Friday, February 20, 2009

State's scary plan for Ballona is not set in stone

The Ballona Restoration Plan is still "a work in progress"

by Rex Frankel

2/20/2009--I had the pleasure to meet on Feb. 17th with Dr. Shelley Luce, who is executive director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. She served on the Science Advisory Panel for the Ballona Wetlands restoration project and is one of two local public employees along with Sean Bergquist that are based here and who work extensively on the restoration of our 600 acre Ballona Wetlands State Preserve. The Commission's offices are at Loyola Marymount University located on the bluffs in Westchester, as opposed to the State agency overseeing the show, the Coastal Conservancy, which is based in Oakland.

I met with Dr. Luce to explain my organization's objections to the State plan unveiled last September that would have dredged out nearly the entire 600 acres and converted it into mostly open water, as opposed to the current delicate mix of three habitat zones and hiking trails.

What had seemed like a project on the fast train has been slowed way down by the State's budget crisis, but also by the community's response to the mega-dredging plan. Last month, Dr. Luce unveiled a new plan that preserved more of the higher elevation habitat, the upland/grassland/sagebrush area, especially the zone east of Lincoln Blvd.

There was "definitely a consensus that more uplands were needed", she told me. In response to the concerns of many that the State had unilaterally made a final decision, Luce said that even the latest plan unveiled last month is still "a work in progress". In fact, while it may not have been communicated clearly to us last September, Dr. Luce says that it was always the State's intention that the plans were going to be modified after further review by the public.

We both agreed that the public meetings to involve the community back into the planning process need to resume. I see the end of local public meetings as when the whole process went awry. During 2007 and 2008, these meetings which were originally every 1 or 2 months soon became every six months. The Science Advisory Committee which ultimately made their final decision last September to endorse the mega-dredging plan had several 7 hour meetings in Costa Mesa, 30 miles away, and public comment was limited to the end of these long meetings. Whether this was intentional or due to budget cuts, the outcome didn't make any longtime Ballona activists happy.

We had a long talk about sources of water for the restoration, whether from the ocean or from the ocean and Ballona Creek. I suggested that we need a "modular" approach to planning the restoration, since it may be many years before the urban street runoff pollution in Ballona Creek is cleaned-up, and therefore, any plan that includes breaching the levees and letting the Creek back into the rest of the wetlands could have the negative effect of polluting the wetlands. That's why I favor bringing water back into the wetlands directly from the ocean. If someday we can clean up Ballona Creek than we can re-connect the creek and the wetlands. But basing the future of our wetland preserve on some other project that may or may not also happen could make us wait many years until anything changes at Ballona. Now, while some locals would rather that nothing changes at the wetlands unless it is done by hand or with shovels, (a position that is equally justifiable) I could support bringing some more water into our wetlands.

In response to the calls of many, especially local Ballona wildlife tracker/photographer Jonathon Coffin, Luce agreed that "What is missing is a comprehensive survey of what is on the land".

I agree with the calls of many that there is no rush to restore our Ballona wetlands. The maxim of "do no harm" needs to be followed here. We need to restore Ballona solely for what is best for all the wildlife of Ballona and all the respectful users of this land.

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