Ballona Wetlands

(Photo courtesy Caden Sullivan)

Editor's note: This story is published in partnership with Caden Sullivan, a journalism student at Loyola Marymount University. Sullivan's project and investigation into the Ballona Wetlands restoration project started prior to the current RV encampments.  

The Ballona Wetlands are 577 acres of protected marsh habitat at the end of the LA River.

The wetlands have experienced waves of degradation over the past century, from the removal of the native Tongva, to the gas and oil drilling of the mid-twentieth century, to trash and debris flowing downstream, to multiple human-caused fires.

Over the past twenty years, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has talked about restoring the wetlands, by removing debris placed there in the construction of Marina Del Rey, reconstructing the levies surrounding the Ballona Creek, and improving public access to the ecological reserve.

This plan, called the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project, is backed by teams of biologists, ecoengineers, and ecologists across organizations such as CDFW, the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, Heal the Bay, and The Bay Foundation. Some larger energy corporations, such as SoCal Gas and SoCal Edison, have also contracted environmental scientists to work on the project. In addition, these companies operating in the wetlands have made pledges to remove equipment and aid the Restoration.

Concerned activists from other organizations however, such as the LA Audobon and Ballona Land Trust, are in fear of the plan, worrying that it will bring more harm than restoration. Reasons for these concerns include (but are not limited to) the project’s use of heavy industrial equipment, the drastic reconstruction of the Ballona Creek, and the impact sea level rise will have on the newly-restored wetlands.

I am a journalism student at Loyola Marymount University, which runs perpendicular with Ballona. I learned about the wetlands through local news reports on protests there. I visited for a photography project, with the sole intention of taking wildlife pictures for class, but Ballona captured me immediately. Since that first visit, I have most of my free time in the wetlands, photographing, interviewing, and volunteering in the reserve. Below is a short documentary I produced in attempt to simplify this debate for others:

The Ballona Wetlands is an ecological reserve at the mouth of the LA River. It is protected by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has proposed a Retoration Plan for the long-degraded marsh. Since the plan has been announced, concerned environmentalists have criticized it for being too invasive or failing to meet the needs of the reserve.

Walter Lamb, president of the Ballona Land Trust, and Dr. David Kay, a leading manager on the project, share their thoughts on what the project will actually achieve. As the filmmaker, I hope for better collaboration between these parties and encourage everyone to imagine the true potential in working together.

This video is for educational purposes only. Music provided by INTHEFLOWERS and available on all major platforms.

The Restoration Altercation

There is a little-known place four miles from LAX, alongside the populated Lincoln Boulevard, just down the road from a prestigious university. This place is nearly 600 acres, home to thousands but ignored by tens of thousands. This place is dirty and dangerous, as there are fires, violent crimes, and even dead bodies hiding in its bounds. This place is called the Ballona Wetlands, and it is an American Ecological Reserve.

The Ballona Wetlands stretches from the Pacific Ocean to Playa Vista, and fills almost half the space between Marina Del Rey and LAX. It is a coastal marsh, and specifically, the last coastal marsh in Los Angeles. Being the mouth of the LA River, Ballona receives all of the waste, litter, and pollutants LA has to offer. This site, despite all its degrading features, is a centuries-old marsh with more stories to tell than any person who has ever lived.

Ballona and many other wetlands suffered through the 19th and 20th centuries due to amazing revolutions in agriculture and technology. Farmers, oil barons, and now, “renewable” gas companies have settled in Ballona for a variety of purposes. Trying to make money, they have overgrazed the land, destroyed watersheds, and are currently threatening the safety of thousands of residents with the underground storage of natural gas.

Through its decades of degradation, Ballona has survived, thanks to heartening love by individuals and nonprofit organizations. Litigation, protests, petitions and proposals have turned these wetlands into an ecological reserve, as it is now seen by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. An organization which was instrumental in protecting this land is the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, which led protests and legal action to make this spot recognized. CDFW’s land manager for Ballona, Richard Brody, claims, “I don’t know where we would be without their 25 years, thousands of volunteers, and hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours.”

