The following article originally appeared in Public
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Los Angeles District recently collaborated with several other agencies to publish a case study that aims at assisting transportation, resource and regulatory agencies with integrating infrastructure development and the conservation planning process.
The case study, involving the Orange County Transportation Authority's M2 Highway/Freeway Program, is a 30-year conservation planning and permitting program that began in 2005 and brought multiple local, state and federal agencies together.
The transportation authority's M2 program was intended to streamline the permitting and environmental review process over multiple jurisdictions, while also protecting and restoring natural habitats, as well as incorporating programmatic natural resource planning, permitting and mitigation approaches to address impacts from 13 of the transportation authority's freeway projects.
"OCTA approached the Corps' Regulatory Division about 10 years ago to discuss its 13 proposed freeway improvement projects and how we could go about coming up with a permitting mechanism to address aquatic resource impacts that would occur over a 30-year period along existing freeway corridors throughout the county," said Spencer MacNeil, chief of the Transportation and Special Projects Branch with the Corps' Regulatory Division.
The Corps decided to go through a full environmental review process up front and looked at the 13 projects with respect to impacts to Waters of the U.S., or WOTUS, which includes aquatic features, such as streams and wetlands, as well as available compensatory mitigation for those impacts.
The team developed Section 404 letters of permission procedures, including preparing a public notice, environmental assessment, Section 404 (b)(1) alternatives analysis and conducting a public interest review - all of the things needed to set up those new procedures.
"Once those were in place, where we looked at the entirety of the program, we could look at each application for an individual project, in turn, over time, and issue an individual letter of permission to address that project's impacts," MacNeil said.
It was all evaluated and incorporated into the established procedures the Corps formalized through an individual permit, establishing the terms and conditions for the M2 program.
The Corps approved the compensatory mitigation as well as the impacts, which allowed the Orange County Transportation Authority to have some certainty with respect to implementing its mitigation - even in advance of its transportation project impacts to WOTUS.
The transportation authority chose to pursue advance compensatory mitigation as multiple projects - collaborating with several state and federal agencies, including the Corps; California Department of Transportation; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; California State Water Resources Control Board; California Department of Fish and Wildlife; and other regulatory and resource agencies.
In all, the M2 Program established seven preserves, totaling more than 1,300 acres of land and the restoration of 350 acres of habitat. It also expedited the permitting process for transportation projects from several months to about 45 days, once a complete application for an individual project's impacts to WOTUS was submitted to the Corps.
Seeing Labors Come to Fruition
The Corps used OCTA's M2 Mitigation Program at Trabuco Rose Preserve, Aliso Creek and Agua Chinon Wash, where old California can be visited by current and future generations.
Veronica Li, a senior project manager with the Corps' Regulatory Division, worked on the project for more than a decade.
Li and MacNeil, along with Jeniffer Aleman-Zometa, also a project manager with the Corps' Regulatory Division; and Lesley Hill, project manager with the Environmental Mitigation Program, Orange County Transportation Authority, visited the three sites Sept. 16.
"I first got involved in this when I started with the Corps' Regulatory Division in 2009," Li recalled. "It was a good project for me to take on. At that time, we didn't have a funding agreement with OCTA, which limited my ability to work on it, so it was my task to establish a Section 214 Water Resources Development Act funding agreement with them, so that we could become more involved."
From that point on, Li said, she was involved in the Environmental Oversight Committee and recruited Sophia Ma, also with the Corps' Regulatory Division, to help implement the Letter of Permission procedures.
Ma, Michelle Mattson and Corice Farrar, all with the Corps' Regulatory Division, as well as the Orange County Transportation Authority and its consultants were a tremendous help in making the permitting effort come to fruition, Li added.
"Having funding in place that we could use to work on and prioritize the M2 program was critical to its success," MacNeil said. "It takes significant money and time to develop large-scale, long-term permitting programs like this one. And OCTA had funds available to support the development of the M2 program, as a result of a sales tax measure extended by Orange County voters in 2006."
During the site visit, Hill, who worked on the project for about 12 years - a decade of those as the transportation authority's project manager - pointed out two unnamed creeks at Trabuco Rose Preserve that eventually flow into Hickey Creek.
The creeks are part of a 400-acre area controlled by the transportation authority, consisting of mostly coastal sage scrub, woodlands, chaparral, scattered oak trees and native grasslands. A small portion of the acreage includes the wetlands preserved for mitigation credits with the Corps.
"There's a whole slew of habitat that this wetland area is a component of," Hill said, pointing out the confluence of the creeks into the wetlands. "It's a really intact habitat."
At Aliso Creek, managed by the Laguna Canyon Foundation, pond turtles sunned on the rocks amid the lush foliage along the banks. Wildlife has returned to the area.
One of the high priorities at Aliso was removing Arundo or giant reed, an invasive grass resembling bamboo that can grow up to 12 inches per day.
MacNeil knows Aliso Creek better than most; he completed his dissertation on the watershed's streams in 2001, which also supported a Civil Works Watershed Management Study that identified and evaluated potential stream restoration projects. About 30 tons of Arundo have been removed from the creek.
"I love it when a plan comes together," MacNeil said, recalling how it looked 20 years ago. "It's wonderful to see it come to fruition and to be on the ground realizing the beauty of a rehabilitated Aliso Creek."
A wildland fire Aug. 15 came close to a patch of recently planted seedlings, but firefighters were able to quench the fire without disturbing the restored area.
Agua Chinon Wash in Irvine - the last site visited Sept. 16 - is an elderberry scrubland of sheer, narrow canyons, bordered by rugged hills and Interstate 5.
The wash traverses past the former El Toro Marine Air Station, on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The preserve suffered a significant wildland fire that slowed but didn't stop the habitat restoration. Agua Chinon is managed by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy.
Saving Money – Minimizing Temporal Loss
One example of how the M2 program's approach to compensatory mitigation saves time and money is its ability to avoid or minimize temporal loss to the aquatic ecosystem, MacNeil explained, meaning the time between when project impacts occur and when implemented mitigation successfully achieves approved functional performance targets, such as having different types of native vegetation of different heights and ages at the mitigation site.
When compensatory mitigation is implemented before project impacts occur, it is possible for the mitigation site to reach high functional performance before planned impacts occur, thereby reducing, if not eliminating temporal loss of functions, that for most projects, result in additional agency required mitigation.
"Temporal loss is a frequent issue for our permittees, and it saves money if there's less mitigation required to address it," MacNeil said, adding the permit process is now less costly. "There's a lot of flexibility built into this program that really benefited the M2 program, and it's a good model to use elsewhere in the country, when there are sufficient funds and time available to evaluate a suite of projects collectively.
"While it takes substantial upfront work to comprehensively evaluate and approve the impacts and compensatory mitigation for programs like M2, addressing compensatory mitigation in advance of project impacts can reduce required mitigation and costs, and the approval of each transportation project's impacts occurs more quickly under the permitting mechanism established for that program."