Could the Ballona Wetlands Still Face Bulldozers?
Could the Ballona Wetlands Still Face Bulldozers?
By Rex Frankel
originally printed in the Culver City News, March 26, 2009
Numerous local residents fought for up to 30 years to save the westside’s Ballona Wetlands from the bulldozers of a developer. They won in 2003. So it was a shock to many when they learned last year that under the new owner, the State of California, the bulldozers and heavy equipment could return.
At issue here is what’s the best use of tax dollars: buying up more open spaces next to the wetlands or spending millions of dollars to fix the wetlands, which many who worked to save it say doesn’t need fixing.
The plan unveiled last September by the State’s managers of the land would have spent at least $209 million to dig out and remove most of the earth and trees and plants in the property in order to turn it into largely an inland arm of the ocean. That plan raised a howl from nature-lovers almost immediately and this forced the State’s bureaucracy to back off in January of 2009 and unveil a new plan. They are now promising to bring the public back into the planning process at a meeting this April to decide the future of the largest remaining coastal wetlands in Los Angeles County. (to see the State’s website, go to http://ballonarestoration.org)
The Ballona Wetlands Ecological Preserve is around a square mile in size and sits between the communities of Marina Del Rey, Playa del Rey, Westchester and Del Rey in what was once the floodplain of Ballona Creek. While a lot of the natural wonders of this land may not be visible when you are driving through it on Lincoln or Culver Blvd., a short walk on its trails may lead to a field of colorful wildflowers, a thicket of willow trees, mounds of minty smelling sagebrush and critters like lizards, frogs, jackrabbits and birds ranging from tiny to 4 feet tall.
Whether it was the State’s budget crisis or the threat of lawsuits and political battles that made State officials change their minds, for the next few years, at least, little is going to change at the beloved Ballona Wetlands.
What had seemed like a project on the fast train has been slowed way down by the State's budget crisis, but also by the community's response to the mega-dredging plan. Last month, Dr. Shelley Luce, the director of the State’s Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and a key player in the project unveiled a new plan that preserved more of the higher elevation habitat, the upland/grassland/sagebrush area, especially the zone east of Lincoln Blvd.
There was "definitely a consensus that more uplands were needed", she said in an interview last month. Uplands are considered by scientists to be an essential part of wetlands as they provide the dry nesting areas for the wildlife which then hunts for food in the wetter lands. In response to the concerns of many that the State had unilaterally made a final decision, Luce said that even the latest plan unveiled in January is still "a work in progress". In fact, while it may not have been communicated clearly to the public last September, Dr. Luce says that it was always the State's intention that the plans were going to be modified after further review by the public. When the plan was first unveiled at a public meeting at Loyola Marymount University last September, critics immediately cried foul. “You don’t even know what is on the land,” said local wildlife photographer Jonathan Coffin, who has a website on flickr.com called “stonebird” with shots of birds, plants and animals that have been missed in the State’s official lists of likely occupants of the wetlands. In response to this, Luce agreed that "What is missing is a comprehensive survey of what is on the land".
WHAT’S ON THE LAND
In a noisy and busy urban environment like Los Angeles, there were many reasons to save this last intact piece of nature. Some come here to watch 350 types of birds. Some come to hike in a quiet refuge from the loud city. Others need a place to walk their dogs or ride their mountain bikes.
But the Ballona wetlands are a lot different than when man first arrived here. Instead of a delta-like region with many channels and sand bars and islands, full of the rainfall draining from Hollywood to the coast, Ballona today is much drier and the main source of water comes from the sky, a spring in the hillside near Loyola Marymount University, and from the ocean through a few remaining channels that were once part of the larger Centinela Creek.
During the last century when Los Angeles was paved over into a 100 mile metropolis, wetlands and creeks were dumped with trash and disparaged as “waste” lands and a nuisance and breeding ground for mosquitos. Beginning around 1905, the community of Venice was reclaimed from the north Ballona wetlands and a system of canals were dug to carry away water and also provide a lagoon for small boats called gondolas, much like the city of Venice in Italy. In the 1930’s the federal government sought to make the surrounding low-lying areas safe from flooding, and so they largely dried up the remaining Ballona Wetlands by confining Ballona Creek to a concrete channel running through the middle of the marsh and heading straight to the ocean. In the late 1950’s, another section of the wetlands was dug out into a yacht harbor and named Marina Del Rey. Construction of the Marina also brought a lot of damage to the wetland to the south as it was overrun with heavy equipment and used as a dumping ground for excess mud dug from the harbor channel. By the late 1970’s, only about 1/3rd of the original wetlands remained unpaved and it was in the hands of one owner, the estate of the quirky billionaire Howard Hughes, who in the 1940’s had bought up much of the wetlands plus dry land in the floodplain to the east for his company, Hughes Aircraft.
