Ballona Wetlands are getting a makeover, but opponents don’t want too much ecological change

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A stretch of the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles in 2010. Photo by Jim McDougall (CC BY 2.0).

A restoration project for the long-suffering Ballona Wetlands is moving forward after the California Department of Fish and Wildlife certified the final Environmental Impact Report for the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve last year. 

Years of neglect, human impact, and development took a toll on the wetlands for years. 

The project aims to remove invasive plants and leftover fill from the development of Marina Del Rey, re-establish a functioning floodplain, and create natural levees for flood protection against sea level rise. 

It would also make the area more park-like, adding walking paths and bike trails.

Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is excited about the scope and ambition of the plan, one he calls a generational opportunity.

“Children and visitors can get into the middle of a restored wetland and experience nature, putting their hands on it,” Bonham says. 

He says nothing else in LA will have similar ecology and size, and it will rival Griffith Park as a local place to find solace. 

Groups like Friends of Ballona and Heal the Bay approve of the plan. 

“This is an investment in climate resilience in Los Angeles County,” says Shelley Luce, CEO of Heal the Bay.

“It's an investment in new park space for the hundreds of thousands of people who live within easy distance of this land, and many of them in communities that don't have a lot of green space. For some communities in Los Angeles, this is going to be their introduction to wildlands, to the outdoors,” says Luce.

Activists, however, criticize the plan. 

Patricia McPherson is president of Grassroots Coalition, and she quit her acting career to advocate for space like the Ballona Wetlands. She says the environmental report for the project was incomplete and failed to include geotechnical issues. The removal of soil will harm endangered species and their habitats, she adds. 

“We are in opposition to digging out and removing 2.4 million or more cubic yards of soil to create this bathtub of tidal water that is going to be displacing many wildlife species that are currently using the site,” McPherson says.  

Margot Griswold, a restoration ecologist and past president of the LA Audubon Society, agrees with McPherson. She says restoration isn’t about making a place something it originally was not. 

“The species that use the Ballona Wetlands now will not be there. It just seems to me there are more ecologically sound methods to rehabilitate the Ballona Wetlands and enhance them,” says Griswold. 

The plan addresses some of these concerns. For instance, it says wildlife will be relocated safely and moved back once restoration work is completed.

Bonham says the restoration will be done in phases to assure wildlife and land aren’t adversely affected.

“To manage the impact of restoration, you do it certain times of year,” Bonham says. “You do it with biological scientists standing there while you're monitoring the actual restoration. Those are all very acceptable, appropriate conditions we follow to do restoration.”

It could be a long while before any meaningful change occurs at the Ballona Wetlands. Permitting and design could take two to three years (and that’s not factoring litigation), Bonham estimates.

McPherson’s Grassroots Coalition is taking the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to court to rescind all approvals on this project.

Meanwhile, Bonham says, “What I hope for is we can help more and more people, even current critics, but mostly Angelenos who haven't thought about this, to actually become partners, to begin seeing this reserve for what it could be.”