Ballona Creek is polluted. New technology aims to clean it


Ballona Creek is seen in Culver City. It’s getting a new piece of technology that will help extract trash from its 12-mile waterway that ends in Marina Del Rey. Photo by Amy Ta.

Ballona Creek has a trash problem. Just ask Deborah Gregory, president of Ballona Creek Renaissance, who picks the stuff up by hand. 

“What happens to society, we see it in the creek,” she says. “When the bag ban went into effect for the City of LA, we immediately started seeing fewer bags. It was amazing. It felt like it was overnight. When marijuana was legalized, we started seeing a lot of marijuana containers. We see a lot of hypodermic needles.”

Volunteers with Ballona Creek Renaissance help pick trash out of the creek. Photo by Andrea Bautista/KCRW. 

When you add all that trash up, it’s a lot. “We estimate that we are gathering up to three tons annually from diverting that from going out into the ocean,” says Gregory. 

Now, LA County’s Department of Public Works is bringing in new technology to help clean the 12-mile waterway, which meanders from Mid-City, passing through Culver City until it empties in Santa Monica Bay at Marina Del Rey, near the Ballona Wetlands

The clean-up device is called a “trash interceptor,” and it looks a lot like a boat stocked with dumpsters. LA County Department of Public Works plans to anchor it at the mouth of the creek, where two mesh nets will guide trash towards the vessel and onto a conveyor belt. The trash then gets sorted into one of six dumpsters on board.

The “trash interceptor” was created by The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit. Photo courtesy of County of Los Angeles. 

This solar-powered trash-sucking barge is the invention of a Dutch nonprofit known as The Ocean Cleanup. They’re providing the interceptor to LA County at no cost. The county will spend $650,000 to maintain it in a pilot program that lasts 18 months. 

LA County supervisors hope it cuts down on all the plastic, styrofoam, and debris the creek normally delivers into LA’s oceanfront, and saves a lot of manpower pulling out the garbage. Currently, the county keeps a mesh net, known as a trash boom, anchored at Lincoln Boulevard, to capture debris that floats downstream, but it’s not always effective.

“There was a huge storm event back in 2018. It deposited over 14 tons of trash and debris behind the existing Lincoln Boulevard trash boom,” says Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell, whose district will house the trash interceptor. “Days were required to manually remove all of that trash from Ballona Creek. So in significant storm events, the interceptor is a much more effective device.” 

But not everyone is on board. Earlier this year, two Playa del Rey residents hoping to prevent the installation filed a lawsuit against LA County, claiming that no environmental studies were done before the project was approved. 

Supervisor Mitchell says those studies weren’t required because the interceptor is a pilot project. If the interceptor is successful during the trial run, then it will have to meet the standards of the California Environmental Quality Act to continue operating. 

Scientists have also raised concerns about The Ocean Cleanup’s use of nets. The nonprofit has an ongoing project cleaning the Pacific Garbage Patch, a portion of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California where plastic has built up. Wildlife, including sea turtles, got caught in the nets used in that project. 

Supervisor Mitchell doesn’t expect that to happen at Ballona Creek. 

“The pilot project is not expected to adversely affect fish wildlife within Ballona Creek,” she says. “The conveyor belt on the interceptor moves really very slow, it's like four inches per second, giving animals and fish and wildlife ample time to return to the water. Spacing between the conveyor belt rods really allow[s] small animals to pass through the belt and reenter the water without being harmed in any way.” 

The “trash interceptor” has six dumpsters on board that will hold trash collected from the creek. Photo courtesy of County of Los Angeles.

The Ballona Creek trash interceptor is expected to be active by mid-October to collect data during the rainy season (should LA be lucky enough to have one this year). It will stay in place through April of 2024.