Blueprint for wetlands restoration goes public, and everyone has an opinion

By Gary Walker

The lone public hearing for the environmental review of the Ballona Wetlands restoration will be on Nov. 8 at Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey
Photo courtesy of the Bay Foundation

It’s official. The long-delayed restoration process for the Ballona Wetlands began with the Sept. 25 public release of the state’s preliminary draft environmental review of the project, prompting a flurry of activity among wetlands activists, scientists and environmental groups.

Five years in the making, the 1,242-page document is the blueprint for possible restoration strategies for the nearly 600-acre ecological reserve purchased by the state in 2003. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is in charge of the restoration, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the document in mid-September.

Fish and Wildlife will host a public hearing about the Ballona Wetlands Restoration environmental assessment from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, at Burton Chace Park in Marina del Rey.

The document contemplates three restoration options that would, in varying degrees, replace concrete barriers around the creek with earthen levees, lower ground elevation north of Ballona Creek, and install public trails and bike paths — each alternative eliciting strong reactions among Ballona activists with disparate views of what should happen.

Robert Van de Hoek, the lead biologist for the Ballona Institute in Playa del Rey, mocked the state’s three restoration options as heavy handed to the point of hubris. His group believes using heavy equipment to move earth within Ballona will destroy the existing environment.

“I was in [former] Gov. Gray Davis’ office representing the Sierra Club in 2003 when the governor was considering spending $140 million for this land, because it is valuable as habitat for some of the state’s most sensitive and imperiled species. And now someone thinks it’s OK to throw that all away, start over and try to create a landscape architect’s view of nature?” Van de Hoek asked. “That’s not restoration, that’s playing Dr. Frankenstein.”

Dr. Robin Silver, the founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said there is no protection for wildlife on federal and state endangered or threatened species lists.

“It’s shocking that wildlife biologists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would agree to release a plan that is not fully protective of the dozens of species at Ballona that are on the state’s List of Species of Special Concern,” Silver said.

But David Kay, past president of Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, favors a tidal restoration approach — in other words, landscaping a more naturalized creek bed reconnected to the marsh plain — and wants to see recognized environmental organizations get strongly behind that concept.

“My hope is that Heal the Bay, Friends of Ballona Wetlands, Surfrider Foundation and other credible groups really work hard to ‘get the vote out,’” said Kay, who has supervised restored wetlands near San Diego. “Full tidal restoration is the only plan that meets all of the long-standing public goals established not only for Ballona, but for all of the remaining state-owned tidelands.”

The Bay Foundation and California Coastal Conservancy helped develop the environmental review and will assist with the restoration.

“We encourage people to take the time to review this important document and then comment through the formal public process,” Bay Foundation Executive Director Tom Ford said.

Heal the Bay plans to weigh in before the public hearing date with their preferred alternative.

The review’s executive summary enumerates the primary goals of the planned ecological renewal as such: “The three major components of the project are restoring wetland and wetland functions within the Ballona Reserve, restoring and improving public access to the Ballona Reserve, and maintaining existing levels of flood risk management provided by the Ballona Creek Channel and levee system.”

California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said public participation is essential for determining what happens next.

“We want people to understand the process of civic engagement and making comments. We want them to discuss this important property and whether or not there’s a way to bring it back to a functioning wetlands from this remnant of what it once was, to bring back species to the area that we haven’t seen in some time, and to bring a local, natural place for Angelenos to have access to and experience a wetlands right in an urban center,” she said.

The document is available for public review at the Lloyd Taber-Marina del Rey Library (4533 Admiralty Way), Westchester-Loyola Village Branch Library (7114 W. Manchester Ave.), and Playa Vista Branch Library (6400 Playa Vista Drive).