The Ballona Wetlands

The Ballona Wetlands are the last coastal wetlands remaining in Los Angeles and there is much controversy on finding the right way to preserve it.

The Ballona Wetlands are rich with nature, history, educational value and controversy 

The Ballona Wetlands are the last coastal wetlands remaining in Los Angeles. Many are vouching for its survival; however, there is controversy on finding the right way to preserve it.

“My generation is exposed to so much destruction of our environment, and we are begging leaders to make decisions based on what is best for the planet,” said Genesis Butler, a 14-year-old environmentalist and the founder of Youth Climate Save, at a news conference for the Ballona Wetlands on July 21.

Situated south of Marina del Rey and east of Playa del Rey, extending to west of Playa Vista and south of the Westchester Bluffs, the Ballona Wetlands brings locals, tourists, schools and more to this ecological gem of the Westside. However, even as the Ballona Wetlands brings wonder to its visitors, it is also subjected to lack of precipitation and climate change. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wetlands are among one of the most productive ecosystems in the world. They can be thought of as “biological supermarkets,” which benefit both wildlife and humans. Wetlands provide food and habitats for species, which they use for most to all of their lifetime. They also protect from flooding, improve quality of water and control shoreline erosion while providing economic opportunities. 

As the Ballona Wetlands are valuable to many, there is a divide on how they should be preserved. Currently, there are four alternatives. The main divide rests on whether to implement the restoration plans made by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), which involves using mechanics (alternative one) or to leave the wetlands be and implement a 20-point “gentler approach” proposed by Defend Ballona Wetlands (alternative four). Over the years, this dispute has yet to be settled as lawsuits from opposing parties continue to be posed. However, will the wetlands win against the race of climate change? 

“The wetlands as an ecosystem, I see as being unhealthy because it has been starved of water,” said Eric Strauss, executive director of the Loyola Marymount University Center for Urban Healing. “So the natural processes of tidal flow have long been suppressed, and just like natural fires are a nourishing and regenerative force in forests, storm surge and flooding is a critical aspect of the rejuvenation of wetland systems.” 

Strauss worked with wetlands both in LA and on the East Coast, and explained how different climates affect their vitality. The Ballona Wetlands is located in an urban area with a Mediterranean climate where precipitation comes in extremes. 

LA receives most of its precipitation from a few storms during the year, which makes the wetlands diverse with animals and plants that adapt to long periods of water stress. However, Strauss explained how these extremes are beneficial in terms of remapping and rebuilding the wetlands’ ecosystems. 

“Our efforts in the Ballona Wetlands are more complicated than in other wetland systems to a degree because we have to mechanically mimic what storms and water would do if they were allowed to move unimpeded,” Strauss said, adding that these efforts would also contain protecting built structures. 

From working with Loyola Marymount’s Center for Urban Resilience, Strauss sees a problem with the term “restoration,” as it should instead be called “transformation.” Restoration assumes a time when the Ballona Wetlands were untrammeled by human urbanization. On the other hand, transformation signifies recovering the ecosystem services the wetlands once provided. 

History

The Ballona Wetlands was founded by Agustin Machado around 1820. Machado turned the area into a ranch, which was called Rancho La Ballona, paid for by a grant from the Mexican government. With this development, the Ballona Wetlands endured conflicting functions of its natural landscape and catering to livestock. 

Since then, the Ballona Wetlands endured years of development and decay. This also included speculation of a DreamWorks studio being plotted over the land and excess sediment when Marina del Rey was developed in the 1960s. Now, the land is owned and managed by the CDFW.

Overview of the Restoration Project

Richard Brody, the land manager for the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, working for the CDFW, explained how restoration is the long-term solution for the wetlands. The plans for restoration were mandated as a part of the original acquisition of the lands. 

When the CDFW acquired the land in 2003, there was a bond measure in 2000. This was the Coastal Protection Bond Act, of which $25 million went to restoring habitats in the Santa Monica Bay. This extends from Malibu to Palos Verdes, including the Ballona Wetlands. 

“We need to still protect surrounding infrastructure,” Brody said. “So, if we take these levees down, we need to move them to the perimeter. There’s no way anyone would responsibly just tear these levees down and say, let nature figure it out.”

The Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) explains how the objectives and purpose of the Restoration Project fall under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). However, there is pushback to the restoration plans due to different environmental perceptions.

Sea level rise

Part of the restoration plans include removing the existing levees and replacing them with new ones further away from the creek. Walter Lamb, president of the Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, is opposed to this change because the environmental impact analysis shows that removal of the existing levees would expose current breeding habitat for endangered and threatened species to inundation by sea level rise.

Instead of removing the existing levees, Lamb’s organization has requested an analysis of how using the thin layer segment augmentation could be used to raise the elevation of the marsh to keep pace with rising seas. Lamb notes that, according to the environmental analysis, the tide gates could be adjusted to allow more water to come in as marsh elevations are increased.

Endangered Species:

A species that is being widely talked about in the restoration plans is the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow. This species lives in mid to high marsh and pickleweed is among its preferred nest plants. From reading the environmental analysis, Lamb noticed that a slight increase in sea levels would change the marsh from mid to low, which isn’t as good for the sparrow. 

“It’s a different habitat and it’s not a habitat that’s as conducive to this bird,” Lamb said. 

However, Dr. David Kay, an environmental manager who advocates for the state’s restoration plans, said the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow is not going to be significantly adversely affected, as the project construction will be performed outside of nesting season, which is a standard mitigation measure on all earthmoving projects. Kay said that a small area of pickleweed will be impacted, but much more will be created by the project, expanding the habitat for the sparrow. 

“We’ve done this successfully dozens of times before at scores of other coastal tidal wetland restorations in Southern California,” Kay said.

The Draft EIR shows the net gain and loss of the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow if the restoration goes through. The total change in net habitat for the animal is 69.6 acres gained (cited from table 3.4-9 on page 3.4-99 of the Draft EIR). However, as 17.9 acres of the habitat would be permanently lost, there are fears that the species won’t be able to adapt. 

Marcia Hanscom, assistant vice chair of Sierra Club Angeles Chapter, believes the restoration plans aren’t conducive to endangered species due to the reliance they have on the wetlands and associated habitats in reserve. She and others are opposed to displacing species from their habitats as that activity goes against protecting them.

“We call that the precautionary principle, which is a principle that medical doctors think of all the time and it’s ‘First do no harm,’” Hanscom said. “And so if this were a parking lot and you wanted to dig it all up and turn it into something else, that’d be one thing, but that’s not what this is and so the endangered spaces issue is crucial and in the center of why a lot of us are working to protect this place as it is. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things that could be done. It just means don’t dig up the place and alter the habitat with this big industrial plan.” 

Climate change

A part of protecting the Ballona Wetlands is understanding the impacts of climate change. According to the EPA, the largest source of global greenhouse gases is through burning coal, natural gas and oil for heat and electricity. The location of the Southern California Gas Company facility by the Ballona Wetlands is a point of contention for all restoration perspectives as gas has leaked into the wetlands. 

Alexandra Nagy is the California director at Food & Water Watch, an organization that focuses on corporate and government accountability relating to food, water and corporate overrreach. As fossil fuels and methane are propelling climate change, Food & Water Watch believes the facility is a detriment to the health of the wetlands and surrounding community and would like to see it shut down. However, as Governor Newsom oversees the public utilities commission, Nagy thinks that he should localize policies that can help lower greenhouse gas emissions. 

“The governor is responsible at the end of the day for making sure we’re moving off fossil fuels,” Nagy said. “So localizing that stuff for him and having communities on the ground who are really engaged, educated and know who has power to do this and are putting that pressure directly on him, that’s what we need to keep doing so we can move forward on that goal.”

However, Nagy among other sources believe that CDFW’s restoration plans will benefit the gas facility. On the other hand, SoCalGas announced plans last year that they will be permanently sealing 16 wells within the wetlands and one located just outside it. They have also hired archaeologists and biologists to monitor work aiming to preserve the wetlands. 

Yet, Kay believes that the restoration plans are designed to help the wetlands fight climate change. Kay managed the restoration of the San Dieguito Wetlands near Del Mar, which took a similar approach to what the state is looking to take at Ballona. He believes that they make a dent in the problems that are trying to be solved against climate change. 

