Photo by Emily Sawicki

Next week, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission (SMBRC) will meet to lay out a work plan of projects designed to protect the ocean and waterways around Los Angeles County and increase coastal access, bolstered by millions of federal dollars allocated as part of the November 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL).

Of the eight proposed BIL work plan activities on the Aug. 18 agenda, the costliest and most time-consuming is the creation of a “Santa Monica Breakwater Rocky Intertidal Preserve” — a project that SMBRC staff hope will better protect nearshore infrastructure as well as increase rocky intertidal habitat in the Bay. It would entail rebuilding the Santa Monica Breakwater, of which now only remnants remain.

“The rocky intertidal [habitat] is loved, vulnerable and one of the rarest habitats in the state,” according to the staff report prepared for the upcoming SMBRC meeting. According to that document, only five square kilometers of this habitat currently exist statewide.

Among the coastal resources that a rebuilt breakwater would protect, according to SMBRC staff, are the Pier, parking lots, lifeguard headquarters, Muscle Beach, volleyball courts, sandy beach, restaurants, amusement park, fishing decks and a public aquarium.

“Underserved community members benefit from the increased sustainability of the pier structure, increased opportunity for wildlife viewing, and access for fishing,” the staff report claims. “The breakwater would provide protection for the Santa Monica Pier and coastal infrastructure from sea level rise and storm events.”

Tom Ford, chair of the Association of National Estuary Programs, director of the Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program and CEO of The Bay Foundation, said in a recent interview that focusing on underserved communities was a new priority for The Bay Foundation.

“The BIL funds in this case are directed towards projects and efforts that will benefit disadvantaged communities and help us increase the ability of our coastline and its natural resources to put up with the stressors associated with climate change,” Ford said. “All of these projects are intended to help us understand how we’re going to respond to climate change and make sure that a lot of the benefits of those approaches are also being felt by and benefiting disadvantaged communities.”

The Santa Monica Breakwater Rocky Intertidal Preserve project as proposed has an estimated timeline of 2022-27 and would come with a $5.6 million price tag, with $1.4 million coming from BIL funding. Altogether, a total of $4.5 million was allocated toward the Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program through the BIL. Other proposals include kelp restoration in Palos Verdes, beach restoration in Venice, Marina Del Rey and Playa del Rey, a living shoreline project at the Malibu Adamson House, and other programs.

The money earmarked for the Santa Monica Bay “should seek to accelerate and more extensively implement CCMPs [Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plans], prioritize projects in, and benefits to, disadvantaged communities, build the adaptive capacity of ecosystems and communities, and leverage and support additional resources,” according to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) memo about the BIL funds. 

“It’s a pretty exciting time for us,” Ford said. “It’s a bit of a new charge, and helps us refine our approach in this case — better suited to people, and not just to place, here in Santa Monica.”

The money, allocated over the next five years, amounts to a doubling of the estuary program’s usual annual budget, according to Ford. He said his team would be developing and writing grants and seeking partnerships to bring in more money and resources for this and other projects.

The $4.5 million comes out of $132 million set aside to conduct “important work to protect and restore estuaries of national significance” at the 28 national estuary program sites around the United States and Puerto Rico. 

The Santa Monica Bay National Estuary Program is a product of the Clean Water Act, with projects overseen by nonprofit The Bay Foundation in concert with the SMBRC. 

The EPA defines an estuary as “a partially enclosed, coastal water body where freshwater from rivers and streams mixes with salt water from the ocean. Estuaries, and their surrounding lands, are places of transition from land to sea.” Although the Santa Monica Bay itself does not meet this definition, the EPA added it to the National Estuary Program decades ago because the Bay encompasses several important, smaller estuaries, including the Trancas Lagoon, Malibu Lagoon and Ballona Wetlands.

The $550 billion BIL passed in November 2021 and the Biden administration recently released funding details.