UCLA’s Institute of the Environment Releases Its Sixth Annual Southern California Environmental Report Card
UCLA's Institute of the Environment (IoE) released on Oct. 22 its signature publication, the Southern California Environmental Report Card, studying and grading four areas of environmental concern in the Greater Los Angeles area.
In its sixth year, the IoE's report card gave the region a grade of "D" for controlling existing invasive plant species and the prevention of new ones and a "C-minus" for the future of air quality. In addition, the air quality study downgraded the overall assessment of past progress from an "A" to an "A-minus."
Southern California scored higher in the areas of "smart growth," or more compact development closer to urban centers and transit nodes (B-minus), and marine conservation (B‑minus for present efforts, C-minus for past efforts).
"It's gratifying to see that there is some improvement in key environmental measures designed to protect our open spaces and coastal habitats," said Arthur Winer, professor in UCLA's environmental science and engineering program and editor of the report card. It was Winer who predicted in the first report card in 1997 the current return of smog to Los Angeles. "There is much work to be done to improve air quality and prevent non-native invasive plant species from wreaking more havoc in the environment," Winer said.
"UCLA's Institute of the Environment exists to build knowledge that will lead to effective solutions of pressing environmental problems," said Richard P. Turco, director of the institute. "It is my hope that policy makers and members of the public take note of the issues raised in this year's report card and collaborate with the institute's multidisciplinary approach to conserving our environment."
Invasive plant species
Philip Rundel, UCLA biology professor, analyzed the issue of non-native invasive plant and animal species in the IoE's report card this year.
Many plant species that are not native to California were introduced accidentally or intentionally, as in the case of a large bamboo-like grass called giant reed (Arundo donax). Giant reed proved successful in stabilizing eroding stream banks; however, sections of stems and roots were carried downstream by floods and thrived wherever they came to rest. The result has been the establishment and growth of dense stands of giant reeds along many lowland rivers throughout California.
Rundel's article explains that the basin of the Santa Ana River in Southern California now holds more than 10,000 acres dominated by giant reed, resulting in the massive stands exacerbating flood problems by choking stream channels. In addition, the stands create fire hazards in stream habitats otherwise relatively free of flammable tissues and destroy native riparian habitat for rare and endangered species of birds and other wildlife. Moreover, billions of gallons of water are lost in Southern California each year from transpiration by the masses of giant reed.
In addition to giant reed, Rundel's study describes the adverse effects of other invading species such as the green algae Caulerpa taxifolia, which appeared three years ago in a coastal lagoon in San Diego and soon after in Huntington Harbor in Orange County. This algae was inadvertently introduced into the Mediterranean Sea and has blanketed thousands of acres of the northern Mediterranean coastline, causing ecological and economic devastation as it choked out native species of algae and invertebrates, resulting in costly impacts on recreational diving and commercial fishing.
Although both Caulerpa algae and giant reed are at a stage where active control is still possible and critically important, Rundel concludes that there has been relatively little pressure on government agencies to take effective action on these and other non-native invasives, and that well-meaning but ill-informed public groups have complicated control policies.
Research conducted by Jonathan Zasloff, UCLA professor of law, examines the concept of "smart growth" in Los Angeles. Southern California Association of Governments statistics cited in Zasloff's study show that if present trends in development and land use continue, Southern Californians will drive 50 percent more miles in five million more automobiles by the year 2020. In addition, average peak-hour traffic speeds on the region's freeways, now roughly 37 miles per hour, will slow to slightly more than 19 miles per hour.
The report card notes that in the next two decades, Southern California will add the population equivalent of two cities the size of Chicago, mostly due to natural increase and migration from other areas of the United States.
In an effort to mitigate the adverse environmental effects of population growth, planners and policy makers have developed the concept of "smart growth," which seeks to implement a variety of policies that will result in reduced dependence on the automobile, allow for open space preservation and promote more environmentally sensitive design.
Zasloff's assessment is that the city of Los Angeles' record on preparing and implementing land-use elements is mixed. While Los Angeles recognizes the critical need for housing and has adopted policies to allow for adaptive reuse of older buildings and an increase in mixed-use zoning, the city is leaving it up to developers to petition for zone changes instead of taking proactive steps to ensure that such rezoning takes place.
Additionally, while the need for low-income housing is acknowledged by the city in its General Plan, the plan largely ignores the need for development of moderate-income housing.
This is illustrated in the example Zasloff uses of the Studio City-Sherman Oaks Community Plan, which mandates that 68 percent of all residential units in the area be reserved for single-family dwellings. If this mandate is followed — and legally it must be — then it ensures that virtually no multi-family units will be built because the area is already substantially built out for single-family residences.
