Ballona Creek Wetlands, PART ONE: A Century of Sabotage

Area C, a 64-acre portion of the Uplands area of Ballona Creek Wetlands, is a pretty piece of open, Culver CIty-adjacent land owned by State of California – and a battleground between the esteemed Annenberg Foundation and local environmental groups. The foundation has put a $50 million proposal on the table that offers to make extensive improvements to the land but also includes a controversial interpretive center and domestic animal adoption facility component. Later this year, the California Department of Fish and Game, after a period of public comment, will decide whether to accept this proposal.

This is the first part of a multi-segment story on the past, present and uncertain future of this piece of land – meant to help readers decide for themselves whether they should urge the Department of Fish and Game to reject or accept the Annenberg Proposal. This first part focuses on the value of the wetlands, the current state of the land, and how it got that way.

“There’s a Great Egret out there that must be more than three feet tall,” Stephen Dier says under his breath as he steadily scans the 64-acre Upland section of Ballona Creek Wetlands known as Area C. “Pretty late in the year for her to be this far south,” he says, lowering his binoculars and smiling, “She must have decided that she likes it here.”

Dier lives in Marina del Rey and comes to the wetlands several times a week for some amateur birdwatching. He’s one of the thousands of people in Culver City and Los Angeles' Westside who walk, run, and ride daily along the bike path between the Uplands’ southern border and Ballona Creek.

Area C is bounded by Culver Blvd to the north and Ballona Creek to the south, Lincoln Blvd to the west and the 90 Freeway to the east. The land is patently beautiful (as THIS recent visual survey of the land attests) and is an important part of the greater, 600-acre Ballona Creek Wetlands.

But when one peers a little closer, one loses sight of the beauty and begins to see the garbage, weeds, homeless encampments and traces of centuries-long degradation that prevent the land from achieving its true potential.

The Great Watershed

The Ballona Creek Wetlands has historically served as the great watershed for much of the Los Angeles Basin, including what is now West Los Angeles, Culver City, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and parts of Central Los Angeles. Rivers and streams from all across the city flowed – still flow – to this spot. And today Ballona represents the last remaining coastal wetlands in Los Angeles County. It remains remains one the best places in Los Angeles to get an idea of what the land must have looked and felt like when it was founded 232 years ago -- and one of the most valuable habitats for rare and endangered species in Southern California.

The wetlands serve as home to dozens of “species of special concern,” including sparrows, terns, falcons, owls, harriers, hawks, and ospreys.  The land is also home to the usual collection of urban-ish animals such as rabbits, squirrels, gophers, raccoons, skunks, mice, and the California meadow vole. Even the beleaguered Area C “still is frequented by native birds such as herons and egrets, as well as Loggerhead Shrikes and WhiteTailed Kites, two species described by Los Angeles Audubon as being in steep decline on the coastal plain,” according to What’s more, as part of the Pacific Flyway, one of four primary migration routes in North America, the Wetlands serve as temporary home to many other important bird species.

But for the most part, Area C’s value is defined by what it isn’t. It isn’t an apartment complex, neighborhood, or office park. There are two small baseball diamonds on the property, but it isn’t a park – no one is really supposed to tromp around on it, although some kids and homeless people still do. It isn’t anything. It’s nothing. That’s why the birds, the scrawny rabbits, and many of the humans love it.

A Century of Ruination

Despite its importance, however, the tale of Ballona Creek Wetlands and its Uplands has been one of encroaching civilization, neglect, and outright sabotage. It’s a lovely piece of land but largely unloved, and today it is in a highly degraded state. So much so that no one dares use the word “restoration” when talking about the future of the land – revitalization is the best we can hope for.

Area C today is covered with weeds and other scrub – 100 percent non-native plants. Trash is a problem. And the ground itself is caked hard and covered in gravel. That’s because when the city built the Marina del Rey in 1960, they dumped an estimated 3.1 million cubic yards of dredged-up sentiment in Area C, burying the marsh surface and raising the land 15 feet. This is a metaphor – and just one egregious act in a century of ruination.

In the early 1900s Pacific Electric railroad tracks were built on earthen berms that altered tidal flows throughout the wetlands. In 1918, Lincoln and Jefferson Blvds. were constructed, and flows from the eastern portions of wetlands were routed into culverts under Culver Blvd. In 1920s, oil and gas platforms were built throughout the wetlands, and fill was dumped to protect them from extreme tides and to create berms for access roads.

In the 1930s Ballona Creek was straightened and channelized in concrete levees by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, resulting in additional layer of sediment deposits in Area C. Additional open space east of the wetlands was converted to agricultural uses by the early 20th century, and in the 1940s, much of these farm fields became the private Hughes Airport.  In first decade of this century that land was developed as Playa Vista, a massive mixed-use community.

Finally, in 2004, the remaining 600-acre parcel of Ballona Creek Wetlands was purchased by the State of California in 2004, designated an Ecological Reserve, and assigned to be managed by the (undermanned) California Department of Fish and Game.

A place of transition and flow, the Uplands portion of the Ballona Creek Wetlands known as Area C is a zone of great potential and fragility. Things are prized for their rarity – and there’s little that’s as rare in Los Angeles these days as open space.

Still, the land could – and should be improved. The next segment of this story will suggest steps that will be required to heal Area C and preserve its value far into the future.

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Comment by Enhager on August 5, 2013 at 9:47am

The amount of oil wells on the beach is amazing. Thank goodness (or environmentalists and politicians?) they aren't allowed to drill there anymore.

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