The board of a state agency that will be leading the long-awaited refurbishing of the Ballona Wetlands has allotted over $6 million that will be used to contract with technical personnel to move the planned restoration forward.

The funding, provided Jan. 19 from Proposition 12 by the California Coastal Conservancy, amounts to approximately $6.25 million for hydrological analysis and scenic trail design in the 600-acre ecological reserve.

Prop. 12 is a state parks bond that was passed by voters as a ballot measure in 2000. It authorized $2.1 billion for various land and water quality programs.

“This is a great step for the science behind the restoration,” Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission biologist Karina Johnston told The Argonaut. “We’ve been focusing a lot on the biological information, and this will allow us to focus on some of the more technical aspects of the restoration.”

The Coastal Conservancy, the state Department of Fish and Game and the State Lands Commission are working together on the planned restoration, which has had the attention of the local scientific community and environmental advocates for several years.

Coastal Conservancy Programs Manager Mary Small said the commission, which has been conducting baseline environmental studies in Ballona, will work with the technical experts hired by the conservancy.

“This will enable us to do the engineering work in order to apply for required environmental permits,” Small explained.

Opposition groups attended the conservancy’s board meeting to protest what many call an approach that will harm wetland plant and wildlife species.

“Sierra Club is opposed to the recommendation by your staff for item #5 related to the Ballona Wetlands, and we urge you to vote ‘no’ to approval of this item, especially related to the further granting of funds from Proposition 12 for a proposed project that is not protective of the wildlife and ecological needs of that wildlife, is not and can not be considered ‘restoration,’” wrote Marcia Hanscom, the chair of the Sierra Club’s Ballona Wetlands Restoration Committee.

The letter also claims “the very foundations of the planning are based on a scientifically flawed and incorrect interpretation of the historical maps.”

John Ulloth, the outreach coordinator for the Playa del Ray based-Ballona Institute, also wrote a letter to the conservancy board, listing the environmental organization’s reasons why its members oppose the state’s restoration approach.

“We are in full agreement with the letter submitted by Sierra Club and remain extremely disappointed that your agency has supported the status quo prior to Ballona’s 600-acre public acquisition – a status quo that has, except for a two year period from approximately 2005-06 kept the lands primarily open only to the previous private landowners and their allies,” Ulloth asserted in his letter.

“We ask that all remaining funds from Proposition 12 be used to acquire open space lands adjacent to the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve now for sale, improve the trail on the south levee of the Ballona Creek estuary and open that trail to the public.”

Ruth Lansford, the founder of the sand dune restoration group the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, said the funding will move the restoration project forward by allowing planning and design activities to take place.

She also criticized the restoration’s opponents for what she feels is an unrealistic approach to refurbishing Ballona.

“The idea that you can do this with pails and shovels is ludicrous,” Lansford said.

Friends of Ballona Wetlands Executive Director Lisa Fimiani echoed comments by Lansford and Small regarding the scientific studies.

“We feel good science is being used to assess the situation, and we have confidence that if the hydrology and upland habitat is analyzed accurately, the end result will be a healthier Ballona Wetlands for the most species possible – since diversity is the key to a healthy ecosystem,” Fimiani said.

Johnston thinks that some of the opponents to the state approach to restoring the wetlands might not fully understand why the conservancy board gave the commission the money.

“I think there is some confusion between the funds that were allocated to go towards the planning and science, and the actual restoration itself,” the commission biologist explained. “These funds are absolutely vital in order to move forward with a scientifically defensible planning process and to really determine the best course of action for the restoration.”

Hanscom, the Sierra Club restoration committee chair, contends that state funds should be used for other purposes.

“We are of the opinion and conviction that the funds from Proposition 12 need to be used for acquisition of open space lands adjacent to the Ballona Wetlands,” the group’s letter states. “Land acquisition was the original reason for these funds to be allocated for Ballona, and the only reason the word ‘restoration’ was included in the language was because we did not have a willing seller of the Ballona lands yet.”

Hanscom said the commission had “worked really hard” to get letters of support from state legislators, including state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey) and Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey), as well as from Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl.

None of the lawmakers issued letters of support to the state agencies, but they also turned down the Sierra Club and the Ballona Institute, which requested that the legislators back their position.

Rosendahl said one reason that he chose not to give his support was due to the wide chasm between many of the environmental groups who have been involved in seeking wetlands restoration.

“Understanding the dynamics of the situation, I chose not to send letters of support,” the councilman said.

Lieu said he planned to meet with many of the environmental groups within the next few weeks, but also felt it was best to withhold any support for now.

“I decided that I should not (support any group) at this time,” he said.

Lansford said any attempt to delay the project through litigation would only harm the public. “A lawsuit would be against a public entity so the taxpayers would be paying the bill,” she noted.

Johnston says she understands why the Sierra Club, the Ballona Institute and others have taken a position against the funding of the studies and the state approach to the planned restoration.

“It makes sense that people who have had a high stake in the conservation of the lands since the beginning feel the desire to be closely involved in the development of the restoration,” she said. “I think that is a good thing because it’s vital to have stakeholder input throughout the process. Even the board made comments of that nature after approving the funds.

“On a similar note, it’s incredibly important to base the restoration on sound science, which is what these funds will develop. I’m glad to see that this has been an adaptive process – I’ve seen it evolve and change even in just the years that I have been immersed in the project,” Johnston continued.

“New information and data will allow the planning to adapt. For example, some of the rare species we’ve identified in the monitoring program have helped the development of the restoration planning.

“I’m looking forward to seeing where it will go in the future.”