The Bay Foundation’s Karina Johnston on the health of L.A.’s watershed and what we can do about it

Karina Johnston leads the Bay Foundation’s scientific assessment and monitoring program for the Ballona Wetlands and other watershed areas

Karina Johnston leads the Bay Foundation’s scientific assessment and monitoring program for the Ballona Wetlands and other watershed areas

The Southern California Academy of Sciences Board of Directors is about the get a very hands-on new member.

As director of watershed programs for the nonprofit Bay Foundation, Karina Johnston implements watershed cleanups throughout Los Angeles and leads the scientific assessment and monitoring program for the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve.

When the academy holds its annual meeting on Friday and Saturday at Loyola Marymount University, Johnston will be introduced both as a newly elected board member and the lead author of new scientific research.

She’ll present a two-year study of “regional, rapid condition evaluations of multiple coastal estuarine systems in Southern California” — in other words, a health assessment of the L.A. area’s urban coastal watersheds, including the Ballona Wetlands.

The Bay Foundation’s work at Ballona is all the more significant as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission and California Coastal Conservancy work to draft an environmental report that that will outline restoration options for the approximately 600-acre state preserve.

That long-awaited report was delayed once again last year after the Annenberg Foundation dropped a $50-million restoration assistance plan that involved controversial plans to build a 46,000-square-foot environmental education center on site.

As an academy board member, Johnston will be involved in the publication of its peer-reviewed Southern California Scientists Bulletin.

— Bonnie Eslinger

What is the value of bringing together the scientific community for meetings like this?

Science is moving toward a level that’s evermore intercollegiate and interconnected, which I think is really important. Especially with some of the larger challenges we face today, like climate change and sea-level rise — broad-scale, regional problems. It’s important to bring together a diverse set of scientists and science communicators to really be able to tackle these problems in an interdisciplinary way, as well as introduce some of these issues to the public.

Biological sciences really shouldn’t be done in a vacuum. It’s always important to have peers, both to review your work and to partner with you on projects, grants or papers.

What’s your presentation about?  

Anthropological stressors are impacts that we as humans have had on ecological systems over the last 100, 150 years or so. My presentation is taking a regional look at tidal wetland systems in the Southern California area, especially central Southern California. One of those wetlands is the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, which contains both multiple types of wetland systems and a blend of transitional habitat areas as well.

So, it’s not just wetlands. That’s an important distinction that people don’t know: the Ballona Wetlands are not entirely wetlands — they’re about half. So we’re going to take a regional look, based on data we’ve collected for the last four years, at the health of some of these systems and compare them to each other and to some reference sites that have had fewer impacts from humans over time.  And we can use these data to start to understand the systems better and prioritize systems that may need more help and active restoration.

What is the condition of the Ballona Wetlands?

Good and very bad. Ballona, interesting enough, has almost the full range of kind-of-middle to low quality, based on the condition scores of wetlands. What I mean by that is in some areas there are tide gates allowing in some water, tidal water, and those areas are fairly healthy. They have scores congruent with the upper-middle regional assessment, compared to the highest-quality wetlands.

And then there are areas— for example the northern portion of the site, north of Ballona Creek, just south of the marina and adjacent to Fiji Way — that are really struggling. And what we found is that based on the impacts over time, like the dumping of fill sediment and cutting off the water from the wetlands, the wetlands in that area have scores on par with some of the lowest in the state of California.

There’s not an easy answer for how healthy Ballona is. But what we can do is start to target a restoration planning effort around the areas that are not healthy: the areas that aren’t in stasis, they’re getting worse.

What’s the ultimate vision for Ballona?

There are of course a myriad of birds, plants and animals out there. What’s the potential for Ballona? This used to be wetlands, and we don’t have a lot of opportunities to restore coastal tidal wetlands. This needs to be one of those opportunities.

This could be a really incredible place for wildlife, for wetlands and to combat climate change. Wetlands are great for things like carbon sequestration. The goal for the future of Ballona is a broad-scale increase in health and diversity of biological communities and ecosystems. The second goal is to have this be a beautiful place for public access, recreations and education.

What is the general cost estimate for Ballona restoration?

The environmental impact reporting process is separate from the funding assessment, because it’s supposed to be an independent, biological and environmental impact assessment. So I don’t actually know, but I’ve heard wild numbers like $100 million and up. I don’t want to speculate on that.

What’s the status of the environmental impact report?

The EIR is making significant progress. Right now it’s at the drafting stage. The Department [of Fish and Wildlife] is on track to release the EIR to the public at the end of 2015.

Are you optimistic that there’s political will and funding to restore Ballona?

I have to be. I feel so passionately about this system and that it can be something beautiful and healthy and well. It’s almost necessary to believe that it’s possible and that the funding will be found and allocated.

But that’s sort of the elephant in the room right now: Where’s the money going to come from?