Southern California environment news and trends

Maybe it's a new project, but Ballona Wetlands restoration's already tense like an old project

Ballona Wetlands

Andres Aguila/KPCC

A pathway near the locked entrance to the Ballona Wetlands on Vista Del Mar.

The new deadline for public comment on the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Plan is October 23. That's the first thing I learned at the meeting in Marina del Rey this evening. 

The most interesting thing I learned at the Ballona Wetlands scoping meeting is that several overlapping groups of people who are emotionally invested in the area believe this restoration project is a breach of faith. 

In a letter, the Angeles chapter of the Airport Marina Regional Group says it's throwing its weight behind the completion of an earlier environmental impact statement for Ballona; one that got underway in 2005. For the club, Joe Young writes, "the position of the group is that the new Notice of Intent placed in the Federal Register on July 25, 2012 contradicts and duplicates the former EIS noticed in 2005.'" 

I looked up the federal register for September 20, 2005; here's the summary of project then:

SUMMARY: The Los Angeles District intends to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (EIS/EIR) to support a cost-shared ecosystem restoration feasibility study with the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. The proposed project study areas has been degraded by encroachment of non-native plants, placement of fill from Marina Del Rey, interruption of the hydrologic regime, trash accumulation, and varied attempts at bank protection along the creek using rock and concrete. Direct benefits of the proposed project include improved habitat and water quality, reductions in waste and trash, and aesthetics. The watershed is an important resource for both recreational uses and for fish, and wildlife and further  egradation could jeopardize remaining. The purpose of the feasibility study is to evaluate alternatives for channel modification, habitat restoration (coastal and freshwater wetlands and riparian), recreation, and related purposes along the lower reach of the Ballona Creek.

By way of comparison, here's the summary of the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project now:

SUMMARY: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) intend to jointly prepare a Draft Environmental Impact Statement/Environmental Impact Report (DEIS/EIR) for the proposed Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project. The proposed project is intended to return the daily ebb and flow of tidal waters, maintain freshwater circulation, and augment the physical and biological functions and services in the project area. Restoring the wetland functions and services would allow native wetland egetation to be reestablished, providing important habitat for a variety of wildlife species. As a restored site, the Ballona Wetlands would play an important role to provide seasonal habitat for migratory birds. A restored, optimally functioning wetland would also benefit the adjacent marine environment and enhance the quality of tidal waters.

TL; DR? The descriptions of restoration differ. The more recent one calls out ebb and flow of tidal waters, and freshwater circulation. The 2005 version talks about coastal wetlands, freshwater wetlands, and riparian habitat. This new version talks about wetland function and doesn't speak to riparian habitat. I understand why people objected to my characterization of the restoration plan as wide open and undecided; this second summary certainly seems more goal-oriented, with explicit descriptions of restoring wetland function. 

That project fact sheet indicates the old project stalled out at the third of nine planning stages the Corps uses; I think that means the last thing that happened was a feasibility scoping conference that screens preliminary options. The next thing that was supposed to happen was a bunch of project managers considering alternatives, if I'm understanding this right. 

At the same time, a third document I found on the Corps' LA district website suggests the new notice of intent supersedes the one 7 years ago. The original project provided for "cost sharing" between the Corps and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission; the latest version of this project does not. So I would guess they're not duplicative, as far as the government's concerned, since they're always concerned with who pays for what. 

I can't find a lot on what happens if an EIS is abandoned. I do see that the language of the original EIS authorizes and requests the Secretary of the Army to do work, which are very different verbs in Congress from "appropriate" as in "appropriate funds for completion of a project." Without money, I bet it's easier to abandon an environmental review without penalty...and start over, with values espoused by a local agency. 

Anyway, here's where it gets interesting. The Sierra Club's letter alleges that "the Secretary of the Army has stated in writing that the 2005 joint EIS/EIR process is not terminated and is therefore current." Really? I'm curious. I'll follow up. 

So many groups interested in the fate of the wetlands know each other, and know each other so intimately they just refer to each other by first name. One thing I'll be curious about is what happens when people who haven't had opinions for years and decades get involved. 

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