By the 1980’s, development plans for a project called “Playa Vista” were floated proposing to pave over 90% of Hughes’ land and carve out another yacht harbor, adding a golf course and 13,000 condominiums and numerous high-rise office buildings and a massive shopping center. After over 20 years of lawsuits by environmental groups over traffic jams and wildlife loss, including the political intrigue of one of L.A.’s most powerful politicians, the City Council’s president Pat Russell, getting voted out of office by angry constituents in 1987, the public now owns 600 acres, which is around 2/3rds of the former Hughes property.
The State spent a total of $225 million to buy this land with the first part of 73 acres acquired in 1988 and the rest in 2003.
WHAT TO DO WITH IT?
So what do you do with this land that is loved by birdwatchers and hikers, bikers and little leaguers?
In the opinion of the new managers of the wetlands at the State’s Coastal Conservancy and Department of Fish and Game, using massive earth-moving equipment and carving or “dredging” (as it’s called) out an almost all water “estuary” is the right way to go. At a cost of at least $209 million from taxpayers, their plan unveiled last fall would have converted the property into nearly all wetlands. The property now is around half salt and freshwater wetlands and half drier “uplands”, which are home to the wildflowers, sagebrush and hiking trails,.
Seeing this plan, 3 groups that had previously fought with each other over the development plans, with opposing strategies, such as “should we work with the developer?” or “should we sue them?”, all agreed that the State plan was too much. All of these former adversaries, which are the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project, and the Balllona Institute agreed that the uplands and hiking trails were valuable and should not be eliminated.
As John Hodder, a biologist who has worked on wetland and upland habitat restoration projects and heads a group called California Wetland Research, explained, there are two ways to go when doing a restoration. The way which was chosen by the State planners is for maximum “biological productivity” and as the thinking goes, the wetter the habitat, the more life that can grow there. This approach favors ocean life and the wide numbers of animals that live there. The other approach is “maximum biodiversity” in which the existing three types of natural habitats at Ballona, all of which are rare in Los Angeles, would be preserved and enhanced. This would maintain the wide range of both common and endangered wildlife and plants in the saltmarsh, which are distinct from the freshwater marsh and distinct from the uplands, too.
Kathy Knight believes that “we should do nothing but pull weeds for the next hundred years.” Knight is a board member of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project, which filed an unsuccessful lawsuit over the 1st part of the Playa Vista development plans in 1993 and halted the second and final portion in 2007. Knight agrees with Betsy Landis, a leader in the L.A. chapter of the California Native Plant Society, who wrote in their newsletter, “Let Ballona back in to flush the marsh area, but do no dredging. The best answer—let Nature do the work.”
An opposite opinion is held by Dr. Shelley Luce of the Bay Restoration Commission, who formerly worked as a marine biologist for the Heal the Bay group. As a member of a science advisory committee for the wetland project who was appointed by the State project managers, Luce strongly favored the plan unveiled last fall. Luce feels that “50 years of vegetation” that grew up after the construction of Marina Del Rey on the north portion of the remaining wetlands can be removed since the State’s plan would replace it with something more like what was historically there.
Choosing to be historically accurate and removing much of what is there now, however, really upsets those who like Ballona exactly as it is. Marcia Hanscom with the Ballona Institute thinks that if taxpayers provide the money, the priority should be to buy up other parcels of natural open space on the periphery of the wetlands. She points to two parcels totaling 5 acres near the original mouth of Ballona Creek at the ocean in Playa del Rey that are targeted by their owners for condominium development. Her group, as well as another called the Ballona Network have a list of smaller parcels on all sides of the State preserve that they feel would make excellent additions. After the State committee made its final recommendation in last September, Hanscom wrote in an email to activists “It will still be good-bye to the Great Blue Heron as a nesting species at Ballona, good-bye to the White-tailed Kite and Northern Harrier, good-bye to California King Snake, California Ground Squirrel, Horned Lizard, and possibly even the endangered Belding's Savannah Sparrow - as the channel where they currently nest will also be dug up and re-made in the likeness of whatever these people think is best.”
As local activists frame it, the choice is between adding more currently threatened open spaces to L.A.’s meager supply of green spaces, versus spending the money re-arranging land that is already saved for which no consensus has been reached on what is the best way to do it. Or as activist Kathy Knight says, “The wetlands will always be here—what’s the rush?”
Rex Frankel writes about various public policy issues at http://rexfrankel.com, and about the Ballona issue at http://ballona-news.blogspot.com .