REX FRANKEL of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project showed his organization’s alternative for the Ballona Wetlands restoration at an Aug. 16 event.

The next step towards what method should be used in rehabilitating the Ballona Wetlands is on the horizon with the deadline for public remarks on the project set for Tuesday, Oct. 23.
The long-awaited restoration will be a multi-agency venture and dozens of environmental organizations as well as untold members of the public have already added and will be adding their voices to the discussion by the close of the comment period.
The California Department of Fish and Game is the lead agency for the restoration and will be assisted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as the California Coastal Conservancy.
While the restoration has been a highly anticipated event, it is also fraught with a large amount of emotion. Battlelines on the refurbishment of the ecological reserve intersect with the decades long fight over Playa Vista for some conservation organizations who are disputing the state’s science, even though the planned community’s representatives are not involved with the project.
Many of the organizations that challenge the veracity of the state agencies and what they claim are their restoration proposals were active in the fight to stop Playa Vista.
They believe that state officials should adopt a plan that encourages slow restoration without the use of equipment and machines, despite the fact that there are wetlands restoration projects where machinery has been employed.
“We think an approach that will be careful with minimum destruction to the land is the best way to go,” said Kathy Knight, the conservation chair of the Sierra Club’s Airport Marina Group. “We don’t want a big bulldozing project on the land that so many fought to save.”
Marcia Hanscom of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute also feels those in charge of the restoration have a certain idea of what they want to see in the wetlands and that it is up to interested organizations and individuals to make their feelings known during the comment period as well as at the public hearings, which will take place after the environmental impact report is released.
“This is a very important time to look at the bigger picture,” said Hanscom, whose organization at one time led tours of the wetlands. “Our main concern is protecting nature and wildlife that is already there.”
In a release obtained by The Argonaut prior to the announcement of the notice of preparation, officials who are in charge of the environmental process mentioned the possibility of some industrial work, but have not specifically stated when this work would be done.
“The project may involve removing the concrete levees on Ballona Creek to restore natural river and marsh habitat between Marina del Rey and the Westchester bluffs, west of Lincoln Boulevard,” the release states. “Due to construction costs and logistics, and wildlife management needs, the project would take several years to build even after it is approved.”
Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission Coordinator Diana Hurlbert said in a previous interview that despite what some environmental groups believe, no project alternative has been chosen.
“The project has considered many alternative designs, and continues to do so. At this time no alternative has been settled on and the feasibility of multiple alternatives will be investigated and refined based on public comment, as well as biological engineering, infrastructure, and other constraints,” she stressed.
That was echoed by David Lawhead, an environmental scientist at Fish and Game. “There is a conceptual design that was released but it is not a final option by any means,” Lawhead said. “There will be some initial project proposals that people can respond to, but again, nothing has been decided.”
Dr. Travis Longcore disagrees with removing the levees from a financial as well as an environmental perspective.
“Relocating the levees would come at enormous financial expense and then leave us with an unnatural system that will have a tendency to be filled with sediment and will have the pollution that is currently constrained to the channel discharged into a cookie-cutter abstraction of a fully tidal wetland that destroys existing natural features to create something that was not there prior to our disturbance of the system,” said Longcore, an adjunct associate professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.
Dr. Daniel Swenson of the Army Corps of Engineers said the option of removing levees 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.
Knight believes the state agencies have been advocating for a plan that she and others feel is not conducive to preserving much of the Ballona ecosystem.
“They keep promoting the proposal that they want,” she said, but was unable to describe any documents where an alternative had been chosen.
Regarding the method of restoration, Lawhead reiterated that the use of machinery was not a definite alternative but added that industrial uses have played a factor in restoring some wetlands.
The environmental scientist pointed out that in Area A of Ballona in Marina del Rey, the land has been used to relocate sediment from other areas and that must be removed.
“Because of all of the alterations of the terrain in much of the wetlands, (removing sediment) cannot be done by using garden trowels and a bucket,” Lawhead said.
The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, a nonprofit organization that has been working in the wetlands for 30 years, has confidence in the state agencies and what they will ultimately do for the ecological reserve.
“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.”
Hanscom conceded that until an EIR is produced and approved, she questions the makeup and the agenda of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, which is assisting the state agencies with scientific research in the ecological reserve.
“They want to use the Ballona Wetlands to clean the watershed,” asserted Hanscom, noting that many of the scientists on the commission have formerly worked with the environmental organization Heal the Bay.
Longcore said what the state is proposing to date does not take into account certain rare wetland species.
“The proposed restoration has no target species but rather is conceived of as restoring some sort of abstract ‘function.’  This is a school of thought in restoration ecology – with which I disagree -that if you just put certain processes in place, all else will be fine,” the professor said. “But I’ve worked on many projects where this was not the case.
“To conserve rare and endangered species, you have to plan very carefully for each of them. The proposed project does not seem to do that and each time I’ve asked a project representative what the target species are, the response is that there are not any,” Longcore continued.
“That’s a problem and implementing a project of this magnitude without clarifying how (specifically) it will enhance habitat for appropriately chosen indicator species of the historical conditions is an inappropriate waste of money.”
The topic of public meetings became a discussion point after the initial scoping meeting in Marina del Rey Aug. 16, where attendees were allowed to ask questions about the proposed restoration but no formal meeting was planned.
Legislators from the federal, state and city governments 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.”
Lawhead said once the environmental analysis is ready, the state will hold public meetings.
State representatives say they anticipate presenting the environmental impact report to the public next spring.