Thursday, July 30, 2009

Join us Saturday at Whittier Narrows Lakes Area

The Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area will be in the Lakes Area--what I usually call Legg Lake--on Saturday for the Experience Whittier Narrows event.

The event is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The folks from the Sierra Club's Montebello Hills campaign will have a booth there too.

The Visioning Whittier Narrows website states the event "will share preliminary ideas about recreational opportunities, optimized use of water resources, reconnection of communities to the natural environment and native habitat restoration."

The event is tied to a planned revision of the Whittier Narrows Master Plan. You can read more about all of this here.

We plan to have puppets and face painting at the Friends booth, so bring the kids along.

See you Saturday!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

'Things are not as they teach us'

I took a tour today of Los Angeles' Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve.

Partly I looked forward to seeing something new, partly I wanted to compare the Whittier Narrows Natural Area to another wildlife area in Southern California.

I and a couple of other people from the campaign were led on our tour by members of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Committee. The three of us were impressed by the abundance of wildlife, especially birds, we encountered this afternoon.

All three of us are members of the Audubon Society, and as we stopped time and again to view egrets, cormorants, herons, cooper's hawks and ospreys, one of our hosts gently reminded us that we weren't there to "add to our lists" but to tour the reserve.

The comment elicited laughs and smiles.

In the comparison between the Natural Area and the reserve, two things struck me.

First, the reserve showed far better maintenance and far more extensive restoration. This difference must certainly be attributable to the wildlife committee's two decades of work. It must also be attributable to the difference between city funding and county funding for parks and recreation.

Second, the reserve has far less infrastructure than that proposed for the Natural Area in the San Gabriel River Discovery Center project. A parking lot, a storage building, a restroom facility and a small amphitheater (pictured at right)--that's all there is at the reserve.

No $30 million 18,000-square-foot watershed education and conference center. No 150-seat multipurpose meeting room. No artificial wetland to capture runoff from all the other structures. Just lots of restored habitat and wildlife.

And yet even without a discovery center, Los Angeles Audubon, San Fernando Valley Audubon and other groups seem to offer a rich calendar of programs for families, student groups and others at the wildlife reserve.

When I reflect on the story the Discovery Center Authority has created, telling us that environmental education and conservation depend on the discovery center being built, well, it makes me angry.

Effective environmental education probably depends on a lot of things. Access to the outdoors, firsthand experiences of nature, and dedicated professional and volunteer educators are among them.

Construction of a conference center for bureaucrats and water officials is not.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Double charges for discovery center environmental review? USACE releases environmental assessment

I'm certain many of us have had the experience of seeing mystery charges on some of our bills. Well, something similar may be going on with the San Gabriel River Discovery Center.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released its environmental assessment on the discovery center.

Wait, you say, how does this differ from the draft environmental impact report?

Why weren't these two environmental documents rolled into one?

Excellent questions.

USACE owns most of the land that would be used for the discovery center project. But in a situation such as we have here, it is common practice to create a single environmental document rather than have every agency produce its own. Saves the taxpayer money.

Not only were two separate but similar documents produced at significant taxpayer expense--but both were written by the same consultant: EDAW, Inc. EDAW certainly hit the jackpot with the discovery center.

Remember, folks: its YOUR money.

The public review period for the EA ends Aug. 20.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lincoln on the importance of public opinion

Public opinion matters.

I'm modifying my statement of a few days ago. A bit of reflection and the recollection of a statement by Abraham Lincoln have allowed me to recognize the value of public opinion.

"With public sentiment, nothing can fail," Lincoln said. "Without it, nothing can succeed."

In the matter of the discovery center, this goes at least to the question of the project's credibility.

At two public meetings on the discovery center and its draft environmental impact report, about 30 people spoke, and only two spoke in favor of the project.

Most of the others, from numerous cities in the area, criticized the project or questioned the refusal of the Discovery Center Authority to listen to the community or said simply that they wanted the Natural Area protected and the current nature center preserved.

As I said, this goes to the question of credibility.

The community has told the Discovery Center Authority, in no uncertain terms, what it wants.

Therefore, if the project is truly community focused, it should probably go away and be replaced by a plan to renovate the current nature center.

