Despite reductions to its operations and the loss of a reserve manager at the Ballona Wetlands, the California Department of Fish and Game actually received approval for more positions in the area of enforcement in its budget this year, The Argonaut has learned.

According to state records, the agency that oversees the wetlands saw its funding increase for enforcement and its fish and wildlife pollution account as well as its California Waterfowl Habitat Preservation account.

Under the category of enforcement, the number of Fish and Game employees has gone up by 137 from 2008-09 to 2010-11, according to state documents. Its expenditures for this year have also gone up from two years ago.

Terri Stewart, the supervising biologist for Fish and Game, said despite the additional enforcement listings in the budget, her agency has still been hampered by the state’s fiscal crisis.

“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.

Stewart said in many instances, places where an increase in funding is indicated for certain positions have not been filled due to a hiring freeze, and some of the funds in accounts such as the Coastal Wetlands Fund have been shifted toward other areas in the department, including one that was set aside for Ballona.

She cited Rick Mayfield, who until last year was the agency’s reserve manager and was assigned to state ecological reserves including local wetlands, as a casualty of the state’s continuing budget crunch.

“We only have two enforcement officers in Los Angeles, and we are down hundreds of positions,” she said.

The primary reductions to Fish and Game’s budget have come in the form of cigarettes and tobacco surtax. State environmental license plate funds, along with the budget for its general fund, shrank in 2010, as did the biodiversity conservation program.

The revelation of the increase in Fish and Game’s budget for enforcement follows a series of recent Argonaut articles regarding the state of some wetland areas, where debris and discarded furniture and appliances have been photographed. Some organizations have defended Fish and Game’s stewardship of the land, while others have blasted the state agency for what they believe is lax enforcement and poor maintenance.

State Sen. Jenny Oropeza (D- Marina del Rey) has also taken note of the increase to the enforcement portion of the beleaguered state agency’s budget.

“As I look at (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s) recent budget, it shows the enforcement account within the Department of Fish and Game has actually been increased each of the last three years,” the senator, whose district includes the Ballona Wetlands, noted. “In 2008, it went from $55.4 million to a proposed budget of $69.3 million in 2010-11.

“Furthermore, 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.”

Republican Nathan Mintz, who is vying for the 53rd Assembly District seat against Democrat Betsy Butler, was disturbed to learn that certain areas of Ballona were being used as a place for illegal dumping.

“My dad is a commercial fisherman, so I’m sensitive to the idea of protecting our estuaries and our wetlands, Mintz told The Argonaut. “To have people dumping trash there is completely unacceptable.”

Butler said funding cuts at the state level are “a real problem” but said the buck stops with Fish and Game as the agency in charge of the Ballona Wetlands.

“The bottom line is it’s their responsibility,” said Butler, who was recently apprised of the illegal dumping situation. “Now that we know that it’s happening, we need to work together to find some kind of solution.”

State Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey), who is leaving office in November due to term limits, expressed his displeasure last week with the reports of illegal dumping.

“The wetlands are protected and preserved and it is disgraceful to dump trash in these protected wetlands,” the assemblyman, who represents the 53rd Assembly District, said.

Fish and Game purchased the wetlands in 2003 for $139 million and has been the caretaker of Areas A, B and C of the environmental habitat.

Dr. Shelly Luce, executive director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, feels the agency has performed its duties well in the ecological preserve since assuming stewardship in 2003.

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

Stewart said she thinks the current problems in Ballona would not be as drastic if there were a reserve manager who could notify authorities if and when a homeless encampment is spotted, or discarded items like computers are abandoned on state property.

“I definitely think so,” she said.

Because more money was dedicated to Fish and Game enforcement and despite reductions in certain areas of its budget, Oropeza says the department has a duty to patrol Ballona and not allow it to turn into a dumping ground for trespassers.

“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.”

Sandy Cooney, a spokesman with the Resources Agency, which oversees Fish and Game, said the state government is working on a solution for the debris in the wetlands.

“We’re in the process of analyzing and identifying the sites where there has been dumping and we’re determining how and when they will be cleaned up,” he said.

Mintz said he has grown weary of hearing how a state agency has fewer resources than before and the public ultimately suffers because of this mindset. “They’re always crying ‘budget cuts’ and often the areas that get cut are where they’re supposed to serve the people,” Mintz said.

Oropeza has tried to pass legislation this year that would have provided increased regulatory authority of appliances that have been left in the wetlands like microwave ovens, computers and television sets.

“Earlier this past session, I introduced Senate Bill 1052 as a way to improve oversight of e-waste disposal. Despite passage in the Senate, however, this important bill died in the Assembly,” she recalled.

“This year I’ve also encouraged the state to expand funding for the local Conservation Corps, and to include e-waste in their expanded collection duties, via the introduction of Senate Bill 1326. Sadly, it too, died in the Assembly.”

Cooney said the public should know that despite the cutbacks to the state agencies that have jurisdiction or assist Fish and Game with patrols at the wetlands, they are now all attempting to devise methods of rectifying the scourge of trespassing and illegal dumping there.

“It’s important to understand that without a state budget, where furloughs remain the norm and overtime and hiring are non-existent, (Fish and Game), organizations and people who care about Ballona immediately got together to address this issue,” he stressed. “Moving forward, we’re engaged in a conversation of how we do this together, as a group, as a community and as a neighborhood to try to reduce, if not eliminate, future illegal impacts at Ballona and ensure that the wetlands remain protected.”

Stewart said her agency has been as active as possible in the environmental habitat considering the financial conditions under which they are working.

“I can’t even afford to put a dumpster out there right now,” she lamented. “We try and do the best that we can on trash and debris, but without a budget we can’t organize a clean-up right now.”

Butler said that volunteers can play a role in helping to keep Ballona as pristine as possible, but there are certain things that the state must do.

“I think it’s a good idea to marshal the forces of the wonderful environmental organizations that we have in the area to help, but things like removing e-waste is the responsibility of Fish and Game,” she said. “Some of these items can be very dangerous to the environment because they could get into our aquifers.”

Oropeza acknowledged that although nearly all state departments have seen their budgets slashed in many areas, she feels Fish and Game could be doing more to make sure that an overabundance of debris in the Ballona Wetlands does not become a permanent fixture.

“Although there have been a number of cuts in this area over the years, in light of how their enforcement budget has actually been increased in the past three years, as has their Fish and Wildlife Pollution Account and Waterfowl Habitat Account, I think this may be one area to look for improvement,” she said.