October 3, 2019 - From the October, 2019 issue

The Bay Foundation Director Tom Ford Advocates for National Estuary Program Funding

Facing persistent threats to federal funding, leaders of National Estuary Programs (NEPs) across the US were invited to speak before the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on Water, Resources, and the Environment to highlight the incredible success and leveraging power that US EPA funding brings to coastal communities and ecosystems. With the mission to protect and restore Santa Monica Bay and its adjacent waters, The Bay Foundation's Executive Director and Santa Monica Bay NEP Director, Tom Ford, spoke to TPR on the progress being made to address some of the challenges wrought by climate change and the ripple effect that such success can have when shared.

Tom Ford

"This is a fairly small financial investment by the federal government to make sure that the researchers, resource managers, and municipalities have a constructive venue in which to meet, share ideas and advance planning."—Tom Ford

Earlier this summer, you were invited to Washington to provide testimony before the US House Subcommittee on Water, Resources, and the Environment on proposed cuts to the National Estuary Programs of the USEPA. What was the thrust of hearing, your testimony? And, who testified alongside you?

Tom Ford: A group of leaders from across the country were invited to share our perspectives on the value of the National Estuary Program and how appropriate and necessary federal investment is for us to protect, preserve, and promote these water systems. I was joined by Wisconsin Natural Resources Secretary Preston D. Cole, chair of the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority Governing Board and San Mateo County Supervisor, Dave Pine, Puget Sound Partnership Executive Director Laura Blackmore, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, William C. Baker, and Executive Director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation Kristi Trail who gave testimony on the impacts and importance of NEP program funding and the relevance of NEP activities to their respective organizations.

To provide our readers a clearer understanding of why you were invited to testify, share with us the mission of the Bay Foundation and your work as its regional director in Southern California.

The Bay Foundation’s mission is to protect and restore Santa Monica Bay and its adjacent waters. The vehicle that we use to do much of that is through the National Estuary Program model. There are 28 national estuary programs around the country where local, state, and federal agencies, municipalities, and general public stakeholders—all of which are looking to preserve public health— convene to make sure the water is clean and is supporting healthy and robust ecosystems, economies, and wildlife.  

For us, what that cooks down to is keeping a really strong eye on water quality, looking at opportunities to undo some of the damages and harms of the past, while our foresightful work hopefully has us identifying up and coming stressors associated, in this case, quite specifically with climate change, but also contaminants of emerging concern. It’s a very dynamic place to work. I find it tremendously rewarding, yet tremendously challenging as well.

With respect to the National Estuary Program, what would cuts proposed by the Administration mean for your work and for the others who testified on behalf of their programs?

I think what came out of the testimony, generally, was the understanding that the model we operate under has shown a tremendous amount of success over many decades— not just speaking for the Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program or The Bay Foundation from a Los Angeles focus, but around the country. Our programs have been held flat or under threat of cuts for many years under this administration and others before it. In addition, NEPs have proven very capable of leveraging their federal funding with other sources 19 to 1 since the program’s inception. The Santa Monica Bay NEP exceeded that value over the past 5 years at 29 to 1; these numbers have always helped us create interest for continued federal support.

Despite this, I really think the NEP model is one of the best things since sliced bread. Millions of people depend on us. Forty percent of the population of the country resides within our various management areas. This is just really smart spending. The products, outputs, and deliverables that we’re able to manifest in these partnerships are really second to none. So that’s what I think the drumbeat was from my perspective, and I think we were successful in getting that across to the committee members.

How unique are Santa Monica Bay’s water quality and healthy eco-system challenges compared with the other programs representedtheChesapeake Bay Foundation,San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, and Puget Sound Partnership?

The big difference is that we have this large, urban infrastructure right here up against the coastline, which is somewhat distinctive compared to many of the other programs. Although the programs that we have in San Francisco Bay, New York, and New Jersey also deal with similar issues, what I find to be quite different for us is that there’s been so much progress in the LA area that we are starting to see the reversal of a lot of the historic issues that we’ve struggled with. Meanwhile, other programs that are more remote, but are urbanizing, are starting to see what we experienced 35 to 40 years ago. Santa Monica Bay can serve a bit as a bellwether. We’ve already addressed many of these problems, so we have some perspective on different strategies that work. Hopefully, some of the techniques and approaches we’ve developed will serve other cities well. 

The challenge that we often have in this situation is neither enough time nor resources to dedicate to communicating as much as we’d like, so we rely on conferences and symposia to help get the information out. 

Should the proposed EPA budget cuts to NEP be adopted by Congress and the President, what would be the impact on the Bay Foundation’s work?

At this point if they were to go through, we would not be able to sustain the same amount of work. Those funds usually account for somewhere between 25 to 30 percent of our operating budget, and there are instances where that money solely funds our efforts, meaning that we’ve not secured other funds to conduct that work. Therefore, we could lose entire programs or projects in addition to losing general capacity. It’s a very serious issue for us. 

The exciting thing I can report is that as the rhetoric about shutting this program down heightened, there was a proportional response from the US House of Representatives. There is now an Estuary Caucus within the house so that the members can find a place to come together and exchange their concerns and thoughts about the importance of estuaries. Interestingly, the leaders of that caucus since it formed have been Republican members from Florida and New Jersey. 

Could you comment or respond to the arguments made by some, including the Manhattan Institute, that federal funding of programs like the estuary program are a drain on the economy and a waste of public resources?