He pointed to how restoration can help control greenhouse gases from being emitted. Kay said because tidal wetlands are more biologically productive than dry uplands due to their lusher, year-round vegetation, they absorb more carbon dioxide.

“Every little bit of greenery helps pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and of course that’s the main human-caused driver for global climate change right now,” Kay said. 

Equitable access/restoration decision-making 

Neysa Frechette, manager of scientific programs at Friends of Ballona Wetlands, explained how implementing a scientific-based restoration would be beneficial to the city of LA for appreciating its last coastal wetlands and for providing equitable access. 

“That’s always been our dream as an organization to see Ballona fully restored, a fully functioning, thriving, coastal estuary, our only one in the city of LA,” Frechette said. “So we support a robust science-based restoration that maximizes the biodiversity and connectivity of the area while creating safe and equitable public access.” 

The restored wetlands will provide equitable public access. Friends of Ballona Wetlands website lists how the restoration plan will expand public access to explore the Ballona Wetlands. This includes adding 3.6 miles of bike/pedestrian pathway, 5.5 miles of pedestrian-only pathway, 2,000  feet of boardwalk for people, two bridges to increase safety and access, educational signage and more parking space. 

With these new features, Friends of Ballona Wetlands believes the restorations can bring more than 15,000 disadvantaged households within biking distance (1.9 miles) and 500,000 within driving distance (13 miles), as identified in a study by Jon Christensen, adjunct assistant professor at UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Note: Friends of Ballona Wetlands is in support of the restoration, not working on it. 

Yet, Hanscom doesn’t believe that everyone has an equal opportunity to make a decision for the future of the Ballona Wetlands and would like to see that changed. 

 “I want everybody to feel like they’re part of this decision-making and that they haven’t been. The Ballona Wetlands right now is still run like it’s a private club.” 

The Indigenous community is also a significant population of the Ballona Wetlands. They mentioned how the restoration plans may be affecting their livelihoods. 

“This restoration is only an excuse to destroy what’s left of these ecosystems,” said Genelle Butler, the grandniece of Caesar Chavez at the July 21 news conference.

 

Hopes for the future of the Wetlands

 

Even as there are different perspectives on how the Ballona Wetlands should be protected, many want to see it healthy through the long run and accessible to everyone. 

Friends of Ballona Wetlands run K-12 educational programs, student internships and weekend docent-led tours for the community. Frechette believes these programs are beneficial for people to learn about the world around them and how nature can help human health, and vice versa. Frechette believes visitors can use what they learn at Ballona into their daily lives. 

Lamb said he hopes for his young daughter to be able to explore nature at Ballona and for everyone to think of the generation of children who will be with Ballona in the future. 

“My hopes for them [the children] is that the politicians and the people who have [the], financial, political, whatever stake in this can pull back and say this ecological reserve isn’t for them,” Lamb said. 

Brody sees the restoration as an opportunity to spotlight one of the biological hotspots in LA. 

“I see it as one of the most significant biological hotspots in the region and a large-scale regional opportunity for wetland education,” Brody said. “It’s really the largest opportunity for coastal wetland and wildlife recovery along the LA county coastline. It’s a significant opportunity for open space for Angelenos. This is the second largest open space, second only to Griffith Park in the city. So to have that, really teaming with sensitive wildlife is exciting to think about.”

Nagy hopes for the Ballona Wetlands to be protected and that access can start to be improved right away.

“It’s one more jewel in Southern California’s nature network that is closed off to the public and that’s really sad,” Nagy said. “The public should be let in and I think that could happen immediately, regardless of this super controversial plan.”

Strauss believes that more underprivileged students need to experience nature as a whole, which can start at the Ballona Wetlands. 

“One of the most important roles that urban green space can provide is the social transformation,” Strauss said. 

According to the CDFW’s website, the restoration project will proceed to its final design. Part of what’s left to be done is completing a federal environmental review document, which would take around two and a half years.”  

Friends of Ballona Wetlands

ballonafriends.org

CDFW Environmental 

Impact Report

wildlife.ca.gov/Regions/5/Ballona-EIR

SoCal Gas 

youtube.com/watch?v=kbd5T1VoCdk