April 14, 2016 - From the April, 2016 issue

Bay Foundation Successfully Addressing Troubled Coastal Waters

With Tom Ford at the helm of The Bay Foundation, Los Angeles has made great progress in restoring its coastal ecosystemsprogress that Ford argues could benefit the urban population as much as the environment. Forda longtime researcher and advocate of the Santa Monica Bayexplains how wastewater emptying into it could instead become a resource, as well as updating TPR on efforts to restore the Ballona Wetlands. He also notes the Foundation's shift in focus in the face of climate change.


Tom Ford

"We are pivoting strongly toward making sure the changes that we’ve helped implement here in LA will be appropriate and stand the test of time in the face of climate change.” -Tom Ford

You recently wrote an opinion piece in the LA Times with the headline: “Our coastal waters are in trouble. Here’s how we can help save them and fight the drought.” Does the headline offer insight into your priorities at The Bay Foundation?

Tom Ford: We are stridently working to eliminate sources of pollution and impacts to our coastal waters, as well as trying to increase the habitat values and socioeconomic benefits that Santa Monica Bay represents.

In this case, the cause of concern is the wastewater plume coming out of our largest sewage treatment plant, which is roughly 225 million gallons a day of water. While we’re transforming the landscape and conserving water left and right to adapt to the drought, why shouldn’t we benefit the bay, eliminate this stressor, and get that water back in the ground, where it becomes a resource rather than a waste product? That was the idea I was trying to key up in the piece. 

Are your priorities for Santa Monica Bay aligned with those of the public agencies in metropolitan LA responsible for storm and wastewater?

Yes. I see a very willing acceptance from the agencies to decamp out of their siloes and understand that water resources are water resources regardless of their current state. They are recognizing that, with the application of technology, smart thinking, and planning, waste currently being discharged into the bay is actually a very valuable, if not irreplaceable, resource that needs to be preserved. There’s a tremendous amount of will to move this forward. There are even some bills floating around in the State Assembly right now that would catalyze this growing movement and interest by doing away with ocean discharges in their entirety. 

Let’s take a half-step back. Please share with our readers a brief description of the central mission and goals of The Bay Foundation and its affiliates.

It is our mission to protect the benefits and values of Santa Monica Bay and its watershed, which spans roughly from the LA County line down toward San Pedro and all the way through the center of the city, as well as its coastal communities. We are active in research, funding, project management, and implementation that span everything from our local streams, to our wetlands, to our coastal lagoons, to our beaches, and even off the coasts onto our rocky reefs, where we’re working hard to put back the kelp forests.            

The Bay Foundation itself is a 501(c)3 environmental non-profit. It happens to be part of a public-private partnership with both the United States EPA and the California State Water Resources Control Board. We are pulling from all of those various state and federal agencies, as well as our non-profit, to bring this unique combination and approach to bear on what is obviously an iconic section of the world’s coast.

In January of this year, your organization issued a “State of the Bay” report for 2015. What were its key findings?

We found that efforts over the past two decades have paid off to improve the quality of wastewater discharged from those sewage treatment plants. Improvements are tangible, and we can see them through a diverse suite of monitoring. We also saw that the storm-water policies and protective actions up and down the coast are providing cleaner, healthier beaches, so that we can go in without any fear about public health most of the time.

We’ve also learned that in the places where we have conducted good, smart research, working with proactive, applied scientists, we’ve restored habitats and those habitats are thriving.

The report was very positive. It identified a few more things that we’ve certainly got to work on, but it highlighted the fact that when we’ve worked smartly and dedicatedly over the course of decades, with the investment of billions of dollars, it’s truly paying off.

It’s abundantly clear that you’re not resting on your laurels. Tell us what issue you’ve pivoted toward for 2016.

We are pivoting strongly toward making sure the changes that we’ve helped implement here in LA will be appropriate and stand the test of time in the face of climate change. For us along coastal Los Angeles, that looks like sea-level rise.

Increased storminess will mean that the intensity of the wave energy that’s coming in from the Pacific is expected to increase. We need to start getting prepared. We are going to do an entire analysis of our projects and approaches to this landscape, which is a multi-decadal  plan. Over the next two years, we expect to finalize that. It should shine some light on a reprioritization of our existing interests. 

It appears The Bay Foundation also has started to focus on the nutrient loading into the bay. Could you comment?

Nutrient loading was always part of the story, but it seemed like a lesser evil compared to the wildlife and public health impacts from toxins and bacteria. We thought we would get to the nutrients when we could.

We’ve learned, through a growing body of knowledge and science, that nutrient loading in these coastal waters seems to be doubling down on what are otherwise climate-change, CO2-driven processes resulting in ocean acidification.

We have ocean acidification in our open ocean systems. Coastal ocean acidification seems to be a combination of nutrient inputs and this other driver. We now need to inform ourselves about getting rid of those nutrients, to understand those impacts. I think we can effectively eliminate those nutrients from these outfalls if we start to treat outfalls as sources rather than as end products, as I mentioned earlier.

You speak about the need to “turn the pipe around” regarding discharge into the bay. Explain.

