Research & Restoration Priorities of the Santa Monica National Estuary Program: The Bay Foundation’s Tom Ford


The US EPA’s National Estuary Program (NEP), established in 1987, supports place-based strategies to restore and protect water quality and living resources in the 28 identified estuaries of national significance in the US.As the administrator for the Santa Monica Bay NEP (SMBNEP), VX News checked in with Tom Ford, Chief Executive Officer of The Bay Foundation and Director of the SMBNEP, to update readers on the significance of $132 million included for NEP in the Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act. Ford highlights The Bay Foundation’s latest work as well as new research priorities for restoring endemic seagrass as well as dune restoration efforts to combat coastal erosion and sea level rise.

Tom, we last spoke in 2019, when you had just testified before Congress against proposed cuts to the National Estuary Program (NEP). Update our readers and comment on the significance of the Biden administration's recent announcement of $132 million in infrastructure funding for NEPs?

It’s certainly been a dynamic several years for the National Estuary Program, and I think it is, in a way, a recognition of the immense stressors facing the coastal regions of this country.  

Sea level rise, which we are aware of and planning for here in Los Angeles and in Southern California, has already been rising over this past century. We expect to see a big increase in that rate of rise over this next century. But if we look to other places on the Eastern Seaboard and in the Gulf of Mexico where there are numerous National Estuary Programs, we're already seeing far greater impacts to coastal flooding and erosion, sunny day floods, and the aggressive loss of tidal marsh and other systems that function as natural barriers to the ocean migrating vertically.

This is no longer a red or a blue state issue. We've got the bulk of people living in the United States in these coastal areas, and they are decidedly at risk. So that's what I think pushed the needle over the past several years.

What NEP funding is now expected to come to Santa Monica Bay from the infrastructure funding?

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs act, which is also commonly referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, had $132 million for the National Estuary Program over five years and over 28 programs. When it breaks down, it's roughly $4.5 million over five years, or $900,000 and change annually. That is roughly a doubling of the federal investment directly into National Estuary Programs. It’s a very welcomed and inspiring tranche to help us aggressively move our agenda forward.

There's two pieces to it. The expectation is that we would have these investments comply with the Justice40 initiative of the Biden administration, which is to make sure that the benefits of these projects manifest for disadvantaged community members, with at least 40% of the expected outputs benefitting disadvantaged communities.

The other big piece of this is climate change adaptation. It's really a shot in the arm for us from a program that used to be focused on water quality and habitat to actually start linking that water quality and habitat into a matrix that benefits people and is trying to keep up with the stressors associated with climate change.

Stepping back, share the expertise of those included on the Bay Foundation’s National Estuary Program research team?

We have 17 individuals working for The Bay Foundation supporting the Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program. Largely scientists and communications specialists from a variety of disciplines who help us understand the extent and condition of key habitats in Santa Monica Bay and its watershed. Collectively we develop methods to help restore them, make them more resilient, and aid their sustainability into the future.

The board that we work with for the NEP is comprised of 35 local, state, federal agencies, NGOs, and the public coming together to help advise us on our priorities and our approaches. And they're the ones that help inform our strategic plan as well as our annual work plans as we make stepwise progress.

With a mission to protect and restore Santa Monica Bay and its adjacent waters, elaborate on The Bay Foundation’s work related to restoring dunes and kelp forests, as well as monitoring ocean acidification and plastics research and more. What projects are prioritized in the Santa Monica Bay NEP 2023 Work Plan?

Very notably since we last talked in 2019, we've made very big strides in seagrasses. They’re not readily visible for most people, but we have a species of eelgrass that only exists off the coast of Southern California. That’s it, this is where it lives. It grows down at depths of 80-plus feet in a predominantly soft-bottom habitat that can support tons of fish, sequester carbon, improve water quality, increase recreational opportunity for us, and we're just getting started with monitoring and transplant methodologies to see if we can increase the expanse of this grass along our coastline.

The rocky reefs get a lot of attention, but I don't think we think of our beaches as being living places. Dunes help explain that story, but the offshore environment and these sandy bottom areas are also living places where we arguably have lost a lot of the seagrass. So, that's been a big push for us.

What are your research priorities?

Research priorities for us this year, we are looking at mussels, the bivalve that grows in rocky intertidal environments. A researcher at Loyola Marymount University is looking at environmental physiological stressors, and basically, if we have elevated temperatures and increased salinity regimes, when do these animal experiences start showing stress? And then we can take those data and put that out on the living environment. It can help us understand when and where we might start to lose this species and the associated benefits of the species’ presence along our coastline.

We're continuing to collect and process data on harmful algal blooms. There are phytoplankton that exist off our coast that in great densities can block out the light, can alter the chemistry of the water, and some of them even exude toxins or contain toxins inside their bodies that can make it into the food web, or can even make it back into fish or invertebrates and onto our plates. The concerns of that are very real. We can look at the closure of the Dungeness Crab fishery for a number of years in the Central Coast as a result of the harmful algal bloom side effects.

 We're also continuing to do a great deal of research on our beach restoration projects. We've got a number of dune projects now with a couple of different configurations and different exposures along the coast. Using those advantageously, we can start to look at how effective our methods are from one place to another to another to accrete, capture, and retain sand to build our coastline up.

How aligned with AltaSea’s work are the Santa Monica Bay’s program goals?

There are some mutual interests there, but we're not working hand in glove with anyone at AltaSea. I'm pleased to see research looking at giant kelp and trying to figure out if we can select for giant kelp that's more thermally tolerant so that it would persist during warm water. I'm interested to see that going forward.

Certainly, one of their long term interests is trying to address coastal ocean acidification. That field needs a tremendous amount more work for us to understand how we might be able to mitigate against that other than the few obvious choices that are out there i.e., nutrient reduction.