"Unless the city moves more aggressively to allow multi-family development and takes the necessary political risks, it is sowing the seeds of severe environmental and social problems in the future," Zasloff said.
Suzanne E. Paulson, professor in the department of atmospheric sciences at UCLA, authored this year's report card study on air pollution. The study reviews how the quality of air we breathe today has changed since 1998, including the current status of air pollution, the effectiveness of long-term emissions control programs and prospects for future air quality in the region.
Air pollution consists of three primary components: ozone, which restricts breathing and exacerbates asthma, and particulate matter and air toxics, both of which may promote respiratory disease, cancer, birth or developmental defects, or mortality.
In the years leading up to 1999, Southern California enjoyed drastic drops in ozone. However, between 1999 and 2002, improvements ceased, and the summer of 2003 made headlines when the ozone jumped back to 1998 levels. While the jump is likely due to year-to-year variations in the weather, it's apparent the air isn't getting much cleaner. Southern California still has by far the worst ozone pollution in the nation, exceeding clean air standards more than 100 days per year.
Ozone forms in the air from reactions of volatile organic compounds, oxides of nitrogen and sunlight. Volatile organic compounds are released into the air by everything from cars, trucks and industry to household paints and cleaners, while oxides of nitrogen are released from all combustion processes. For clean air, these emissions must drop. Every five years, planners use emissions inventories to figure out which sources can be reduced by how much, formulating an air quality management plan. Over the last five years, volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen levels dropped only slightly, much less than laid out in the 1998 air quality management plan. As a result, ozone stayed flat.
The new 2003 air quality management plan doesn't reduce emissions enough to bring us clean air within the next 5–10 years. What's worse, recent experience shows that the air quality management plan may be overly optimistic about the reductions it does propose. As growth continues, the existing policies may not be able to balance increases in emissions, and air quality may seriously deteriorate.
Particulate matter exceeds the clean air standards throughout the year, and throughout the Southern California region, from the coastal cities to the mountain slopes. Like ozone, no improvement has been observed in particulate matter levels over the past five years.
Diesel engine exhaust is the air toxic of greatest concern. Progress in controlling diesel emissions has been slow, and effective improvements in this area are overdue.
Paulson's report concludes that air quality may not improve much and may worsen unless there is a significant shift in innovative control strategies, aggressive technology advocacy and development practices guided by a higher-quality emissions inventory.
Gregor Hodgson, visiting professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment's Coastal Center, reviews case studies of individual species as well as habitat protection to address the region's performance in meeting the goals of marine conservation.
"Certain well-known cases such as the sea otter, which many citizens believe to be an example of a success story, are actually more complicated and much less successful than people think," Hodgson said.
Although sea otters were saved from extinction by a ban on otter hunting in 1911, a surprising aspect of California's sea otter recovery program is that sea otters have been physically excluded from their original Southern California habitat. A catch and release program worked out as a compromise with fishermen in the 1980s to protect their shellfish catch resulted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service setting up a "no otter zone" south of Point Conception in exchange for establishing a colony on San Nicolas Island. The state trapped and moved all otters observed south of Point Conception at a cost of about $10,000 per animal. Ironically, the San Nicolas project failed and recently the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to allow otters to move south, after the fisheries protected from sea otters failed due to over-fishing.
A significant change in policy with regard to habitat protection occurred with the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act, which mandated the establishment of Marine-Protected Areas, including no-take reserves.
The Marine Life Protection Act provided the basis for the state to make a controversial 2002 decision to increase the size of no-take areas within the Channel Islands National Park. This resulted in the April 2003 vote by the California Fish and Game Commission to create a 132-square mile network of marine reserves, covering about 19 percent of the waters around the five Channel Islands in the national park. Since the "marine reserve" designation prohibits all types of collection and fishing, this is the single most important success in California marine conservation in the last 100 years.
"California has done poorly in managing living marine resources — about as well as a typical third world country — wiping out stocks of many valuable commercial species," Hodgson said. "However, the recent effort to set up no-take areas in the Channel Islands is a long-overdue major step in the right direction."
The UCLA Institute of the Environment (www.ioe.ucla.edu/) is generating knowledge and providing solutions for regional and global environmental problems and educating the next generation of professionals, leaders and citizens committed to the health of our planet. Through its local, national and international programs, the IoE employs innovative cross-disciplinary approaches to address critical environmental challenges — including those related to water quality, air pollution, biodiversity and climate change — with the goal of achieving sustainable human coexistence with natural systems.
The IoE comprises four centers, including the Coastal Marine Center, the Center for Air Pollution and Exposure, the Center for Tropical Research, and the Center for Urban Sustainability and Predictability.