Activists prevail in campaign to cap Ballona storm drains

By Gary Walker

Wetlands can play a vital role in absorbing and filtering storm water runoff, but for the past 13 years a network of concrete drains has been preempting nature’s handiwork in the Ballona Wetlands.

Now those drains will be capped, following the settlement of a lawsuit that pitted the nonprofit Grassroots Coalition against Playa Vista founding developers Playa Capital LLC and official wetlands stewards the California Department of Fish & Wildlife.

The settlement comes four years after the California Coastal Commission launched an investigation of the unpermitted drainage system, which has been in operation since the state purchased the wetlands to establish an ecological reserve.

The Grassroots Coalition, among the most tenacious and litigious opponents of the initial development of Playa Vista, claims the drains have been drying out the wetlands in violation of the California Coastal Act. The group is seeking hydrology studies to explore whether the drains harmed Ballona’s fragile ecosystem.

“This [victory] was totally expected. What was not expected was that Fish and Wildlife would drag their feet on this for so long,” Grassroots Coalition President Patricia McPherson said.  “This should be a real red flag warning for everyone who cares about Ballona.”

Fish and Wildlife officials have since taken action to comply with the settlement.

“We agreed to submit an application to the Coastal Commission to cap the drains. We’ve done that, and now it’s with the Coastal Commission,” Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said.

Todd Cardiff, attorney for the Grassroots Coalition, said the group is pushing to have the drains capped at the base or removed.

Playa Capital must pay $20,000 into the state Coastal Conservancy’s remediation fund to fulfill terms of the settlement. The company did not return calls for comment, but in 2013 Playa Capital Vice President of Planning and Entitlements Marc Huffman said officials with the city of Los Angeles had ordered Playa Capital to build the drainage system all those years ago.

“These drains are intended to protect the adjacent roads from flooding in the event of a massive storm, [flooding] which has not occurred since the drains were installed,” Huffman said.

All development in the area, including city-ordered infrastructure, must be approved by the California Coastal Commission — which the drains were not.

In a 2014 letter to Playa Capital, California Coastal Commission enforcement analyst Andrew Willis wrote that “the presence of the subject drains is clearly detrimental to the natural habitat and the hydraulic functioning of the wetland.”

The settlement comes in advance of the state’s promised mid-year publication of a long-delayed environmental study needed to begin restoration work in the wetlands.