Let's pivot from the above to pollution. With the LA Times reporting that the “history of DDT ocean dumping off L.A. coast even worse than expected,” what do we know or suspect about the impacts of half a million ‘barrells’ of DDT dumped off the coast over decades?

I have to admit I have not read that article yet, so I can't speak to it specifically. But what we have learned is that yes, there are a number of barrels of DDT that were disposed of legally, or perhaps illegally if they weren't within the dump site when this was occurring decades ago. DDT was manufactured to be long standing and persistent in the environment. This aids its effectiveness as an insecticide, but it has well documented impacts on marine ecosystems and on the thinning of shells of the eggs of pelicans and bald eagles to the point of almost locally eliminating those animals decades ago. We've seen noted recovery. 

Information that has been shared recently has shown that the bulk of the DDT that was dumped offshore of Los Angeles was not in barrels—it wasn't contained at all. So, it would have dispersed very broadly through the environment.  

One of the key things that I keep in mind when I think about this DDT site, and other dump sites off our coast, is the depth at which they occur. It's almost 3,000 feet down between here and Catalina Island, and that is where those materials were supposed to be placed. It's a very difficult depth for us to access. It’s extremely challenging to monitor. Unfortunately, I know of no off-the-shelf solution to address those contaminants at that depth.

For our readers who are not as involved in climate change research issues as you, what are you seeing that both alarms you or gives you hope?

As for what gives me hope, I think in many cases, we have been able to learn enough to understand what the problem is, and then determine a set of solutions that are causing positive responses in our environmental impact. We have been able to bring back the kelp forests. We've been able to restore dunes. We will continue to refine those practices, make them even better, and then hopefully distribute them beyond our region.

What I have come to accept, is the global scale at which climate change manifests versus the local scale at which we try and address its impacts. We know we have to cut emissions and increase carbon dioxide sequestration. What is equally important is our need to create local projects that help our coast adapt to sea level rise, ocean acidification, warmer temperatures, and warmer waters. I love working on these projects with our numerous partners we’re developing and implementing some truly exiting and internationally recognized work here in LA.  

What alarms me is that we're not moving fast enough or at a scale that is relevant to the challenges that we face. Some of the solutions that we've developed at the Bay Foundation or that others have developed elsewhere, could be implemented on a much larger scale and faster, and the sooner we get moving on this, the better shot we have at solving these problems. It's like finding a cancer diagnosis early on—now we got a good chance to fight this.

I think there's a human tendency to respond to crisis. Maybe some of these things are not perceived as a crisis, but there's really no clean argument I can make for why we would wait. Let's go now while we have the advantage of that headstart.

 And also a general awareness. I just don't think people think about the ecological context in which they exist on this planet.  You need oxygen in your atmosphere. You need clean, safe water. You need access to recreation so that you can recover physically and spiritually from the stressors of our daily lives. And that all comes from nature and being in nature, and that's been a really great part of this job is trying to preserve that and make that available.

Turning to the Ballona Wetlands Restoration plan, share its current status.

The EIR for Ballona wetlands, I understand, is being challenged in court. What we have seen, however, is an interest to continue restoration planning acknowledging the expected phasing of that project. It's not my project or my program—the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are the go-to folks for this—What they're trying to figure out is how to get some more saltwater into the South Area B section of the ecological reserve. Getting saltwater into a salt marsh is a key thing for it to be a functioning salt marsh. It seems like a very logical first step, and I'm glad to see them making those preparations.

Moving to a broader policy question, the legislature’s push for more housing is challenging the role & value of CEQA .  When you hear the debate between YIMBYs and NIMBYs about CEQA reform, given your expertise, how do you come down?

CEQA and other permitting practices by the state and NEPA at the federal level were intended to inform likely environmental harms or impacts associated with development.

We're now trying to work in a framework where we're trying to create projects that are expressly beneficial to the environment and to the human beings neighboring them that those natural systems support. It’s a difficult checklist sometimes. I know the language says it’s for benefit as well as impact but it's not the easiest meld.

 I’d really love to see the output of ‘cutting the green tape’ that the California Natural Resources has been talking about getting real and on the ground, because the permitting is a challenge for us. It takes a long time to develop these projects, to inform them, to find the funding for them, and then five years of permitting. That gets to that scale question: we have to undertake these very prolonged, albeit well intentioned and often very beneficial permitting practices, but need them faster. You’ve got to get me in the chute and get me out of the chute quicker with the opportunity to interact with those people and come out with a well informed and effective plan.

Lastly, how does the Santa Monica Bay’s work interface with Mark Gold’s state oceans and coastal policy mission and advancing offshore wind opportunities.

I think there is an interface. In a way, our efforts on this focused spatial scale are addressing questions that face the state. I have the convenience of saying I'm just trying to do my job here. That said, I think what we've developed here in kelp forest restoration especially can be applied successfully elsewhere in the state.

Offshore wind I think is an interesting game. There's a lot of positives that could come from that beyond the obvious if we build them in a way that actually increases production in a marine system. We can grow more fish with offshore wind farms, we can grow kelp and seaweed, and the rocky reefing that would then protect the cables coming ashore. If we only look at it as energy development and we don't look at it as an opportunity to enhance ecosystems and ecosystem production, then we're just missing that opportunity. And that's clearly a place where I think Mark’s interests and challenges interface with ours.

"...The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs act...had $132 million for the National Estuary Program over five years and over 28 programs. When it breaks down, it's roughly $4.5 million over five years, or $900,000 and change annually. That is roughly a doubling of the federal investment directly into National Estuary Programs."—Tom Ford