Top photo: HERE’S MINE – Environmental activist Rex Frankel displays his organization’s view of how the Ballona Wetlands should look after its refurbishing. Frankel disagrees with what he calls “the state’s plan.” Bottom photo: RUTH LANSFORD (wearing sunglasses) talks with other attendees at the open house forum on the Ballona Wetlands restoration. Photos by Gary Walker

The kickoff of the environmental review of the Ballona Wetlands is an event that has long been anticipated by conservationists, wildlife advocates and scientists who have been involved in researching alternatives to rehabilitate the ecological reserve.

It was announced earlier this month by the state Department of Fish and Game and the California Coastal Commission following the release of the notice of preparation, which begins the environmental analysis, and dozens of observers came to Marina del Rey Aug. 16 hoping to speak to representatives who will be in charge of formulating the restoration approach.

Fish and Game and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers are the state and federal agencies, respectively, that will be directing the restoration.

Instead of hearing directly from state officials in charge of the process, attendees were encouraged to submit their thoughts and observations on how the 600-acre wetlands should be restored.

Some, like Dr. David DeLange, came away somewhat surprised by the design of the event.

“I was expecting what we traditionally see, which is a gathering where we talk as a group, as a community about the issues that we think will be looked at so that we can listen to one another and respond to some extent to one another,” DeLange said.

DeLange, a former Marina del Rey resident who has been waiting for the environmental review to begin, had prepared a presentation that he will now have to make at a later date.

Instead of a formal presentation, a variety of stations were set up where questions could be asked about the California Environmental Quality Act and how it will pertain to the restoration, for information on the historical aspects of the ecological reserve as well as an ecology station.

Ruth Lansford, the founder of the environmental non-profit, the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, mingled among the dozens of attendees at the various stations.

“I think it’s a good beginning,” she said. “I think there’s good information here and a lot of people who are articulate and helpful.

“But it is only the beginning.”

ICEF International is the company that has been hired as the consultant to coordinate and write the environmental report. Project manager Donna McCormick called the event “an open house forum” and explained why it was structured differently than what some had expected.

“Sometimes when we have lots of information already we can provide that, but we don’t have alternatives identified yet,” McCormick explained. “We could bring some of those things but they are in draft form and they could change, and then people would think that isn’t what they saw in the scoping meeting.

“So we basically thought that the most important thing was to get people’s comments back to us,” the project manager continued. “We want to make that available. This type of forum, we think, is much better for getting a lot of discussion coming back to us instead of setting up a microphone and having people speaking one after another.”

McCormick said this style of forum for community dialogue is not unusual.

“It’s often done for large infrastructure projects to provide interaction and information,” she said.

DeLange talked about the importance of “cross information” during community meetings and feels it is a crucial component of the Ballona Wetlands restoration.

“It is, to the extent that (environmental impact reports) do make a difference and one can always question to what extent they make a difference,” he said. “Assuming that they are of real, genuine value, people come to these for the purpose of communicating ideas with one another.”

Karina Johnston, a restoration biologist for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, was at the ecology station explaining to a group of people some of the activities that have been done in the wetlands by the commission, which is assisting the state Coastal Conservancy in the restoration with baseline studies, water quality analysis and other research.

“(The open house forum) is a chance to really get the public engaged and get their concrete thoughts and ideas about everything that we’ve been talking about in a really broad categorical sense, hone it down and make sure their comments are addressed during the CEQA process,” Johnston said.

DeLange wondered whether the forum meets the legal requirements of a gathering under the CEQA guidelines for a scoping meeting.

Rex Frankel, director of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project, objects to what he calls “the state’s preferred plan” and is pushing an alternate method for the restoration.

“In our plan, the trail system and the habitat types are preserved and the water source is clean water from the ocean, not urban runoff polluted from Ballona Creek,” he asserted. “This, our plan, leaves Ballona Creek levees and the bike path where they are, although there could be places in the levee where smaller channels could lead into the wetlands from the creek close to the ocean where the water is likely to be cleaner.”

Frankel was referring to an option that state officials may consider that involves the possible removal of concrete levees on Ballona Creek to restore natural river and marsh habitat between Marina del Rey and the Westchester bluffs.

Dr. Daniel Swenson of the Army Corps of Engineers said that possibility would be addressed in the environmental impact report. “Those are the kind of things that will be evaluated (during the environmental process), and we’re not close to any decisions right now,” he said.

The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands also weighed in on the wetlands restoration.

“The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands supports the process (that) the California Coastal Commission is using for restoration planning of the Ballona Wetlands.

“After years of input from scientists and stakeholders, the (California Coastal Commission) is developing a restoration plan that would achieve many of (our organization’s) goals and objectives, including biodiversity, sustainability, public access, education opportunities and conservation of rare species,” the organization wrote in a statement. “Water quality of Ballona Creek and impacts of climate change on sea level rise are also being studied to optimize long-term sustainability of restoration. (The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands) will continue to be engaged in this restoration planning.”

Lansford said it is important that science be the guiding principle when determining the best approach to healing the wetlands, which continues to remain in a state of deterioration.

“I hope that we can maintain a good, open discussion with the scientific principle always in mind,” she said. “Emotions should not be a part of this and I hope that things go smoothly so we can get this done as quickly as we can.”

McCormick said a more formal meeting will occur when the draft environmental impact report is written. “At that point, when it’s made public, we will have public hearings on that, and they will be with a presentation and public comment,” she said.

Legislators from the federal, state and city governments have sent letters to the Army Corps of Engineers asking that the process be extended. Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Venice), state Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Marina del Rey) and Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl all asked those in charge of the environmental review to hold a public hearing at “a time and place convenient for all interested community members to make their voices heard.”

The Venice Neighborhood Council considered a motion at its Aug. 21 meeting requesting the agencies involved with wetlands restoration to extend the comment period to 90 days and asking that “two full public hearings be held at times convenient to the working public and located in hearing rooms where those attending can hear all of the comments.”

The original ending date of Sept. 10 for public comment has been moved to Oct. 23 to allow more people to participate in the environmental review.

Lansford, who witnessed a slew of legal actions against the developers of Playa Vista when she was on the board of the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands – including multiple lawsuits from Frankel’s organization – mentioned a noteworthy difference between any possible legal action against the state by organizations that may not agree with the state agencies’ final decision on the refurbishing plan.

“If a lawsuit is filed, the public is on the hook,” she warned. “I’m not saying that people should not file lawsuits, but hopefully nothing frivolous.”

McCormick said she anticipates having the environmental document ready by early next year. ¤