SACRAMENTO — The Assembly approved a bill Wednesday that bulldozes the way for a $15-million restoration project for Carlsbad's Batiquitos Lagoon by removing a key obstacle to the long-awaited enhancement of the coastal wetland.
The legislation, approved by the Assembly on a 55-13 vote, now goes to the Senate for consideration.
If signed into law, the bill would give the Los Angeles Harbor Department permission to spend about $15 million to clean up Batiquitos, offsetting the damage a massive pipeline project will cause to coastal wetlands at the Los Angeles port.
State law requires projects that harm the environment in the coastal zone to mitigate the damage by improving another coastal area. Officials in Los Angeles, however, complained that the region lacks wetlands deemed suitable for restoration and looked to Batiquitos as a more appropriate site for the work.
Supporters of the Batiquitos restoration plan heralded the Assembly vote as a key victory but cautioned that the project still must surmount several more hurdles.
"Every time there's a step forward, I'm ecstatic," said Anne Omsted, president of the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group. "We've had one hoop after another with this project."
Chief among the barriers yet to be crossed is an unsigned agreement establishing what agencies will be responsible for the restoration project and long-term maintenance work at the lagoon. Although the pact was expected to be made more than two months ago by the various local, state and federal agencies involved in the project, no final agreement has been signed.
Despite that glitch, Batiquitos supporters had pointed to the Assembly bill as perhaps the most crucial step.
The legislation had been tied up in the Assembly since early July, when Assemblywoman Maxine Waters and Assemblyman Mike Roos, both Los Angeles Democrats, protested that the $15 million should be spent in Los Angeles County, not 75 miles to the south in Carlsbad.
Eventually, both lawmakers conceded that there are no suitable coastal wetlands near Los Angeles where the city-run port could spend the $15 million. Waters and Roos inserted an amendment in the bill, however, requiring the port to provide a sanitation facility for recreational boaters at Cabrillo Marina in San Pedro.
If the measure by Sen. Ralph C. Dills (D-Gardena) also passes the Senate and is signed by Gov. George Deukmejian, an eight-party agreement to restore and maintain Batiquitos Lagoon could be signed within a few days, state and local officials said.
Vern Hall, a project manager with the Port of Los Angeles, said it now appears that the long-term maintenance issue has been resolved.
An agreement has been drafted that would establish an annuity fund to provide about $200,000 a year to fund the work, which would probably be handled by the State Department of Fish and Game, he said.
Curtis L. Fossum, staff counsel for the state Lands Commission, said the various parties involved with the Batiquitos project are "very close to agreement" on the maintenance and restoration plan.
"We're hoping that by the end of this month, at the very latest, this thing will be resolved," Fossum said.
Lagoon supporters are hopeful that the negotiations can be settled soon and the project can move forward by next summer because the restoration work must be undertaken during dry months.
"Everyone involved really wants the thing to go forward," Omsted said. "Even so, it has been extraordinarily complex."
The enhancement plan would reopen the ocean entrance to Batiquitos, which has been silted shut for years, causing the lagoon to dry up in the summer. Restoration of the tidal flow into the lagoon is expected to keep the wetland in a healthy, natural condition.
In addition, nearly 4 million cubic yards of silt would be dredged to create deeper water along the northern edge of the lagoon and allow shallow bird-habitat areas along the southern and eastern edges.
Plans also call for creation of three nesting sites for least terns and construction of viewing areas and paths. Finally, much of the dredged sand will be placed on a rocky, four-mile stretch of beachfront in Carlsbad.
Aside from benefiting Batiquitos, approval of the lagoon restoration work is seen as a key step for the $1.66-billion pipeline project being planned by Pacific Texas Pipeline Co. of Long Beach.
A Pacific Texas spokeswoman said the company has nearly all of the 800 local, state and federal permits that it needs to begin laying 42-inch-diameter steel pipe below ground from a landfill south of Terminal Island along local flood control channels to Rialto, then through Arizona and New Mexico to refineries in Midland, Tex., a distance of 1,030 miles.
Construction is set to begin in December, and the pipeline is expected to be operational a year later, said Margaret Kilgore of Pacific Texas.