Not the Kind of Buzz You Want to Hear

Posted September 14, 2016 by The Argonaut in News

Playa Vista Freshwater Marsh harbored a ‘massive and unprecedented’ mosquito population this summer, but officials say it’s now under control

By Gary Walker

Playa Vista Freshwater Marsh, the 51.7-acre portion of the Ballona Wetlands southwest of Lincoln and Jefferson boulevards, has been credited with helping native birds stage a comeback in the area because of the habitat its stewards have created to attract them.

But the marsh also became a breeding ground for tens of thousands of mosquitos this summer due to a lack of routine maintenance, according to public health reports obtained by The Argonaut.

Mosquito counts at the marsh were the highest in recent history for anywhere in the Los Angeles County West Vector and Vector-Borne Disease Control District, which patrols West Los Angeles and parts of the South Bay and San Fernando Valley.

Agency Executive Director Dr. Robert Saviskas described the mosquito breeding as “massive and unprecedented” in a July 20 letter of warning issued to the Ballona Wetlands Conservancy, a consortium of nonprofit and public agencies responsible for maintaining the marsh.

“These are the highest [mosquito] counts ever recorded anywhere in the district over the last 50 years and have exposed the local residents and school children at Playa Vista Elementary School to an extremely high public health risk of contracting West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika and dengue fever,” states the document, a second notice of intent to file a public health and safety violation that refers to an initial notice sent June 27.

“Mosquito counts have gone from a high of only 38 per night in 2015 to 14,206 per night in 2016 during the same time period due to the lack of vegetation removal and maintenance in the Playa Vista Marsh and Teal Channel,” Saviskas wrote, adding that traps placed next to and across the street from Playa Vista Elementary on July 13 had mosquito counts of 1,325 and 3,251 per night.

The Ballona Wetlands Conservancy says it has brought the situation under control by implementing a mosquito abatement plan that included lowering the water levels at the marsh and clearing vegetation throughout the entire marsh system.

“The situation has greatly improved and we are still working to comply with vector control requirements. All mosquito counts are down dramatically for the freshwater marsh and the riparian corridor,” reads a statement by the conservancy, which includes representatives of the California State Lands Commission, California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, the nonprofit Friends of Ballona Wetlands, Playa Vista master developers Brookfield Residential and former Playa Vista developers Playa Capital.

Saviskas did not return calls to discuss the progress of abatement efforts, but according to the conservancy a mosquito count in the marsh area on Aug. 31 turned up only 20 mosquitos.

Despite Saviskas’ warnings about potential exposure to mosquito-borne illness, the July 20 notice did not state that any mosquitos in the marsh this summer tested positive for West Nile virus or any other disease.

But in June 2007, mosquitos trapped at Playa Vista Freshwater Marsh did test positive for West Nile virus — once again after breeding had spiraled out of control due to lack of routine maintenance, which resulted in a public health and safety nuisance notice, according to the document.

In 2008, the numbers of mosquitos at the marsh increased tenfold at two locations from April through May 12 due to reed and foliage growth that went unchecked. A public heath notice was issued to the conservancy that year as well.

Because of the West Nile detection nine years ago, LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer said the district will compare notes with health officials.

“What the district has to do in this situation is find the right amount of balance in taking the proper health precautions and that we don’t restrict students in their normative school day activities,” Zimmer said.

According to a California Department of Public Health spokesperson, mosquito species detected in the marsh this summer may have increased the possibility of detecting West Nile virus but not necessarily the risk of transmitting it to humans, because not all species of wetland mosquitoes are disease vectors.

Like in 2007 and 2008, this summer’s unchecked overgrowth of reeds and bulrushes (also known as cattails) became so prolific that the weeds prevented mosquito fish, which eat mosquito larvae, from entering marsh channels.

In the July 20 notice, Saviskas wrote that the vegetation removal efforts started immediately after the first warning in June had abated only 25% of the impacted area at that time.

“The lack of maintenance over an extended period of time,” he wrote, “has created such dense growth and height (15-plus feet high in most areas …) that insecticide dispensed by the district to control the mosquitos cannot adequately penetrate the growth and get down to the water.”


