Expect disparate answers when wetlands advocates speak out Wednesday about state restoration plans

By Gary Walker

A striped shore crab roams a brackish Ballona slough near Culver Boulevard
Photo by Jonathan Coffin

Environmental scientists, conservationists and avid wetlands activists have been waiting more than five years to comb through the environmental review that will guide the state’s restoration efforts in the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve.

At 1,242 pages, it’s a leviathan document. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is hosting the sole public discussion of the report Wednesday (Nov. 8) at Burton Chace Park, while the written public comment period has been extended into February.

And while those on all sides of the debate over Ballona’s future ostensibly want to see it thrive, ideas about the means to that end couldn’t be further apart.

Ruth Lansford, a Playa del Rey resident who founded the advocacy group Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, expects a very high turnout.

“People have been waiting so long, and I can imagine how frustrated they are,” said Lansford, who is especially concerned about plans to relocate the endangered Belding savannah sparrow.

The document analyzes restoration options that range from doing nothing to various degrees of turning Ballona Creek into a more naturalized water channel by replacing concrete levees with earthen boundaries that will reconnect it to the Ballona marsh plain.

Travis Longcore, an urban landscapes ecology professor at USC, has concerns about the state’s more ambitious alternatives and how they’re being packaged.

“The big question is whether these proposed wetland creation alternatives constitute ‘restoration.’  There is a good argument that they do not and are no more restoration than would be trying to establish a redwood forest on a sand dune,” asserted Longcore, who has been recognized by the Department of Fish and Wildlife for his contributions to endangered species conservation.

“The proposed project does not represent the ‘return of an ecosystem to a close approximation of its condition prior to its disturbance,’” wrote Longcore in a 2012 letter to an agency consultant. “The project description should be corrected to describe the project as wetlands ‘creation,’ not ‘restoration.’”

Eric Strauss, a Loyola Marymount University professor of biology and executive director of LMU’s Center for Urban Resilience, also thinks the state should not be using the word restoration.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering that a portion of the early 20th-century Ballona Wetlands landscape is buried under many feet of sediment dumped there during the dredging effort to create Marina del Rey Harbor.

“We have a wetlands system that’s badly degraded. It needs more that a tune up — it needs an overhaul if we want it to function,” Strauss said.

Some of the more vocal advocates for the Ballona Wetlands are open to such an extensive overhaul and trust the state’s ability to do so. David Kay, past president of Friends of Ballona Wetlands, has argued that re-landscaping could restore historic ecological functions and defend the preserve against rising sea levels.

Others such as environmental activist Douglas Fay and Ballona Institute cofounders Marcia Hanscom and Roy Van de Hoek are less trusting of state involvement and favor a gentler rehabilitation of Ballona’s contemporary landscape, cringing at any mention of “bulldozers.”

The Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, headed by Walter Lamb, has criticized the state for keeping advocates in the dark while preparing its restoration analysis and is hammering the document for proposing the retention of a public parking lot south of Fiji Way that was created by paving over wetlands.

Though Wednesday’s meeting promises to be intense, Lansford believes what happens afterward will have more impact on the final restoration plan.

“The written comments are going to be the most important. That’s what the state will be looking at,” she said.


Public discussion of the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project’s draft environmental review happens at 6 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 8) at the community room in Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Written comments can be emailed to  BWERcomments@wildlife.ca.gov, or mailed to: Richard Brody, CDFW c/o ESA (jas), 550 Kearney St., Ste. 800, San Francisco CA 94108.