A Balloneous Funk

May 12, 2011 § 10 Comments

I will probably regret this. Today a hit piece went out on the Ballona Wetlands Restoration planning effort. And I posted a comment (hyperlinks added here):

I would be laughing if this wasn’t smearing good people doing solid work. The SMBRC is among public environmental agencies (technically it’s a state entity) being dragged through the mud for preferring to relocate the Ballona Creek levees to the (almost) outer edges of the state property – and while I could respect a point of view that says hey, what’s colonized within the current disturbed ecosystem is valuable, it is absurd to ignore the realities of the effects of manmade levees and constrained tidal flows on a wetlands system and pretend that it is highly functioning with these structures. You may discredit me on the grounds that I’m former SMBRC staff and remain friends with current staff, or that I’ve received a contract for work on Ballona Creek*, or that I’m not a scientist – that is entirely within the spirit of the article, and variations of that kind of discrediting have been spun for just about anyone not in agreement with your sources. So for the skeptics, here’s a fun fact: the Regional Water Quality Control Board listed hydromodification (aka the levees) as a water quality impairment for the Ballona Wetlands, in other words the levees themselves impact the wetlands in a way that violates the Clean Water Act. And for the curious, I recommend a Google Maps/Earth tour of the California coast to observe how our healthiest coastal ecosystems don’t have levees parked between wetlands and creeks. And if it took heavy machinery to place those levees, it will probably take heavy machinery to remove them.

*And where’s the study for that money? Downloadable on the SMBRC website.


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§ 10 Responses to A Balloneous Funk

  • charlie says:

    It blows my mind that anyone would fight to keep a concrete levee intact. I guess some people just react to changes in their environment regardless of what those changes are. I mean, it’s not an inherently bad reflex to have… it’s too bad more people didn’t feel that way 50 years ago… but in this case it is so misplaced!

  • Marcia Hanscom says:

    If this project moves forward as planned by the Bay Commission staff people, endangered and imperiled species will be harmed, and an equilibrium of an ecosystem will be destroyed.

    The levees in question – in this part of the Creek are EARTHEN levees, sprayed in some parts with concrete gunite, but there is living soil all around – this is a mud-bottom estuary – and there are native plants growing, as well as many species of animals and birds living there. Some very rare species included.

    If the project proceeds, it’s not like there will be no concrete levees — the levees will be MOVED, and they will most likely need to be more heavily fortified with concrete than the current earthen levees with gunite covered with living organisms – including an ~ 80 year old lichen community. Why will they need to be more heavily fortified? They will be moved closer to the homes and businesses in the area – and yes, the levees do provide flood protection for the communities that were built in this river floodplain.

    Restoration does not need bulldozers. People-powered restoration. Hand tools, loving care by the community. Stop the bulldozers.

  • Rex Frankel says:

    The State’s favored plan for Ballona fails the test of a natural restoration in three ways: it’s not historically accurate, it counts on a water source for the wetlands that is highly likely to be very polluted for a long time, and though we have the recently-stated promise that they will keep the current habitat mix, with half the site as drier uplands, somehow, they have not repudiated their plans to bulldoze the uplands. The full story from our public meeting May 10th, in 4 slide presentations, is posted on Ballona Ecosystem Education Project’s website, http://saveallofballona.org .

    Since the state’s project managers in September of 2008 unveiled their plan to completely remove everything and convert this balanced ecosystem into virtually all water, they have just-about stopped holding community meetings to involve the public in their project. Behind the scenes, we have shown them why their proposals don’t make sense, and they have backed off somewhat, in that they now say that the current habitat mix of half wetlands and half drier uplands will be retained. The problem remains though, uncontradicted at the May 10th public meeting attended by the SMBRC’s leadership, that they still intend to bulldoze the uplands. And that is a major folly of this plan. An upland by definition is not wet. The only reason you bulldoze a wetland is to lower its elevation so it can flood. An upland is virtually anything that is not flooded: a mountain, a hill, a sand dune. The only reason to bulldoze an upland is to convert it into a wetland. If it’s going to stay an upland, there’s no reason to bulldoze it. You can pull out the weeds. But you don’t need to scrape away 15 feet of earth.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like wetlands. I’ve spent the last 26 years fighting to save them. But wetlands need uplands. You’ve got to have a place for critters to hunt: the wetlands. You’ve got to have a place for them to build their nests: those are the uplands. Ballona is an ecosystem, not a mono-culture. We need both habitats.

    One can look at the restoration of the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Orange County to see the mixed success. There, the salt marsh looks great. But the added sea water is killing the trees at the uplands that serve as the main homes for red-tail hawks and other raptors. The problem, again, was a plan that favored wetlands and so the upland habitats suffered.

    Only at our coastal wetland parks in California do officials think completely bulldozing and dredging the place is acceptable. We would never allow Griffith Park to be stripped bare and completely made-over. I share Jessica’s Hall’s desire to remove as much concrete from our rivers and creeks as is possible, however, only when it doesn’t wipe out existing homes for wildlife and our hiking trails. In the paved-over city alongside Ballona Creek, it would be great to remove the creek’s concrete banks and replace it with trees and places for critters.