The Friends of Ballona have teamed up with CDFW since the founding of the reserve in 2005, and one of their goals has always been to restore the wetlands. Ballona’s degradation began long before the Friends came along, and they knew they could be the only ones to mitigate that long, harmful history. “Saving this land meant undoing the degradation that’s been imposed on it for multiple generations,” Brody also says, “That was exciting for me to be brought on and take this land to the next step in some version of its former glory.” The current plans, which have evolved with science since the original plans were made nearly two decades ago, are to restore tidal inundation (allowing more saltwater into the marsh), excavate dredge (underwater soil) from the construction of Marina Del Rey, and build berms throughout Ballona to control flooding (both from the new plan’s inundation and sea level rise).

This plan, which is expected to unfold over the next few years since its approval in December 2020, respects Ballona’s natural history and the shape that the LA River used to have. However, it has been met with staunch criticism by concerned environmentalists.

Some organizations, such as In Defense of Animals and Defend Ballona, have said this plan will cause more harm than help to the wetlands. Some believe the re-introduction of saltwater to a brackish system will salinate habitats, some believe the project’s effects on plant life will drive out native species, and many believe the use of bulldozers to excavate dredge will destroy habitat. With a project this massive and complex, costing about $182 million, it is difficult to predict the effects, or consequences, that it will have on the land.

The Ballona Land Trust is a 501c nonprofit permitted to do restoration and stewardship work within areas of Ballona. The Land Trust has been serving the wetlands for over 25 years and has a number of lawsuits in protection of Ballona’s species. However, their organization finds the Restoration Plan to be misleading; many aspects of the plan suggest drastic changes to the wetlands’ topography and current habitats. Walter Lamb, their president, says, “They don’t tell people that the Wets Area B Levee is going to be built on top of this long-time, functional habitat. This is not a ‘minor adjustment’ to take what everyone recognizes as one of the most iconic views and cover it up with a flood control levee.”

Ballona’s Tidal Slough, one of the “iconic views” of the saltwater marsh

Another criticism of CDFW’s plan is that it is too drastic for such a sensitive habitat, and that CDFW should ease into the changes. Some believe that this drastic change is unprecedented given that there has been no proper preparation for the restoration. The proper preparation for a Restoration Plan would include a Land Management Plan, which assesses the current state and needs of an ecological reserve. Restoration Specialist Margot Griswold, with her PhD in Biology and Plant Ecology, writes in her Southern Sierran article, “Inconsistencies and Missed Opportunities …. Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve,” that “BWER has gone 16 years without a Land Management Plan, and it shows… An outcome of a LMP may be a recommendation to development a habitat restoration plan.” Dr. Griswold is essentially saying that since its founding, Ballona has been absent from a Land Management Plan, which it should have had by now according to state law. Additionally, not having an LMP means there is no proper assessment of the needs of the wetlands, so there is therefore no way to accurately devise a Restoration Plan. Whether the state is conducting the right plans or not, the process has fallen short of its legal mandates.

The Ballona Wetlands is a symbol of hope. In such a densely-populated city, it is easy to lose one’s connection to nature or “the wild,” and discovering that wilderness exists so vastly and close-by reassures residents of their connection to the habitat. “I love the wetlands. I come here a lot, I look for birds and other animals that live here. It just gives me such a great, grounding feeling of peace to be out in nature, in the middle of Los Angeles. It could be a lot nicer, it could be restored to what it was, but I don’t know how to do that,” said Leone, a middle-aged woman, walking through Ballona with her husband and a pair of binoculars.

Ballona is a site for many different options, opinions, and agendas, but most of all, it is a site for heartening connection. Whether the wetlands stay the same indefinitely or transform back into the bustling wilderness they once were, everyone in this debate should realize that the land comes first. Instead of suing each other over permits, criticizing one another’s ideas, or labeling the other as bad, those concerned for Ballona should come together to finally agree on how to take care of this reserve the right way, before it’s gone forever.