EIR that will trigger Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project is complete and will soon become public

By Gary Walker

An egret lands in the Ballona Wetlands Freshwater Marsh
Photo by Argonaut 2015 Summer Solstice Photo Contest winner David Voss

After five years of interruptions, delays and mounting frustrations among local environmentalists, the preliminary environmental impact report for the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project is substantially complete and will be made public by early October or even the end of September, state and federal officials have confirmed.

Release of the document triggers a public hearing process that will determine the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s restoration strategy for the nearly 600-acre state ecological reserve in Playa del Rey, the only remaining coastal wetlands in the city of Los Angeles.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was slated to give final approval to the report this week.

“This is the first major document of the environmental process that will be released,” Army Corp. of Engineers Section Chief Daniel Swenson told The Argonaut.

Fish and Wildlife is working with the California Coastal Conservancy and the nonprofit Bay Foundation to oversee what’s likely to be a multi-year restoration effort to strengthen the wetlands ecosystem by enhancing tidal flow and bolstering native flora and fauna.

The Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project website (ballonarestoration.org) contemplates four very different possible scopes of restoration work, each of which would be detailed in the environmental impact report.

Three of those options involve lowering the elevation of the ground north of Ballona Creek and creating earthen levees along the wetlands’ northern boundaries. Those three would also involve creating new public trails, bike paths and educational features for the public.

The “Naturalized Creek” option would remove concrete armored levees and realign Ballona Creek into a more natural, sinuous channel that’s reconnected to the newly lowered marsh plain, with earthen levees around the reserves northern edge and north of Culver Boulevard.

The “Partially Naturalized Creek” option is a less ambitious version of the first, with fewer earthen levees.

The third alternative, dubbed “Area A Oxbow,” would lower terrain elevation north of Ballona Creek and create an earthen levee along Fiji Way (known as Area A of the wetlands) and design culverts along the remaining northern concrete levee in two places. The main objective would be to restore wetlands and uplands habitats north of the creek from the Marina Freeway to the west end of Fiji Way.

The fourth option is to take no action, which means “the reserve stays in its current, impaired state and under existing management policies” and “subject to the ongoing influence of sea level rise,” according to the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project website.

The first three options, in contrast, are offered as possible strategies to “create and enhance wetland and uplands habitats” to varying degrees.

State officials say that they do not have a preferred restoration option, despite rumors to the contrary.

Local environmental and wetlands organizations have offered various and often disparate ideas about what the extent and goals of Ballona Wetlands restoration should be, with some outwardly critical of what they claim is Fish and Wildlife’s predisposition to the first and most ambitious “Naturalized Creek” alternative.

But many wetlands advocates have come to agree that the release of the preliminary environmental impact report, originally slated for 2012, has taken far too long.

Causes for delay have included the sudden departure of a consulting firm hired to assist with the analysis and the Annenberg Foundation’s aborted $40-million plan to build a 46,000-square-foot nature center near the Culver-Marina Little League baseball fields.

After the preliminary environmental impact report is made public, state and federal representatives will schedule meetings to receive public comment. No final decision can be made until the public comment period has closed.