish and Wildlife that we’ve seen in the e-mails that went back and forth,” he said.  “Our best guess is that these groups still aren’t working well together and that that is causing delays.”
Luce said the postponement of the environmental analysis highlights how complicated the magnitude of the rehabilitation process for the wetlands can be.
“The delay is indicative of the broad array of potential restoration designs being analyzed and the very careful and detailed analysis that the team is conducting for each potential design,” she said.  “We are all eager to see some form of restoration and public access at Ballona.”
Traveso said large scale and multifaceted initiatives often face interruptions and postponements.
“The delay is not at all uncommon for such a complicated project,” she noted.
Lamb speculated that the state agencies in charge might take unnecessary chances in an effort to start building the wetlands center, which was slated to start construction by the end of next year.
“We don’t believe that there is any possibility that the Department of Fish and Wildlife can meet Annenberg’s timeline of December 2014 to begin construction, which is referenced several times in the memorandum of understanding,” he said.  “We are concerned that Fish and Wildlife will rush and cut corners to try to meet that deadline because so much money is riding on it.”
The wetlands group also thinks the public process provided for in the landmark California Environmental Quality Act will be circumvented by the state agency because of the delay.
“We’ve formally requested that [the state] renegotiate the [memorandum of understanding] with Annenberg,” Lamb said.  “We are also asking for the public scoping period to be reopened, for monthly public meetings and a reasonable process to get permits for controlled access for things like bird watching and nature photography.”
Under CEQA, the 1970 environmental statute, a public comment period must be opened for a specific amount of time so anyone who wishes to speak on a project that is undergoing an environmental review may do so in a public setting.
Luce said one of the most critical components of the entire initiative is the environmental review.
“The CEQA document is really important. It must be done well and thoroughly, and I’m very proud of the work our team is doing, so I am having to be patient as well,” Luce said.
The Ballona Land Trust filed a lawsuit against the state on Sept. 11 alleging that Fish and Wildlife failed to provide critical information to them regarding the Annenberg project.
Luce said her organization would not stop their work in the wetlands, despite the continued postponement.
“We are in the fifth year of the long-term comprehensive scientific monitoring program at Ballona, with a focus on tracking the extent and spread of invasive plant species and assessing the health of the different habitat types,” Luce said.
A spokeswoman for the Annenberg Foundation could not be reached for comment.