Wetlands and oil operations

The Los Cerritos Wetlands as seen from the Beach Oil Minerals headquarters lot in 2018, with an oil rig pumping in the distance.

A draft Environmental Impact Report is being reviewed as part of an ambitious restoration plan for the Los Cerritos Wetlands in southeast Long Beach.

A first public webinar in the review process took place last Thursday, May 21. The next meeting, also online, will be next Thursday, June 4.

"I'm pleased with the process so far," Long Beach's Third District City Councilman Suzie Price said. Price serves as chair of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority (LCWA), the agency responsible for the EIR process.

"I'm pleased with where we are now," Price added. "The next steps are going to be critical. We have to include the impacts of sea level rise on restoration plans."

Restoration of the 500-plus acres of wetlands has been a goal for literally decades of both city officials and environmental advocates. Since the discovery of oil there in 1926, combined with the channelization of the San Gabriel River, the once 2,400-acre wetlands complex has been landfilled, graded and activated as a working oil field. Much of the remaining wetlands is controlled by Beach Oil Minerals Partners (BOMP).

In 2006, the LCWA was formed as a joint powers authority to accept ownership of public portions of the wetlands, and to move more wetlands property into public ownership. In 2015, a restoration conceptual plan was approved with three alternatives — minimum, moderate and maximum restoration.

Those plans are the root of the current draft EIR. A potential game changer came in 2018, when the oil company proposed a land swap and source for restoration money. BOMP would consolidate its oil pumping operations on property at and behind the Pumpkin Patch parcel south of the Marketplace shopping center. In return, the LCWA would gain title to much of the degraded wetlands on the other side of Second Street, a functioning wetlands area called Steamshovel Slough and restoration financing. Steamshovel Slough will become public property once BOMP has all the permits required for its work.

An EIR for that land swap has been approved. But the price of oil has collapsed (hovering around $30 a barrel Tuesday), and it's uncertain whether BOMP will move forward any time soon. Requests for comment to John McKeown, BOMP president, had not been returned by deadline.

Still, the Draft EIR under review now relies on studies completed for the land trade EIR, and the completion of the trade for much of the restoration more than 10 years from now. Shorter term restoration plans focus on the 170 acres in the southern area of the wetlands already under LCWA control.

"The timing for much of this depends on Beach Oil Minerals," Price said. "I don't know their finances, but the city expects oil to stay low for some time. We'll move forward with the EIR either way."

Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, an advocacy group that has acted as a government watchdog since before LCWA was formed, also is participating in the EIR review. Its executive director, Elizabeth Lambe, said members still are going over the entire lengthy document, and will submit a comment letter before the June 22 deadline.

"We have been engaged in the process every step of the way and have provided feedback and comments at every opportunity," Lambe said in an email. "We have encouraged our members and supporters to attend LCWA’s meetings and hearings on the matter and urged them to share their thoughts and feedback."

The draft EIR is available online at intoloscerritoswetlands.org/the-lcws-eir/. For those who can't see it online, an appointment can be made to review a physical copy by calling 626-815-1019 ext. 104, or emailing sgee@rmc.ca.gov.

Official comments on the draft EIR must be made in writing and sent to Sally Gee, Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, 100 Old San Gabriel Canyon Rd. Azusa, CA 91702, or emailed to sgee@rmc.ca.gov. The deadline for comments is June 22, although Price said the LCWA may consider extending the comment period at its June 4 meeting.

Next Thursday's webinar starts at 6:30 p.m., with links to the presentation at intoloscerritoswetlands.org/the-lcws-eir/. That meeting will cover the meat of the EIR — the project description, environmental setting, impacts, mitigation measures and alternatives.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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