If we look at the economies that are associated with our coastal areas and these estuaries, they are vast and in the billions. This is a fairly small financial investment by the federal government to make sure that the researchers, resource managers, and municipalities have a constructive venue in which to meet, share ideas and advance planning. If we reflect on Measure W alone— and see what that investment looks like for the county of Los Angeles— much of the push for that was water sustainability and preserving public health and the coastal economy. I can’t imagine Los Angeles without a beach, whether it’s a beach you can’t access because you’re concerned that you may get sick if you visit, or it’s a beach that’s physically gone because of climate change and we didn’t respond appropriately. 

If the federal government isn’t spending their funds in this way, I don’t know a better place for them to be spending them in our region.


With respect to Santa Monica Bay’s needs, how have local funding sources — like Measure W— been leveraged to support the work you’re engaged with in Santa Monica Bay? 

It’s not just Measure W, but also Measure A, which passed to fund parks. In both cases, we’re looking at landmark investment in recognizing the liabilities of the construction of Los Angeles. For us to sustain the quality of life that we’ve come to expect as Angelenos—if not improve the quality of life for Angelenos—this influx of cash will help us transform the landscape and make it water friendly. We need to get the water back into the ground—where much of it should have been going over the past 80 years—to give us a chance to deal with water scarcity and begin to understand that we’re never going to be able to draw enough water from distant places to satisfy our thirst. However, I’m very encouraged. It’s been an interesting way to get a number of different agencies talking to one another to put together an integrated plan. Congratulations to the voters for seeing that and supporting those measures. 

In a 2016 interview with us, you shared your organization’s intentions to pivot its focus toward tackling the challenges of climate change—specifically sea level rise. Has there been such a pivot? 

We’ve made some discernable pivots since we spoke three years ago. For example, in that time, we constructed a pilot project on the beach in Santa Monica using native vegetation that not only aesthetically improves the beach but also helps restore the shoreline. What we’ve seen is that the beach there has grown three feet vertically, which indicates that now we can accommodate some sea level rise with a beach that has grown in elevation. The various agencies with management responsibilities along the LA coastline have seen this project, and we’re now engaged with three others, which would potentially be placed in Manhattan Beach off of Dockweiler and up in Malibu. Other state agencies with even broader responsibilities are looking at these projects as a model for moving forward. That is one thing I can point to on a map. 

We’ve also made some good advancement in understanding ocean chemistry and biochemical interactions in the ocean associated with ocean acidification, which we need to get our head around a whole lot more. We’re still collecting data there, but weren’t collecting those data some years ago.

Address the national and global value of the Bay Foundation work, which focuses on assuring coastal management practices are well informed and appropriate.

What drives me on this is that climate change manifests globally. The impacts on the coast of California are not strictly limited to a local source, but they are now coming from the entire globe. Regardless of that, the only way we’re going to respond to these challenges successfully is by working on the regional and local scale. The Bay Foundation, the Natural Estuary Program, the Coastal Research Institute, and our many partners are inherently designed to work on that scale. We’re going to find solutions that work for California, that work for Southern California, that work for Hermosa Beach and down to that scale, because that’s what’s going to be a success. When we nest that properly in science, and  within the resource management spectrum, we can make sure that those successful lessons ripple out and are beneficial to folks up and down the coast.

Mark Gold of the California Ocean Protection Council, in a recent interview with us, emphasized the value of research collaboration in harnessing the state’s diverse coastal challenges. How might the Ocean Protection Council investments best leverage the Bay Foundation’s current and future work and research? 

The Ocean Protection Council sits at a nexus of policy and research: identifying research needs, trying to find funding to support them, and then using those findings to influence the state’s policies. We are a microcosm of that here in the Los Angeles region. We’ve been long supported by our technical advisory committee, which draws from academics and research scientists throughout California. Additionally, in recognition of our need for more data from Santa Monica Bay and its watersheds, we launched the Coastal Research Institute with the College of Science and Engineering at Loyola Marymount University two years ago.

We’re growing very rapidly here, conducting a lot of very meaningful and applied research, and sharing those results nationally with the other National Estuary Programs I mentioned earlier. We’re a believer in that pathway, and we’re doing our best to provide these results to the  Ocean Protection Council supporting their efforts in Sacramento. 

Before closing, elaborate on the other work you’re doing at the Bay Foundation that is less noticed by Congressmembers, but should be equally understood and appreciated by our readers. 

We work a fair amount in the ocean— under the surface where the results of our work are not visible to most, for example—restoring and researching the rocky reefs, and kelp forests or developing methods to restore abalone. A number of our projects, like the beach project, are visible, but the endangered species that will inhabit those areas temporarily might not be. The same could be said for the benefits of our work with Malibu Lagoon, where a number of endangered fish species that folks would not see by just walking by or visiting the site—are all manifested in our work. The other part is the community of people that we support by creating jobs and opportunities. For commercial fisherman, that means finding ways to keep our working waterfronts and working families along our coast viable. There’s a lot there that doesn’t rise to the surface or make it into the reports that I’m especially proud of.  

By VerdeXchange’s VX2020, what do you hope for, in lieu of action at the federal, state, and local level, that would advance the Bay Foundation’s research and initiatives?

We need to continue to look bravely into the future to understand what those challenges look like from a climate change standpoint. Pilot projects, demonstration projects, and—in cases where we’ve got better resolution—starting to invest in infrastructure now while it’s still more affordable, and we’re not in an emergency-response situation. This is the frame I’m trying to create for our local, state, and federal agency partners and the municipalities that those folks represent and serve.



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