Can we heal the Ballona Wetlands?

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A sole egret wades in the restored Malibu Lagoon. Sycamore snag offers a safe landing place for birds in the newly restored Malibu

The Malibu Lagoon recently re-opened after a controversial restoration that took years to approve. Now the environmentalists are shifting focus to the south as a Ballona Wetlands project is being studied.

Both the Malibu Lagoon and the Ballona Wetlands host dozens of species of birds and fish. Wildlife survives in these two oases, experts say, not because of intense human effort to preserve open space, but rather despite decades of degradation. Construction and other debris has contaminated and clogged the soil in both places, making it impossible for water to flow through these tidal wetlands naturally and efficiently.

Some residents, surfers and environmentalists who opposed the Malibu Lagoon restoration still say the project was a disaster, destroying vital habitat and destabilizing the flood plain to leave a primordial looking patch that barely resembles the original lagoon, with its overgrown plants, worn paths and rustic bridges.

But Shelly Luce, Executive Director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, says everything is going according to plan. “When people come to Malibu Lagoon today, what they are going to see is nature at work. In six months the whole lagoon is going to look green, and in a year from now, it will all be very lush.”

A new path winds through the restored Malibu Lagoon.
A new path winds through the restored Malibu Lagoon.

Luce says science showed this embattled stretch of tidal wetlands was actually dying before the restoration, according to state environmental officials. A 1983 effort to revitalize the area didn’t help much. The sand and silt became so oxygen starved that organisms at the bottom of the food chain could barely survive here, making it tough for birds and fish to find enough to eat.

Suzanne Goode, a senior scientist with California State Parks says as the plants grow in, wildlife is coming back. “Over the last months we’ve seen dozens of species of birds coming in to forage: egrets, herons, ospreys, kingfishers, all kinds of ducks, coots and grebes,” she says.

The approved $8 million project required draining part of the lagoon, taking a way tons of sediment, re-channeling the flow of water through the Lagoon, and finally, replacing non-native and invasive plants with native species.

As the controversy over the restoration of Malibu Lagoon continues, stewards of Los Angeles’ meager wetlands are already looking southwards, towards Ballona, the 600 acre pocket of nature between Marina del Rey and Westchester.

The Ballona Wetlands have been heroically spared from development by local activists several times over the past 35 years.

But not in an ideal way, according to scientists and state conservancy officials who say the ecosystem at Ballona is struggling too. The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission calls Ballona a “highly degraded site in need of healing.”

Foes of the Malibu Lagoon restoration project protest at the re-opening with signs indicating they may fight any future restoration at the Ballona Wetlands.
Foes of the Malibu Lagoon restoration project protest at the re-opening with signs indicating they may fight any future restoration at the Ballona Wetlands.

Long-term restoration plans for restoration of the Ballona Wetlands are in the early planning stages. An environmental impact report is already in process and will be released this summer. But Sam Schuchat, the coastal conservancy’s executive officer, knows further restoration at Ballona is likely to face intense opposition.

The coastal conservancy’s proposed restoration project would relocate levees at Ballona to allow more natural tidal flow onto the wetlands.

There’s also the problem of climate change. “There’s certainly not much native nature and not much tidal coastal wetlands,” Schuchat says of Ballona, “and of course we’re also interested in something that is sustainable in the face of rising sea levels.”