Ballona Wetlands restoration project officials have presented the first update of the project since it was shut down the week before Christmas due to the California budget crisis.
The dual presentation was made to the Marina Affairs Committee — an LAX Coastal Area Chamber of Commerce committee — on Wednesday, May 20th at Tony P’s restaurant in Marina del Rey.
Mary Small, the Southern California regional manager of the California Coastal Conservancy, and Rick Mayfield of the California Department of Fish and Game, the ecological reserve manager of the restoration project, discussed the revised alternatives for long-term restoration, the Early Action plan for public access behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey, and other issues related to the restoration.
STATE BUDGET CRISIS
One impact of the state budget crisis is that Mayfield’s position will be eliminated on July 1st due to financial constraints.
Saying it wasn’t about him but about the position of oversight of the project, Mayfield suggested that if anyone had legislative contacts or could contact Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask that the position continue to be funded to maintain a presence in the project, it would be appreciated.
Small concurred, saying that Mayfield deals with the numerous issues and details of the position, as well as providing site management, and his departure would be a major loss, severely hampering the project.
Minimal oversight of the project would then be provided by a San Diego office of Fish and Game, without the time to become closely involved, Mayfield said.
Small said that Fish and Game owns most of the wetland property, with the exception of the Freshwater Marsh area and the area south, which is owned by the California State Lands Commission. Fish and Game also manages all of the properties.
Small said that the week before Christmas, a memo from Schwarzenegger’s office stated that bills would no longer be paid out of any bond funds. Proposition 12 provided the bond funding for the purchase of the Ballona Wetlands and the long-term restoration.
All projects came to a screeching halt, said Small, and many people were laid off immediately. All projects were essentially frozen and the State of California was unable to sell any bonds because of both California’s and the global economic crisis, she said.
Small said that in April, California was able to sell some bonds, and Schwarzenegger said funds would be unfrozen, but the Coastal Conservancy is still waiting to see how much money it would have because the bonds that were sold had more constraints on funding and more paperwork is involved.
All of the bills that were owed by the Coastal Conservancy up until all the projects were frozen still need to be repaid before spending on new work can be done. Small said they are waiting for the State Treasury Department to sort out what needs to be paid before they can go ahead with anything.
It was devastating to be only two weeks away from finishing a “large chunk” of the work, said Small, who noted that working for the state means that funding comes with certain deadlines, one of which is getting the environmental impact statement/report (EIR/EIS) done, which must be executed before June 30th.
She has funding to release a Request for Services, which has been done, to consulting companies for submission of their proposals to conduct the EIR/EIS and the permitting work for the restoration. Selection of a company to do the work will be completed over the next month and a half, putting a contract in place to be ready when Small gets the approval.
PROJECT UPDATE FROM 2008 —
Small was asked to discuss when she and Mayfield attended this meeting last year to discuss the Ballona restoration project.
She said that after the meeting last year, a design charrette process had been set up for the public to provide input on a broad range of alternatives, which ranged from doing very little to taking down levees and restoring as much as possible, and consideration of ecological and technical feasibilities.
From that long public process came the revisions to the two alternatives that are now being presented, she said. That engendered the rumor that “the bulldozers and massive changes are coming,” Small said.
“We have not yet gone through the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) or the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process yet, both of which require a ‘do nothing’ alternative,” said Small and Mayfield.
EIR TIMEFRAME AND
“Community members have expressed concern, saying, ‘you haven’t looked at this or that process,’” said Small.
“My answer is that this is what we’ll look for in the EIR. That’s what this process is for.”
If funding is made available, the EIR will begin to go forward this summer, and it’s expected to take 18 months, assuming there are no more financial disruptions, Small said.
In addition to the “do nothing” alternative, the second alternative, 4, would add a few additional connections from Ballona Creek to the south to bring more water into the southern part and create some wetlands there.
Area C, east of Lincoln Boulevard and north of the creek, would remain the same.
In Area A — between Fiji Way and Ballona Creek — the project would look at creating culvert connections under Fiji Way into the Marina, and creating a subtidal basin in Area A, grading upward so that the wetlands are behind it, said Small.
The culvert located at Dock 52 on Fiji Way would remain, adding to the west. Small said they are talking with Beaches and Harbors about the placement of the culverts.
The third alternative, 5, creates wetlands by moving back the levees of the creek, west of the bridges, pulling the levees back, and allowing Ballona Creek to move back and forth across the site.
The strongest concerns voiced by the public and the Science Advisory Committee — and considered more feasible due to cost considerations— were regarding Area C where the Little League baseball fields are and on the other side of Culver Boulevard. That area would remain mostly upland habitat, said Small.
Mayfield said that the Science Advisory Committee was asked to provide the alternatives based on “no real world constraints like money or infrastructure.”
Once that recommendation was made, we heard “the bulldozers are coming, and we are so far away from doing anything, that just doesn’t apply” said Mayfield.
He said that they have been meeting with state and county agencies on the potential involvement with infrastructures. This was taken into consideration when redoing the alternatives and they were two weeks away when the project was halted.
The whole purpose of the feasibility study is to look at a broad range and then narrow it down. There is a pretty strong consensus from the Science Advisory Committee and these agencies about looking at these options (revised alternatives) of connecting the creek or creating subtidal connections to the Marina, said Small.
