The ecology of the Santa Monica Bay is in many aspects improving but in others becoming more dire, scientists said on Wednesday at the State of the Bay Conference.
“I think the take-home message is that the health of the bay has improved," said Tom Ford, executive director of The Bay Foundation. "The big expansive soft-bottom habitat that is Santa Monica Bay — we had a lot of contaminant issues in there. We had a lot of low dissolved oxygen. It was a very unhealthy place. That has reversed itself in the past 20 years due to a lot of people’s hard work across the board.”
Hundreds of scientists, academics and agency officials gathered at Loyola Marymount University on Wednesday for the conference, which occurs every five years and is typically timed to the release of the State of the Bay Report, a cross-discipline analysis of the bay's current and likely future conditions. Ford said the report's release has been delayed about a month because it involves a more robust and scientifically objective approach than has been taken in the past.
“We’re trying to take a more qualitative, analytical approach to understanding exactly what’s going on out there by monitoring across various disciplines in order to get a good, accurate picture of what’s happening with our local environment," Ford said.
“The analysis is going to be rigorous. I think it’s going to give us direct input as to what we should do differently in the future to continue to improve the quality of life for the inhabitants as well as the human beings here in our environment,” he said.
While soft-bottom portions of the bay have seen improvements, other areas have seen declines. Richard Ambrose, professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA, chaired the technical advisory committee for the report. He said habitat conditions often reflect the different types of human interaction with the environment.
Easily accessed rocky intertidal zones are negatively impacted by human trampling and collecting behaviors.
"If you're a scuba diver, and you're diving underwater, for the most part, you're not hurting anything when you're diving. But when you're going in the rocky intertidal, just by walking on the organisms, you're hurting them. And so just by going to that place, you hurt it," Ambrose said. "So that's one of the reason that's not doing as well."
Other areas that are seeing some improvements are wetlands, largely because of increased protections and significant restoration efforts.
Ambrose said the most significant threat to water quality is from non-point source pollution, runoff that comes from a variety of sources instead of a single one such as a waste treatment plant.
He said improvements can be made in that area, but improvements are less clear in other areas, especially those related to climate change.
“That’s the scariest one because I can see how we can solve the non-point source pollution problem. It takes coordination, it takes effort, it takes money, but technically I know we can solve it, and we can do it locally. Climate change — we can’t solve that locally. We’re doing things on the state level, but it’s going to take national and international activities. And in addition to that, we don’t understand the impacts very well, and we don’t yet really know what we can do about it.”
The Bay Foundation's Tom Ford said understanding the evolving role climate change could play in the bay was part of the reason for creating a more scientifically rigorous approach for the report.
“We’re looking at what are those processes that are changing, so it is the rate at which it’s getting warmer, the rate at which it’s rising. We knew it was getting warmer last time, we knew that the sea was rising last time, but now we’re getting better and more accurate information on how fast that’s happening," Ford said.