A renovation of the nature center would be everything the discovery center isn't, including:
  • Responsive to the community
  • Economical
  • Sustainable
And perhaps above all, renovating the nature center--rather than bulldozing acres of wildlife habitat to build a meeting center for bureaucrats--would be the true act of environmental stewardship.

In the matter of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area and the discovery center, the community knows what it wants.

And the community is right.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Community rejects discovery center -- AGAIN

If you needed proof that the San Gabriel River Discovery Center is museo non grata in the Whittier Narrows area, yesterday's meeting on the project's draft EIR provided an avalanche of proof.

Of 20 people who spoke during the oral comment period, only two said they supported the project. (And there was some question whether one of those two had been a consultant on the discovery center during the previous fiscal year, which ended just a few weeks ago.)

The other comments ran a gamut that included:
  • Concerns that taxes would be paying for the project
  • Concerns that fees would be introduced
  • Concerns about the impact on the habitat and wildlife
  • Concerns about the accuracy and adequacy of the EIR
On that last point, for example, a bike trail from the river to the discovery center was mentioned in the project description, but wasn't included anywhere else in the EIR.

With so much opposition to the project, it can be hard to understand why the thing is like the Energizer Bunny. It just keeps going and going and going . . .

Actually, my favorite metaphor for the discovery center is movie zombie. You know, a hollow-eyed creature that's dead but doesn't know it's dead, and just goes about eating brains and wreaking general havoc.

Unfortunately, this isn't the movies. There's a lot at stake.

Tens of millions in public dollars. Community access to the nature located right in our backyard. The opportunity for firsthand experiences of nature. And the habitat and wildlife that gives the Whittier Narrows Natural Area its great value.

But as someone said, this isn't a democratic process.

It doesn't matter that the community you say you're trying to help is telling you--consistently--"We're not convinced" and "We don't want your watershed center" and "Don't waste our tax dollars" and "Why aren't you listening?"

There's something wrong when public servants decide the public doesn't matter.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Final discovery center EIR meeting this Saturday

The second and final public meeting on the San Gabriel River Discovery Center and its draft environmental impact report is scheduled for Saturday, July 18, 2 - 4 p.m., at South El Monte High School in South El Monte.

At the first meeting, held June 24, no speaker from the community supported the discovery center proposal. Most spoke in favor of protecting nature and the Whittier Narrows Nature Center.

The discovery center would destroy important wildlife habitat and the current nature center at Whittier Narrows Natural Area and replace them with what the EIR reveals is little more than a conference center for government bureaucrats and water agency officials.

The discovery center would require at least $30 million for construction alone. The San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority claims it has collected $10 million to date.

The unpopular watershed education center proposal has failed to attract a single private donation or foundation grant. All money contributed has come from public sources--tax dollars, state bonds and water bills.

If you're concerned about bureaucrats wasting your hard-earned tax dollars or about the destruction of nature and parks in your backyard, you should come to Saturday's EIR meeting and let the Discovery Center Authority know.

South El Monte High School is at 1001 N. Durfee Ave. in South El Monte. (Across the street from the Natural Area.)

The EIR public comment period ends Aug. 3.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Central Basin MWD raises price of water, cuts $1M internally -- continues support for Discovery Center

Why is Central Basin Municipal Water District (service area pictured at right) continuing its financial support for the proposed $30 million San Gabriel River Discovery Center at the same time that it's raising rates on its customers and making internal budget cuts?

The revenue report from the Discovery Center Authority's June 18 board report shows that Central Basin contributed $80,000 for fiscal year 2008/2009. And a table on the Discovery Center website shows that Central Basin has contributed at least $750,000 in total to the project.

This year's $80,000 from Central Basin is troubling in light of the water district board of director's approval last month of "a more than 100-percent increase in its surcharge that will be phased in over the next year," which was reported by the Whittier Daily News.

is on top of an already approved 21-percent increase . . . from Metropolitan Water District that goes into effect Sept. 1, " writes journalist Mike Sprague.
"We can't understand the justification. The rates are excessive, unsubstantiated and inappropriate." -- Joe Serrano, Santa Fe Springs City Council
Central Basin is one of the four member agencies in the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority, which is trying to build a controversial 18,230-square-foot watershed education and meeting center on the Whittier Narrows Natural Area.