I’m not sure engineers would agree that we have to build a giant “U,” but I chose that metaphor to get people to understand that a 12-foot-diameter pipe discharging water five miles off of our coast is not where we’ll be in the future. We can take waters that would be conveyed through that pipe, turn them around, run them back uphill, treat them with off-the-shelf technologies that are well understood, and provide a secure, safe, and sustainable water supply for Los Angeles. Most likely, those waters would be placed up in the San Fernando Valley and in the Central Water Basin to the south and east of Downtown.

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Over the years, many have lauded Orange County’s wastewater treatment regime. How is it that the Republicans in Orange County have done a better job of this than the Democrats in Los Angeles County?

It’s a blemish that we need to remove. Aside from the fact that they’ve technically gotten it done—that they’ve implemented it and everything’s working great—they have shown us that wastewater treatment is far cheaper than a lot of other approaches to diversifying our water-supply portfolio. Mainly I’m pointing at desalination. Recycling our wastewater streams requires all the same practices that we would put in place were we to do open-ocean desalination: putting water through ozonation, chlorination, and reverse osmosis. We don’t need to do desalination, since we can do those processes more cheaply and effectively with our wastewater stream. 

Let’s shift attention to the Ballona Wetlands restoration project. Could you comment on progress being made on the EIR? 

There’s a tremendous amount of progress being made in preparing that draft EIR. It will be out this summer. I don’t think anyone’s more excited to see it hit the street than my staff and I are.

Ballona has a unique position in Los Angeles’s future: it’s a 600-acre expanse smack dab in the middle of the Westside that’s going to provide public health benefits through green space and recreation. It will put a serious dent in the more-than-95-percent loss of coastal wetlands that our county has experienced over the past 100 years. It’s a landmark opportunity to put back a lost landscape that will serve millions of people and untold numbers of species.

The Annenberg Foundation, which manages the Ballona preserve, ceased funding in 2014 for its portion of the project. Who, if anyone, has stepped in fund your work?

The Annenberg Foundation had narrow interest in the Ballona Wetlands, mainly in enabling public access and creating an interpretive center that would have allowed the public to view what the wetlands would be like as they recover. They were never the prime mover, or the major funder, of Ballona activities.

The folks that deserve the credit for putting their money up to push the ball forward are: the State Coastal Conservancy, which has invested its funds to inform the draft EIR and handle the consultants who produce the documents; ourselves at The Bay Foundation, who have produced a great deal of science; and the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is the landholder and eventually will be the party responsible for what happens in Ballona. 

Moving to policy and politics, science often seems today to be a political issue. Elaborate on the science, and the value of that science, that has gone into The Bay Foundation’s work around Ballona Wetlands. 

We have published and made publicly available all of the reports that are a result of that work (ballonarestoration.org).

Through the science we have conducted, we now understand the condition of the soils there. We understand the condition of the animal communities, from worms and snails to mammals, birds, snakes, amphibians, fishes, and insects. All of those have been categorized in a fairly uniform and nearly comprehensive manner. The vegetation has been mapped through and through. We’ve looked at the hydrology—how the water is moving through the system now, and how it once moved through the system long before 10 million of us showed up in the Basin. I think we have a very accurate picture of what was there and what is there now. All of this informs our plan to revitalize this landscape, so that it works for all of us in the future.

How is Ballona Wetlands’ planning evolving as science informs the process?

As the chapters of the draft EIR are formed, we look at impacts to the landscape that would occur with any of the alternatives for restoring Ballona.

Perhaps the most poignant one was understanding the placement of the fill on the Ballona Wetlands, which was essentially the result of channel excavation in Marina Del Rey. 3.1 million cubic yards of sediment were pulled out of those basins, and the majority of it landed right on top of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. The original wetlands, at sea level or below, are now buried in 15-20 feet of sediment. To visualize that, if I built a 3x3x3-foot wall from that material, it would run from Ballona all the way into the panhandle of Florida. That’s the amount of the excess sediment that is the biggest barrier to recovering the landscape.

Before we close, please share what kelp has to do with your current work. 

The giant kelp community off of our coast is the most diverse kelp forest known to science. It has historically supported so many of the cultural aspects that we associate with life down on the beach in LA—from collecting abalone (now a generation and a half behind us), to the diverse fisheries that used to exist here but have been impacted by years without good science or management.

When I found these kelp forests as a slightly younger man, their characteristics fascinated me—both how people interacted with them and their inherent ecology. I saw that we had lost upward of 75 percent of them. I said, “What’s anybody doing to fix this?” Folks said, “Maybe you should get started, kid.” So I did.

Over the years, we’ve been able to generate a wonderful series of partners, including commercial fishermen, federal and state biologists, and teams of volunteers who are helping us put the kelp forest where it was historically. It’s been wildly successful. After 25 years of scuba diving, I still get excited every day I get a chance to step on my boat and jump down into the water. It’s such a magical world to be a part of. 

Tom, if we have an opportunity to speak with you a year from now, what will be your priorities?

I hope that a year from now, we’ll be talking about the plan moving forward for how we’ll approach the restoration of the Ballona Wetlands. We’ll have another year of data that describes the progress made in restoring the Malibu Lagoon. Lastly, I hope we’ll be reestablishing dunes on our beaches.  Dunes are a cost effective and natural solution to sea-level rise that will protect our coast and benefit wildlife.  Those items are on the top of our docket moving forward into the next year.

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.