    The problem is that removing the levees at the Ballona Wetlands is a completely different story. The levees, as Jessica points out, currently separate the creek from the rest of the preserve, so the creek does not currently flow into the wetlands anymore. These levees were built to protect the low lying coastal areas north and south of the levees from flooding, some of which are now part of the state’s preserve. True, the levees have altered the natural situation. But 150 years of paving and development in L.A. means that we cannot go back to completely natural anymore. What the levees do is keep the highly polluted urban runoff, which pours down our streets carrying trash, oil, grease, dog poop and bacteria, eventually flowing towards the ocean in Ballona Creek, from getting into the fragile Ballona Wetlands. The levees are un-natural but they serve an important naturally-beneficial purpose: keeping man’s pollution out of the wildlife habitat. It would be both a violation of the federal Clean Water Act and simply immoral to rip out the levees and allow the wetlands which we fought to save for so many years to become a pollution dump site. (That’s why Jessica’s point that the levees are harmful might technically be true, but this isn’t 1850, and removing the levees which protect the wetlands from the storm drain pollution from Hollywood etc. would be more harmful.)

    Cleaning up this pollution requires the acquisition of 2400 acres of private land upstream of the Ballona Wetlands to create a natural pollution filtration system, a project which is slated to be finished by 2021. The problem is that 2021 is an extremely optimistic date, and here’s why: This acreage estimate comes from the SMBRC’s Green Solutions Study published in 2009 by their engineering consultant. (Community Conservation Solutions– http://www.ccint.org/html/projects/greensolution/greensolution_1report_new.html). The problem is that there is no undeveloped land at low elevations left in the Ballona creek valley, besides the 600 acre Ballona wetlands preserve. Thus, for the SMBRC’s Ballona Wetlands flooding plan to work, the upstream purchase and removal of 2400 acres of urban development must be financed and completed before the levees downstream can be removed. How many people live on 2400 acres of developed land in the Ballona Valley? Do the math—that’s 25 to 50,000 people if it’s low density single family homes. Much more if it’s apartments.

    Those of us who’ve been in the Ballona battle know that it took 30 years to pry 600 acres of VACANT land out of a developer’s grip. I can imagine the enormous difficulties that await the city sanitation engineers when they try to buy and evict people from 4 times as much land. That’s why I believe tying the wetlands restoration to the success of the upstream stormwater pollution cleanup is foolhardy. There are other ways to bring more water into the wetlands without removing the entire levee system. I would support an alternative ocean access channel being dug to bring tidal flows into the existing lowlands south of Ballona creek. That does not mean, however, that the uplands on the north side of Ballona creek need to be dredged out at all.

    What the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission wants to do is turn the entire remaining undeveloped lowlands and highlands at Ballona into a flood zone. That way they can make the wetlands into a major fish nursery for the ocean. That’s a laudable goal. However, this goal can be accomplished without the $200 million-plus project and the ripping out of everything. Removal of the levees and conversion of the upland refuges into a flood zone means that with every winter storm, the wildlife that now has higher ground to retreat to in a flood, as half the site currently is the drier highlands, will have to retreat into the developed areas of Marina Del Rey and Playa del Rey. These densely developed areas will become the new “upland” escape zones in even normal rain events for wildlife. That’s not a happy outcome.

    I believe that there are good reasons to bring back water to the Ballona preserve, but in a much more limited way than the folks at SMBRC advocate. If Ballona Creek is ever cleaned up, maybe it can be allowed to flow through smaller channels through the wetlands south of the creek. The historical photos posted on BEEP’s website show small channels were there before man arrived and farmed it and built roads. What the historical maps and photos do not show is the entire 600 acres being an arm of the ocean.

    Finally, to those anonymous defenders of the SMBRC on the L.A. Weekly’s comments page, maybe this will help you understand the concerns of long-time Ballona defenders: the anger at the SMBRC stems from a community-planning process that originally met each month. Then it was taken over by a state-appointed science panel dominated by experts who advocate major bulldozing. This panel met a few times locally in seven hour meetings at which the public was not allowed to speak until the very end of the meeting. Later, this committee met for a while in Costa Mesa. From this rigged process came the bulldoze-it-all plan. The very few recent SMBRC meetings on Ballona have been packed with representatives of engineering firms looking to grab this plum project, again with public input allowed at the last 5 minutes. Thus, what was a model of community involvement in the planning process became dog-and-pony shows rigged to keep the public out for the apparent benefit of the wetland bulldozing industry.

    –Rex Frankel (my real name…)

  • charlie says:

    actually, you DO need bulldozers to set back levees efficiently. I guess you could use shovels and picks, but why?

    Getting rid of the nasty infrastructure of the 20th century will require some 20th century technology, unfortunately. Or you can just leave the concrete ditches and write off the value of intact riparian areas.

