"M" is for Mitigation

"I'm going to cut off your foot. But don't worry, we're going to provide a prosthetic limb for a patient in Peoria." Make sense? Read on.

by Robert Nanninga
hen I decided to address the subject of mitigation, little did I realize the headache I was setting myself up for. I thought this would be a cake walk; you know, a quick diatribe on the evils of over-development, and then on to more pressing matters. Not the case. What I found was an environmental slight-of-hand that not even David Copperfield could pull off.
In this time of shrinking open space, threatened species and stagnating economies, mitigation is becoming the placebo of choice. It offers developers and local officials an opportunity to prove to themselves and others that they are being good stewards of the environment. It works like this:
Being the fine upstanding capitalist that you are, you decide that Southern California is in desperate need of another consumer warehouse outlet. First thing you do is find a city that is strapped for cash. Next, within that city's sphere of influence buy a piece of land that has yet to be developed, due to the fact that it is a wetland. Then, set out to convince the "Powers That Be" that their community won't survive without the gift you're offering them. Just mention an improved tax base, real or imagined, and you're "in like Flint."
Uh oh, here come those pesky Eco-activists complaining about habitats and little birds. What do you do? You guessed it, you mitigate. You agree to find another piece of open space and alter it to resemble the area you're destroying to make room for your much needed Church of the Holy Consumer.
Currently, this "robbing Peter to pay Paul" scenario is being played out here in North County at the $55 million Batiquitos Lagoon Enhancement Project. Five agencies are involved: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, the Port of Los Angeles, the City of Carlsbad, and the California Land Commission. These fine public defenders decided that it makes sense to replace the loss of deep-water fish habitat brought about by harbor expansion of the Port of Los Angeles with a newly-created deep-water habit in Batiquitos Lagoon, currently a shallow lagoon of saltmarsh and mudflats.
Does L.A. need a bigger harbor? I would think they could have used the $55 million to clean up the one they have. And who, you ask, will benefit from this misguided sense of stewardship? The obvious answer is the Port of Los Angeles. The mitigation law was designed to protect sensitive natural spaces and habitats. The corporate interests behind the port expansion have deemed protecting ecosystems along our coast as unprofitable. So, to prove to the agencies that oversee the protection of the environment that they are team players, they waved large sums of money in the faces of a city council that is eager to grow.
Once the City of Carlsbad was on board, the Port of Los Angeles bought the best science and scientists money could buy and set about "enhancing" Batiquitos Lagoon. Enhancements like creating California least tern nesting sights where none existed, adding rock jetties, and recontouring the lagoon floor. These actions are justified in the name of "providing protection for plants and animals and their habitats, especially those that are threatened or endangered." Does anyone, other than myself, see the irony in the fact that human manipulation is the reason these species are endangered in the first place? Greedy guys of L.A. throw the City of Carlsbad a $55 million bone and they're off the hook, case closed.
Granted, this deal may benefit the local populations of the California least tern and the western Snowy plover, but at the expense of others. It is like saying, we can mitigate for the destruction of Chula Vista by building more homes and strip malls in Julian. When government agencies start thinking of natural spaces as commodities that can be traded at will, as if they were baseball cards, we are all in trouble.
Also benefitting from this cozy deal is the City of Carlsbad. Dredging will provide sand on South Carlsbad beaches, and we all know that this translates to more beach goers, which in turn means more traffic, more trash on the beach, more pollution hanging over the coast. And more disturbances for the birds the enhancements were designed to protect.
The enhancement of Batiquitos lagoon is also a shot in the arm for the ill-conceived and financially struggling Aviara project. Although siltation was cited as the cause of the needed improvements, development of the la-goon's north shore continues apace, as does development up-stream - the major cause of siltation build-up in the first place.
If the coastal cities of San Diego's north county were really interested in protecting the viability of the lagoons that grace their communities, they would cease development in environmentally sensitive areas, such as streams, creeks, and their corresponding greenbelts. If the objective is to lessen the environmental damage to a given habitat, doesn't it make sense to scale back your plans, as opposed to pawning off your responsibility to another community? In no way is the environment of the Los Angeles area or the species that inhabit it enhanced by this mitigation. The damage is done.
Instead of land swaps, the people of Southern California need to demand that their elected officials pay close attention to the actions of the agencies whose sole purpose is to protect our environment. It seems to me that the Department of Fish and Game has become little more than a clearing house for natural resources.
If we truly wish to mitigate for the impact of human civilization, as species we must find a way to bring back the natural balance. This will not be done with dredging machines and cement tidal corridors. What is needed is a new way of relating to the planet that supports us. Human Beings must come to terms with population control, and leave some breathing space for other species. If we do not, there will be nothing left to mitigate.

Robert Nanninga is an independent video producer, actor, vegan and active member of the Green and environmental community.