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A Faster Track for Ecosystem Restoration

Lori Pottinger August 24, 2020
photo - Green Gulch Zen Center Restoration Project, from Accelerating Restoration Program

This is part of a series on smarter environmental permitting.

California’s rivers and aquatic species are in trouble, but restoration projects often get bogged down by lengthy permitting processes. Sustainable Conservation has been at the forefront of finding ways to speed up badly needed restoration projects with improved permitting. We talked to Erika Lovejoy—director of Sustainable Conservation’s Accelerating Restoration program—about efforts to simplify the regulatory process while upholding essential environmental protections.

photo - Erika Lovejoy

PPIC: Why is it necessary to improve permitting for ecosystem restoration?

ERIKA LOVEJOY: California is dealing with many pressing environmental problems, and the regulatory process for restoration is extremely complex and inefficient—which can discourage project proponents. A riparian project, for example, may have to go through a half dozen or more agencies, each with its own process. It can take years to get to project implementation.

The challenge is that key laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act—both very important pieces of legislation—were designed to stop bad projects from happening, not to get restoration projects built. Restoration projects have to go through the same process as a new Walmart.

PPIC: How does improved permitting work?

EL: We’re working with agencies and the legislature to develop policy and regulatory incentives to make it easier and faster to get restoration work done. A major part of that effort is to establish a consistent, coordinated permitting process for particular types of projects. These “programmatic permits” make it easier and less expensive to get through the regulatory process. Essentially these are permits written in advance to cover the most common restoration projects, with a focus on the highest-priority project types—for example, floodplain restoration and fish passage improvements. Projects must meet all of the terms to use these permits.

Programmatic permits don’t bypass environmental protections or cut corners on design, but instead consolidate repetitive steps in the process. The types of projects targeted for programmatic permits still have to qualify and meet strict conditions from the various agencies involved, covering issues like erosion control, endangered species protection, and avoidance of habitat disturbance. This is standard permit stuff, but it may be written in 10 different, potentially conflicting ways by the regulatory bodies that have to approve a project, making it hard for applicants to comply. Programmatic permits standardize expectations, save time and money for applicants and agency staff, and offer a much more collaborative process.

PPIC: Are there successes to point to?

EL: We’ve worked with partners to set up some really successful models for using efficient permitting for restoration. As one example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the California Coastal Commission have a coordinated program for a specific set of project types and environmental protection requirements within both agencies’ jurisdictions. The program has saved millions of dollars in public and private funds, and is moving projects to implementation much more quickly, with more money for on-the-ground work.

The goal is to expand this approach to all of the major state and federal agencies. We’re currently working with a number of agencies to develop statewide, coordinated authorizations based on common project types. This should be completed by next year.

The state’s Habitat Restoration and Enhancement Act is another example. It expedites the permitting process for small projects (less than five acres) to 30–60 days. About 75 projects have been built since the act passed in 2015, making improvements to many kinds of habitats, including for endangered salmon and urban watersheds.

Getting more restoration projects done is really important to help recover at-risk species, protect water quality, and improve habitat. Restoration projects also benefit the economy, creating jobs that can reduce flood risk, improve water quality, and help the state prepare for the effects of climate change.

PPIC: Besides improved permitting, what other steps could speed restoration work?

EL: A number of complementary actions are required to implement projects at the pace and scale needed—particularly, coordinated funding for ecosystem projects, more technical assistance, and a progressive new agency structure that incentivizes good projects. For example, California Fish and Wildlife and NOAA have grant programs that provide technical assistance and help with permits. By putting all essential services in one package, they’ve created a partnership approach for restoration that moves projects forward in a more efficient and collaborative way.

Our vision is to scale up this approach and put restoration on a separate permitting track from development projects. We’d like to see a statewide program that has restoration permitting, funding, and technical assistance in one office. Coupled with the creation of long-term funding and other incentives, a program like this could really make some progress. Creating this paradigm shift will take strong agency leadership and support from the administration. We hope some of these changes can happen through the state’s Cutting the Green Tape effort.

Note: For more information on the Cutting Green Tape initiative, visit the California Landscape Stewardship Network’s site

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