Almost a decade ago, California spent more than $100 million to secure open space along Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. The Ballona wetlands used to be three or four times bigger than they are today; they were fed by coastal waters in a seasonal lagoon and a meandering creek delivering runoff from the Los Angeles basin. Then in the 1920s, the government wanted to minimize flood risk. It locked the creek into a straight, concrete channel.
Now state and federal officials are working on an ambitious plan to restore about 600 acres of historic wetlands to their former glory.
These days, the reserve is closed to the public, but one access point is hidden behind a mini mall in nearby Playa del Rey. There you’ll find a metal gate; you also have to find a scientist with a key. Someone like Shelly Luce, who directs the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.
Luce says the historic Ballona Wetlands protected people from floods, nursed fisheries, and filtered pollution in coastal water. Luce believes that restoration could help these wetlands once again do what they used to do.
"The best thing we can do with the land and with the money we’re able to gather," she says, "is to bring back the functions of this land for people and wildlife. Unlock these gates, and make it a place for people to come to, use, learn to value themselves."
Today’s wetlands aren’t very wet. The flat center of the land is patched with salt pan and invasive plants. The only ocean water feeding Ballona now travels a narrow channel, called the Fiji Ditch. Luce says reshaping the land and water flows could make this place dramatically different.
"One concept for the restoration is to remove the concrete levees on both sides of Ballona creek through the wetlands," she says. "And there are not many places where we could do it. For me that’s a really exciting option and I’m looking forward to seeing the studies that show how that could actually happen."
The commission has invested in scientific studies, about what's in the wetlands now. Over two years, scientists put together a baseline study; Karina Johnston manages the wetlands monitoring project. She says the stakes are high, not just because the site is unusually large: California has lost more than 90 percent of its coastal wetlands.
"To have the opportunity to reconnect this place along the southern California coastline, where there is this stop for birds and opportunity for these rare plants," she says, is lucky. Still, "moving forward there’s a lot of questions we can still answer," she adds.
Johnston and her team plan to carry out more studies of how birds and other animals use the region's ecology.
It’ll be at least a decade before any restoration is complete. Still, some say things are moving too fast. The independent Ballona Institute says there’s no need for sweeping change. It argues that the wetlands are already home to robust habitats, and species that need protecting.
"The El Segundo blue butterfly was just recently discovered here after this sand dune has been restored," Marcia Hanscom, the institute's co director says, standing close to the west edge of the reserve. "Why would you alter habitat, and even wipe some of it out, when you’ve got an endangered butterfly now?"
Restoration managers insist those butterflies and other animals aren’t in jeopardy. Nothing is set in stone, and the public is invited to provide input on the plan at next Thursday's meeting and by email. State and federal officials hope to sketch out the restoration blueprint sometime next year.