The 600-acre Ballona Wetlands is seemingly a hotbed of activity, even if it is not always visible to the public.

Planned restoration efforts are ongoing, including scientific monitoring studies, plant collection and baseline studies of native species. And in between, there have also been interesting discoveries of native flowers that were previously thought to no longer exist in the wetlands.

The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission is the organization that is conducting the wetlands surveys and monitoring. It is assisting the state Department of Fish and Game with the planned restoration of the Ballona ecosystem, a project that has been years in the making.

In the monitoring program, physical, chemical, biological and human data are collected in the wetlands. The commission says that monitoring the site will enhance the existing conditions in the ecological reserve and data that is collected will be used to develop an “adaptive, restoration and monitoring” plan for Ballona.

The Argonaut obtained an advanced copy of the eight-page newsletter, which the commission recently released and details updates on its progress in the Santa Monica Bay watershed as well as other ongoing activities.

A plethora of mammals are being monitored by motion cameras, including coyotes, raccoons and nonnative species like the Virginia possum.

The Ballona Wetlands Baseline Assessment Report is also discussed in the newsletter. Mary Small, the south coast program manager for of the state Coastal Conservancy, gives the report high marks.

“It’s a pretty amazing assessment,” Small said. “The commission has put in a lot of field hours using some amazing volunteers and I think it has been very comprehensive.”

Diana Hulbert, the commission’s restoration project coordinator, concurs.

“I think the baseline monitoring program is amazing, as it gives us a wealth of high quality data on the wetlands’ existing condition,” Hulbert told The Argonaut. “The program’s methods are also of such a nature and quality that they are transferable to other wetlands in the region.”

One of the more recent discoveries in April was a patch of Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushions in an area located behind Gordon’s Market in Playa del Rey. The imperiled yellow sand dune flowers are rarely seen in the Ballona Wetlands, although it is a native plant that was first seen in 1902.

The Argonaut first reported a discovery of the rare dune flower last March in Ballona Lagoon by members of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute at the site of a city restoration project in the Marina Peninsula. The authenticity of the bright, yellow flowers was confirmed and the area where they are sprouting was subsequently cordoned off to prevent any damage to them.

In addition to the Orcutt’s Yellow Pincushion, the Lewis’ evening primrose (Camissonia lewisii) and the suffrutescent wallflower (Erysimum insulare ssp. Suffrutescens) were also discovered during the commission’s plant survey.

“The primrose species are always a delight to see flowering in the restoration area,” said commission biologist Karina Johnston. “In addition to the rare Lewis, the area also contains the beach evening primrose, which is a native species common to open dunes and sandy areas in Southern California.”

Small thinks these discoveries highlight how important it is for the commission to engage in its field studies and plant surveys in the diverse ecological reserve.

“This underscores the necessity of having baseline assessments so that we can have a good picture of what’s out there,” she said.

The flora surveys were done based on flowering times. “It was a site-wide assessment based on field identification and voucher specimens,” Johnston explained.

Johnston credited the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands for its work in the sand dunes of Ballona, which she and others believe allowed for the discovery of the rare pincushion and other flowers.

“These species were found in the Friends of Ballona Wetlands’ restoration dune area. Their presence indicates an exciting shift in the habitat type from an invasive iceplant-dominated habitat to a healthy native dune system,” said the commission botanist.

Also included in the newsletter is a segment on how degraded wetlands can be a contributing factor in climate change. The April 11 document was written by the World Bank in collaboration with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

“Protecting these ecosystems and the blue carbon that they store can be a win-win for everybody,” states Marea Hatziolos, the senior coastal and marine specialist at the World Bank.

Most local environmentalists and conservation groups consider Ballona to be degraded wetlands, although some local organizations feel a heavy restoration of the wetlands is not needed.

Johnston said there are more activities coming in the fall.

“In September, we will complete the second year of the baseline assessment program at the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, and we’re excited to share the information with the public in our first baseline report,” she said. “We’ve collected a huge amount of data across the entire site for several years now, and feel like we have an excellent understanding of current site conditions.”

The commission is also traveling outside Ballona to visit other wetlands to examine conditions in various locations to see if improvements made at certain wetlands can be simulated locally.

At Malibu Lagoon, water quality tests are underway to determine the lagoon’s level of water quality.

The commission backed a restoration plan at Malibu Lagoon that was approved by state authorities as well as the California Costal Commission. A group of environmentalists and Malibu residents won an injunction that halted the project, which commission representatives say could have improved the lagoon’s tidal flow and water quality.

Small said the state restoration plan, which was slated to begin last year, has been delayed due to unexpected and unforeseen complications.

“We’re working through the permitting process right now, which involves many state and federal agencies,” Small explained. “It’s taking longer than we expected.”

Small said that she does not have a date when the environmental review and subsequent public comment for Ballona will begin.

Hulbert said the last several months have given her and other members of the commission hope that if certain obstacles are removed, the Ballona Wetlands will be able to regenerate itself, with additional restoration.

“This is exciting because it allows for apples to apples comparison across wetlands so scientists can see what is happening on a regional level,” the restoration coordinator said. “Finding things like the Orcutt’s Pincushion in the area restored by the Friends is also exciting. It just shows that if you take away the environmental barriers and create favorable conditions, then native plants can survive and thrive.

“Today Ballona…. tomorrow the world of wetlands.”

Small said the ongoing surveys and baseline studies in the wetlands might eventually be useful to the entire region.

“In some ways, the assessment at the Ballona Wetlands could become a model project for Southern California,” she concluded.

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