    John Davis

    The question here is if the Ballona Wetlands Conservancy has any legal authority, whatsoever, to manage the wetlands project at all.

    According to a reply to a public records request from the State Lands Commission, a conservation easement for maintenance was granted to this private non-profit business for that purpose.

    According to section 1(b), Deferred Grant of Easement for Remainder Parcel, the right to maintain the project would be deferred until that the Grantee, (Ballona Wetlands Conservancy), received written notice from Playa Capital Company, LLC, that the development of the Remainder Parcel portion of the Freshwater Marsh was completed.

    It appears this remainder parcel is the, “salt marsh”, portion of the USACE 404 Flood Control and Coastal Development Permits that were never finished.

    So, what lawful authority does this non-profit have to conduct maintenance on the State owned wetlands, if any? And, if the Ballona Wetlands Conservancy did have that authority, why have they been asleep at the wheel for so long, placing the public in harms way?

    John Davis


    The Ballona Wetlands Land Trust appreciates coverage of this and other topics relating to this special ecosystem and public natural resource. We were happy to provide the Argonaut with the notices from Vector Control referenced in the article on August 25. The July 27 notice can be found at the link below for anyone wishing to read the original document:

    The article incorrectly states that the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Lands Commission each have a representative on the Ballona Wetlands Conservancy Board of Directors. The Bylaws for the Conservancy indicate that there are four Board members, one each appointed by Playa Capital, Friends of Ballona Wetlands, the Secretary of Natural Resources for California, and Los Angeles City Council District 11 (Bonin).

    We have asked the Ballona Wetlands Conservancy for copies of meeting agendas and minutes of meetings that would help shed light on this and other issues but they have refused to voluntarily provide those minutes, citing their status as a private non-profit. That, of course, ignores the fact that two public appointees to their Board have complete access to the documents and that the Conservancy’s “sole purpose [is] maintaining the Freshwater Wetland System,” much of which is on public land. The Land Trust will eventually get these records via the Public Records Act, but it is very disappointing that they have not been provided voluntarily.

    This is another example of a lack of transparency resulting from a public/private arrangement at Ballona where important public information is shielded behind the private entity. Public/private partnerships work best when the public has access to all information about the partnership. That wasn’t the case with the Annenberg Foundations three year foray into a construction proposal at Ballona (since abandoned), it has been a problem with the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission/Foundation (although that situation is slowly improving), and it certainly isn’t the case with the Ballona Wetlands Conservancy and its public/private management structure.

    Walter Lamb
    Ballona Wetlands Land Trust

    Douglas Fay

    This is a prime example of failed social engineering of a natural resource. Playa Vista, Heal The Bay, the media, and all the agencies and politicians are to blame for the imbalance of nature. What native fishes, avian species, and other natural competitors are missing through displacement at this location? Replacing natural occurring fresh water with synthetic toxin laden urban runoff significantly compromises wildlife’s ability to survive and combat mosquito populations. I’ve never experienced a fresh water marsh that didn’t have mosquitoes, have you? Spraying pesticides in and adjacent to an ecological preserve should be banned and enforced through policy.

    Rena Panush

    In regard to the wildlife corridor just east of LIncoln and south of Bluff Creek Dr. Part of the increase in the mosquito population there can be directly contributed to the destruction by Playa Vista of a wide swath of habitat starting late in 2015. What used to be a fairly narrow, trail bounded by foliage is now a 30 foot wide dirt road, dirt brought in from construction excavations at Playa Vista. Birds and frogs that might have helped in reducing the mosquito population are gone. Coyotes without prey are now hunting in Westchester. Any migratory birds who normally stop along this corridor will be sorely disappointed this winter.
    In addition to the crews regrading and degrading the wildlife corridor, there were some working there removing reeds from the creek, but i guess that was too little, too late. Instead of spending time and money ruining the habitat, more crews could have been put into reed pulling if that would have truly prevented the huge mosquito increase.

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