A visit by the EPA focuses on how wetlands can help reverse global warming

By Gary Walker

Scientists and officials explore the Ballona Wetlands Overlook in Westchester

Scientists and officials explore the Ballona Wetlands Overlook in Westchester










With state officials saying they may need another six months or more to draw up already overdue plans for restoring the Ballona Wetlands, the ecological reserve is drawing attention from the federal government over global warming’s threat to coastal wetlands and how wetlands can be used to fight climate change.

On Feb. 5, representatives from the federal Environmental Protection Agency joined state workers and Bay Foundation scientists at the Ballona Scenic Overlook in the Westchester bluffs for a visual tour of the 600-arce preserve and to share notes on how to incorporate climate change into the state’s restoration effort.

Formerly the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, the Bay Foundation has been assisting the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife and the state Coastal Conservancy with Ballona Wetlands studies.

The Bay Foundation has received funding from the EPA’s National Estuary Program to ensure that Ballona plans account for global warming, and recent legislation by state Sen. Ted Lieu (D- Torrance), whose district includes the wetlands, authorized the California Coastal Conservancy to spend on projects that address climate change.

A 2013 EPA-sponsored report titled “Climate Ready Estuaries” cited rising sea levels as the greatest threat to coastal wetlands.

“We think sea level rise can lead to things like extreme flooding,” Bay Foundation Deputy Director Guangyu Wang, a co-author of the study, told EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner during the visit. “We focused on the Ballona Wetlands because we wanted to make sure that the final [restoration] design takes into account climate change.”

Many scientists argue that Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey, Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and other coastal weather catastrophes are a byproduct of global changes in ocean currents and tide.

Stoner said that healthy wetlands can act as buffers.

“Wetlands have a lot of important functions and will have many more as we deal with climate change,” Stoner said. “When you have a large storm event, they can act as water purification systems during heavy flooding as well as natural barriers to other infrastructure.”

The climate study argued that deteriorated wetlands can exacerbate the effects of global warming.

A report by Ohio State University scientists adds that soil in healthy wetlands can become repositories for carbon, keeping the element out of the atmosphere.

William J. Mitsch, a professor with the school’s Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources, told a university publication last year that a freshwater wetlands area in Huron, Ohio, known as Old Woman Creek has been accumulating significant levels of carbon in its soil.

“I can’t prove that with the 140 grams of carbon [per square meter] per year that my wetlands area is sucking up that the average temperature in the world is therefore going to be .001 degrees Celsius colder. But for the wetlands of the world, we have some calculations that suggest that carbon sequestration in wetlands on a global scale could be on the order of more than 10% of the carbon coming out of the smokestacks,” Mitsch said.

Karina Johnston, a restoration biologist with the Bay Foundation, said the Ballona restoration could be a template for future wetlands projects due to the inclusion of the global warming component.

“I think that Los Angeles can be a pilot city on how climate change can be factored into a restoration,” Johnston said.

Stoner said storm water runoff is also a potential detriment to wetlands health and praised efforts to keep pollution out of channels and creeks

On Feb. 8, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin joined the nonprofit group Ballona Creek Renaissance in organizing nearly 200 volunteers to pull more than 500 pounds of trash out of Ballona Creek to keep pollution from reaching the wetlands.

“Every little bit helps. It all adds up in a positive way,” Stoner said. “There are things that people can do in their own homes, like installing rain barrels.”

The EPA’s wetlands tour also included the Ballona Creek levee in Playa del Rey.

“The tide gates could fail in a major storm if tidal levels continue to rise,” Johnston cautioned officials, adding that Ballona restoration plans could consider whether to replace the concrete levee with a more natural wetlands barrier.