• The effort to renovate a natural area in South El Monte could get a big boost on Wednesday, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to release $3 million in funds for the project.
• The Whittier Narrows Nature Center has been the focus of debate for about a decade. Opponents of the project say that the scope of the project is too large and that it places too much emphasis on watershed education rather than on appreciating the nature that already exists at the space.
• Proponents say the space is under-utilized and that the expansion will make it a much-needed destination for science education.
Guadalupe Rodriguez was making big promises to her group of fifth graders on a recent Thursday at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center.
“By the end of the day, you guys will have an appreciation for birds, and you guys will love them, and you’ll be bird watching in your backyard,” Rodriguez said. “Trust me.”
Her students snapped pictures of the mockingbirds and hawks they saw while hiking along one of the center’s trails. Later, they would draw raptors and copy facts into field notebooks. At the end of the morning, they would perform a sketch for their classmates based on what they learned. Their classmates, in turn, would present sketches on the topics of household waste, pH testing and insects.
Rodriguez is an instructor in a program called Eco Voices, which runs every Thursday at the nature center. It’s the educational component of a $22 million renovation that includes plans to build a new 14,000 square-foot multi-purpose building on the site, as well as restore native habitat and install a wetland feature and a bio swale.
The renovation would create a state-of-the-art watershed education facility that would draw students from miles around to learn at the San Gabriel River Discovery Center. The facility would provide classrooms, exhibit space and laboratory areas where students could run longer-term experiments.
“The more we can get the community to understand how water impacts us everyday, what is actually happening during this drought period and where we get water from, the healthier it is for us in our community. I think there’s a strong need for us to understand water education,” said Mark Stanley, executive officer for the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority (SGRDCA).
The SGRDCA is a joint powers authority comprised of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (RMC), the Central Basin Municipal Water District and the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District.
Stanley, who is also the executive director for the RMC, said that the site is uniquely suited to educating community members about watersheds because of its location.
“We have an opportunity here to do some teaching about a watershed, and we have an ideal location that’s along the river, and we can provide that opportunity for education,” Stanley said.
The expanded facilities would allow the Eco Voices program to expand to more days and allow more students to visit the site. The increased visitation is expected to number between 80,000 and 100,000 people annually.
Stanley said that would be a better use of an area he said is under-utilized by the community.
"We have lots of communities that’s right around here, and yet, not many people travel to this location,” he said.
Some community members who do use the area oppose the project, because it would necessitate removing some natural areas in order to make way for the infrastructure needed to accommodate the higher load. Part of the project includes replacing the current parking lot, which has spaces for about 20 vehicles, with one large enough to hold more than a hundred.
Jim Odling, a member of Friends of the Whittier Narrows, said that the field where the parking lot would go is important habitat for native birds and insects. He said threatened species have been found to use areas nearby the proposed construction.
“Once you pave it and destroy it, you’re not going to have it back. So we believe protecting this, what we have, what little remains. This is the only stretch of undeveloped riparian area on the river until you get into the mountains,” Odling said.
Friends of the Whittier Narrows has submitted legal challenges to the project and multiple requests that the discovery center be located elsewhere. It has also submitted calls for a scaled-back version of the expansion that would improve existing structures at the natural area.
Odling said that he does not understand changing the focus of the site to providing education about watersheds at the cost of natural areas.
“The children should be come out in nature and find out what is there, and the more of it is still there, the more they can see. Parking lots and these artificial wetlands — which really aren’t wetlands, they’re ponds — are not the answer,” Odling said.
The expected release of $3 million by county supervisors at their meeting on Wednesday will allow construction to begin on initial projects, which include the parking lot but not the 14,000 square-foot structure.
Officials expect to begin construction of the early projects next summer and to be finished with the entire renovation by late 2018.
Stanley said that in total the construction projects will only affect about one percent of the Whittier Narrows and that the field slated for the parking lot has been overrun with non-native plants.
Indeed, invasive mustard is clearly visible throughout the field. However, a native red-tailed hawk was also spotted wheeling overhead.
“He’s hunting here, looking for rabbits,” said Ed Barajas, vice president of the Friends of the Whittier Narrows.