Wetlands advocates draw battle lines between opposing visions for restoration

By Gary Walker

Restoration Alternative 1 would naturalize the flow of Ballona Creek and surround it with tidal wetlands


Deep-seeded ideological differences about the ends and means of ecological restoration in the Ballona Wetlands took center stage during last week’s only scheduled public hearing on the document that will guide those efforts.

Attendees also learned that the most extensive of three California Department of Fish and Wildlife restoration proposals could cost upwards of $180 million.

More than 250 people crowded into the Burton Chace Park Community room on Nov. 8 to raise topics for further study and, in the case of some prominent environmental groups, go on record about where they stand in the Ballona debate.

Members of the Wetlands Restoration Principles Coalition — a collaboration of Heal the Bay, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, the Surfrider Foundation and Friends of Ballona Wetlands — signaled preferences for a hybrid of two competing restoration alternatives that would significantly alter the existing landscape.

Some less-funded but historically more vocal advocacy groups, such as the Ballona Institute and the Grassroots Coalition, pushed for a much lighter touch that would leave existing wetlands ecoystems essentially unchanged. Ballona Institute allies sported green T-shirts with the slogan “Don’t Bulldoze Ballona.”

A congregation of great egrets holds court in lowland area of the Ballona Wetlands
Photo by Jonathan Coffin

The most ambitious restoration alternative — the one with an estimated price tag of $182.8 million — would tear down concrete around Ballona Creek and lower adjacent land elevations to facilitate a curvier, more naturalized channel that would feed surrounding tidal lowlands. A second alternative priced at $144.1 million takes a similar approach but would naturalize a smaller portion of the creek, while a third would limit such efforts to the Fiji Way perimeter and the fourth would essentially stick to the status quo.

The extensively delayed state restoration effort would draw funding from California Coastal Conservancy bonds approved way back in 2004.

“We are thrilled that the long-awaited restoration for the Ballona Wetlands is underway, and we see real promise in Alternatives 1 and 2 for the opportunity to bring back Ballona to a healthy, functioning system. … The plan is based on good science and many years of research,” said Heal the Bay watershed scientist Katherine Pease.

“We are in favor of improving tidal circulation and reconnecting the creek with its historic floodplain to reestablish a natural ecosystem with greater biodiversity,” said Melissa von Mayrhauser, programs manager for Los Angeles Waterkeeper.

Restoration biologist Margot Griswold took exception, however, with labeling Alternatives 1 and 2 as restoration efforts as opposed to habitat creation efforts.

“Under the definition of restoration, none of the alternatives presented represents a restoration, or revitalization or even an enhancement. They are all creation, and that’s not restoration,” she asserted.

Griswold said Ballona’s history isn’t exclusive to the type of tidal wetlands envisioned by Alternatives 1 and 2.

“There are many types of coastal wetlands,” she said, “and many of us know that not all coastal wetlands are tidal wetlands.”

Others who attended the meeting raised concerns about disturbing Native American remains and displacing the long established Culver-Marina Little League fields south of Culver Boulevard.

Robert Dorame, the state-designated descendant of the immediate area’s Gabrielino-Tongva inhabitants, said documented Native American burial sites are not limited to those collected and reinterred during the construction of Playa Vista but exist throughout the reserve, possibly just a few feet below the surface.

“There are additional sites other than those identified in the [environmental study] that must be considered due to sensitivity of the land, which is considered traditional cultural property. I love the wetlands, and I want everyone affiliated with this project to care as much as I do,” Dorame said.

Mark Espinoza of the Culver-Marina Little League brought more than 20 young athletes to complain that Alternative 2 would require removing one of their baseball fields.

“You talk about killing wildlife, but with this plan you’re killing their dreams,” he said.

The written comment period for the Ballona report has already been extended to Feb. 8, and officials are considering requests to extend it even longer, said Army Corps of Engineers Col. Kirk Gibbs.