But the rate hikes aren't the end of the story. Apparently, money is so tight at the water district, "
officials said they've made $1 million in internal budget cuts."

News of Central Basin's fee increase went over like the proverbial lead balloon with local officials.

The news story quotes
Santa Fe Springs Councilman Joe Serrano, among others: "We will have no choice but to raise our rates. We can't understand the justification. The rates are excessive, unsubstantiated and inappropriate."

Unpopular rate hikes, internal budget cuts--but Central Basin continues to throw money at the expensive, unnecessary and environmentally destructive Discovery Center.

Interesting priorities at Central Basin right now.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Long absent bird species seen in Whittier Narrows

A recent story in the Whittier Daily News highlighted the apparent return of some sensitive bird species to the Whittier Narrows.

A recent sighting of a yellow-billed cuckoo "has set off biologists and birders around the area and has brought new attention to the Whittier Narrows, and specifically a 4-mile stretch of the Rio Hondo," writes journalist Ben Baeder.

The bird, a relative of the woodpecker, had not been spotted
in the San Gabriel Valley since 1952, Baeder writes.

Birders have also spotted larger numbers of other sensitive species in recent years, including the endangered least Bell's vireo (pictured), the yellow-breasted chat and the yellow warbler.

The yellow-billed cuckoo, says the Center for Biological Diversity, "has declined precipitously throughout its range in southern Canada, the United States, and northern Mexico.

"The cause of the cuckoo's demise is the same threat facing most endangered species--habitat loss."

While the Bell's vireo species is declining across its range due to habitat degradation and cowbird parasitism, says the Audubon Society, the least Bell's vireo subspecies "is recovering with aggressive habitat protection and restoration."

The evidence of an apparent turnaround in the Whittier Narrows points to the importance of habitat preservation and restoration--and serves to highlight the threat posed to habitat and wildlife by the proposed San Gabriel River Discovery Center.

Biologist Dan Cooper, who spotted the cuckoo, spoke of the ecological importance of Whittier Narrows, much of which is a county Significant Ecological Area and which forms part of Audubon's Los Angeles Flood Control Basins Important Bird Area.

"Its very much a refuge," Cooper told the newspaper. "It's probably the best chance we have of seeing the cuckoos, turtles and other species that used to be pretty common."

Monday, July 6, 2009

County nature centers, beaches at three lakes closed Mondays due to budget cuts

The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that county nature centers, including the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, and county-controlled beaches at three area lakes will be closed on Mondays due to a seven-percent budget cut for parks.

The Natural Area park will still be open to the public on Mondays.

Hugo Maldonado, the county's chief lake lifeguard, told the Times that, rather than eliminate any of the 225 lake lifeguard positions, officials reduced their hours by 20 percent.

"This is an unprecedented downturn in our economy and it's resulted in a significant decline in revenue for the county of Los Angeles," Maldonado said.

I remember some years ago, during another serious recession, when the county's response was to make significant cuts in services.

The clearest sign to me of those earlier cuts was the fact that my local branch of the county library system was open only one day per week. I don't remember how long that went on, but I remember it feeling like a long time.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think the current combination of budget and service cuts, tax increases and water rate increases casts serious doubt on the claim that no entry or parking fees would be charged at the San Gabriel River Discovery Center because the costs "would be fully supported by the Authority."

When other areas of Whittier Narrows charge for parking and county museums charge admission fees, visitors to a discovery center-dominated Natural Area shouldn't be surprised if they end up having to pay for what today the public enjoys for free.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Photos from a visit to the Natural Area

The Child Development Consortium of Los Angeles and photographer Lou Orr have graciously given the Friends permission to share photos from the April 1 visit of preschoolers from the Nueva Maravilla Child Development Center to the Natural Area.

The kids and their chaperon went on a walk through the Natural Area with docent Jim Odling and visited the nature center and its collection of snakes, lizards and other wildlife.

Nueva Maravilla is in East Los Angeles, and the Natural Area provides some of the most accessible nature for that community and others in eastern Los Angeles County.

More of Lou's photos from the visit are available on Flickr.