Public input is very polarized, indicating either do nothing or do a lot, Mayfield said.
EARLY ACTION PLAN AND PARKING IN PLAYA DEL REY—
On a long-term basis, it was decided a year ago that the project needed to look at early action issues on site, such as improvements that make sense regardless of what happens long-term, said Small.
There are two areas — Fiji Way close to the creek and the lot behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey — that are in the Early Action plan, said Mayfield.
The lot behind Gordon’s market will be the primary entrance, with creation of a public trail access. A lot of progress had been made, a contractor had been selected, and Mayfield said they were a couple of weeks from the start when the project was stopped.
The lot is not “particularly nice; it is muddy during rain, and has a number of homeless individuals living there, some in their cars,” he said. Many complaints have been received because “tens of thousands of schoolchildren are brought in to visit the wetlands and they have to pass by these homeless people,” Mayfield said.
Redoing the parking lot is a priority, and Mayfield said he would like to open the wooden viewing platform to the general public.
Mayfield told The Argonaut that the dirt lot behind the Matilla Center, Gordon’s Market and down to the Inn at Playa del Rey has never been public parking, and a “blind eye” has been turned over the years.
It is Fish and Game property and now has “No Parking/No Trespassing” signs posted on it. Mayfield said he has warned local businesses, but that they have ignored his requests.
“We now have to reopen bids for a contractor because there was a 30-day deadline that has expired,” he said.
Mayfield said, “I decided to do stuff on my own. I received $80,000 from the district attorney in a settlement with an oil company in Los Angeles to use the funds here.”
“I took the money and am trying to do $300,000 worth of government work. Volunteers like the LA Conservation Corps and Friends of Ballona and others are helping get things done,” he said.
Mayfield said he plans to create the entryway to the wetlands off the parking lot, purchase two shed-like 12-by-40-foot buildings, get bids on fencing, implement native plants, pathways, an interpretive area and a drip system. The LA Conservation Corps will help with construction.
Dr. Edith Read, manager of the Freshwater Marsh, is donating her time as a botanist to do plant surveys, Dan Cooper will perform a bird survey, and Mayfield will provide a mammal and herpetology survey, all necessary procedures to apply for a coastal development permit, Mayfield said.
AUDIENCE QUESTIONS —
When taking questions from the audience, Mayfield said that the area east of Lincoln Boulevard, at the southwest corner of State Route 90, is part of the long-term restoration and it would become improved upland habitat.
Mayfield said he has written a letter of authorization that enables the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) to work on these areas where the homeless are living and dirt bikers congregate, allowing the police to enforce city, county and state laws. The letter is being reviewed by the Los Angeles city attorney before it goes to the LAPD.
Lt. Reggie Gautt, the Harbor Master for the Marina del Rey Sheriff’s Station, said his department would respond to emergencies such as fires or shootings, if necessary, even though some of the areas are not in department jurisdiction. Dirt bikers will also be strongly investigated, he said.
One audience member asked for an update on the black tarp that had been placed for some time off Culver Boulevard to dry out ice plants.
Mayfield said that while he had been accused of genocide on TV and in the newspapers for killing snakes and lizards and other creatures, the reality is that it creates the perfect environment with higher humidity. He noted that the snakes and lizards were not trapped under the tarp and the ice plant is gone.
Another question was about the public wanting to know what types of birds, wildlife and other species exist in the wetlands, asking if a biologist will be doing an inventory.
Mayfield said a biologist had been hired to do the inventory when the money freeze occurred.
The audience member also asked if photos of the various species could be provided online to educate the public, and said it was necessary for the EIR as well.
Small said some quality photos had been taken by Jonathan Coffin, although Mayfield interjected, alleging they were taken illegally because Coffin didn’t have permission to access the property.
The most important next step is to do the baseline data collection, Small said.
The current status of the wetlands is that it is a somewhat degraded system, Mayfield said. Some of the public is so protective, saying to just leave it alone and it will heal itself, he said.
“The reality is that weeds will spread, other systems will have tidal exchange, and it will not support as many species as it could,” he said.
Mayfield responded to a question about a sidewalk being constructed on Fiji Way across from Fisherman’s Village, saying that Beaches and Harbors has the funding to widen Fiji Way and create a bike path, but the funding is only for roadway work, and does not include a sidewalk. Regarding parking on Fiji Way, Mayfield said that both parking lots used by the Marina Sheriff’s Department and Beaches and Harbors are owned by Fish and Game, and leased by the agencies.
Beaches and Harbors has decided to change the form of the lease to a memorandum of understanding, and in lieu of money, Beaches and Harbors would provide enforcement for a parking lot created by Fish and Game.
Mayfield said that part of that property where yellow bollards have been placed has a trailer used by Fish and Game and staffed by volunteers. The other end of the property is for Fish and Game use only.
Mayfield said individuals can contribute to the Ballona Restoration Project fund by accessing the California Wildlife Foundation’s Web site,
Information on the Ballona Restoration project, go to “Programs and Projects” and click on “Habitat Restoration Projects,” then click on “Ballona Wetlands Restoration,”