By Gary Walker

The state’s preferred Ballona restoration plan would naturalize the flow of Ballona Creek alongside lower-levation tidal wetlands

A report nearly 15 years in the making, the final environmental analysis for the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project released Dec. 20 favors an ambitious reconfiguration of the state ecological reserve in Playa del Rey.

The leading option would remove nearly two miles of concrete levees along Ballona Creek to create a more naturally curving channel connected to the marsh plain, with lower ground elevation north of the creek to allow for coastal flooding of a saltwater marsh area. It also calls for new trails and bike paths, public parking and other visitor serving educational features.

Each of these elements remains controversial among local wetlands advocates, however.

Advocates say the roughly $180-million project would reverse ecological damage caused by dumping the sediment dredged to create Marina del Rey, flood control efficiency and the thriving of invasive species due to urbanization and neglect.

Opponents say bringing heavy construction equipment into the wetlands will destroy the fragile and still valuable ecosystem that has emerged in Ballona’s current state.

“We will not let our wildlife — the animals that rely on this land — be left homeless or captured in crates so that bulldozers can come in and ruin their wild and precious habitat. This wholesale destruction of ecologically fragile habitats cannot continue under the false flag of ‘restoration,’” reads a statement by Gina Di Teodoro Bryant of Earthrace Conservation, among a coalition of advocates organized by state restoration critic Marcia Hanscom of the Ballona Institute.

While the removal of concrete levees is not yet a done deal, state officials are seeing it as the environmentally superior plan among a pair of smaller-scope alternatives or doing nothing at all, according to Jordan Traverso of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which is the lead agency for the restoration effort.

“Any preference would be pre-decisional. We will take a step back from several years of EIR preparation to consider the environmental analysis from the perspective of a decision-maker. After considering the final EIR and other information in its administrative record, Fish and Wildlife will make a decision concerning restoration,” Traverso wrote in an email.

The Bay Foundation, which has been assisting Fish and Wildlife with scientific studies in the wetlands, is in favor of the proposal to remove the creek’s levees.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to connect the creek to the ecological reserve. Right now it has been confined outside the channel and the wetlands can benefit from those life-giving waters,” said Tom Ford, executive director of The Bay Foundation.

Before any new work could begin the state must first obtain permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is conducting its own environmental analysis of the project, as well as the California Coastal Commission and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.