  • Rex Frankel says:


    I would support breaching the south levee of Ballona Creek to bring more water into the current wetland areas, assuming that that water was not polluted urban runoff. But since cleaning it up is way off in the future, and extremely expensive, the SMBRC needs to look at other ways to re-water the south wetlands.

    I differ with some of my Ballona allies on that point. I think that some small amount of bulldozing is necessary to dig small channels. That is a lot different, though, than supporting the SMBRC’s favored massive “industrial scale” bulldozing scheme.

    On the other hand, there is no justification to remove the north levee, as that would only be for the purpose of habitat conversion, turning the uplands into wetlands. As the uplands are a vital part of the web of nature, we need to leave that north levee alone.

    This is why I advocate that the SMBRC split the Ballona restoration plan into two pieces: a south wetlands restoration and a north uplands restoration. This makes it possible to pursue the less-controversial work of repairing the actual (south) wetlands without the long legal battles over bulldozing the uplands (which would be a separate project).

    I’d like to see some more water in the actual wetlands soon. We can start on that now if SMBRC backs off on pushing a highly controversial plan that, due to its tie to the upstream runoff cleanup plans, may not occur in our lifetimes.

    Do you and Jessica agree that the existing uplands at Ballona should be saved? If not, then why?

  • Marcia Hanscom says:

    Rex makes some excellent points, none of which ever get addressed when they are raised. In fact, no habitat considerations were ever part of the discussion when the consultants drew some new lines on a map to show what they wanted to do. It’s a big, industrial landscape plan, not a restoration. The votes were pushed to be made by the “Science” Committee before any baseline surveys were done. How is this good science? It’s not. And it’s not restoration.

  • Walter Lamb says:

    I’ve returned to this site many months after this blog post was originally entered to see if this discussion went anywhere. I continue to be disappointed that when questions are raised by people who have obviously put a good deal of thought into this issue, we don’t get answers. Jessica made several points about the levees, Martha and Rex made several comments in response, but then the conversation seems to just stop. I would imagine that Jessica and others disagree with the assertions being made by Marcia and Rex, but I would like to hear why.

    • Jessica Hall says:

      Walter, I would like to put together a post specifically about restoration and the Ballona restoration alternatives but it probably won’t be in the near future. Perhaps at that time I can try to address your concern here.

      • It is disingenuous to even suggest there are “alternatives.” Those who have decided what they want decided BEFORE the last round of “alternatives” were considered by the Scientific Advisory Committee, who ended up, after great discussion and expressed concerns, went along with the “group think” that those who were placed on this committee had already pre-determined. (this was several years ago!)

        The only reason any “alternatives” will be considered in the next round of discussions is that such “alternatives” are legally required to be included in “environmental review.” The managers of the agencies, who met in private, even though the public has asked to be present, have determined what they will do. The “new” refinement of their “alternative” makes it even clearer that this is a CONSTRUCTION project, not a restoration.

        We now have to save the Ballona Wetlands from those very agencies who were designed to protect such places. Our Government is broken.

        Stop the Bulldozers.

      • Hi Jessica,

        I am sadly returning to this 2011 discussion over ten years later, with the same unanswered questions. My daughter wasn’t even born when you made the original post on March 12, 2011. Now she is 10 and a half. Too many people have confused science with creative marketing at the Ballona Wetlands, and it is the unwillingness to concede obvious design mistakes that has left this ecological treasure in a largely neglected state, almost 18 years after the restoration planning began in 2004. What could today be a thriving mix of muted tidal and seasonal wetlands instead gets more coverage for wildfires, dead bodies, shootings, and other illicit activity. Kids who play baseball have access to areas of the ecological reserve north of the creek, but groups that want to teach kids about the ecology of those areas don’t, despite the state paying over $500,000 for new gates, signage, benches and other amenities that sit unused.

        Because Shelley Luce and other planners did not have an understanding of the complex habitat mixes at Ballona, she oversaw the design of a project which she now admits would result in virtually all coastal marsh converting to mudflat or sub-tidal marsh by the end of the century (See UCLA symposium). This would, of course, lead to the extirpation of multiple coastal marsh-dependent species in the ecological reserve. In fact, the endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrow would take an immediate hit, with substantial portions of its existing breeding habitat (not to mention one of the most iconic views of the wetlands) being buried beneath a new flood control levee, and other habitat converted to low elevation marsh which is not optimal for the sparrow. This is an egregiously absurd result for a wetland restoration project with a $182 million price tag.

        Ironically, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission which you defended in 2011 has been completely gutted, and the shell of an agency that is left denies having a role with this project.

        I measure the seriousness of environmental advocates by how willing they are to address hard questions head on and to acknowledge and correct mistakes. An objective update on the Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project seems long overdue on a blog about Los Angeles creeks. I hope you will revisit this.


        Walter Lamb
        Ballona Wetlands Land Trust

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