When it comes to a battered environment, few places can match Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park, an empire of weeds, trash and vagrant encampments surrounding a polluted lake crawling with nonnative snails as big as baseballs, voracious water snakes and snapping turtles.
The park's Lake Machado is best known as the swampy hideout of the abandoned alligator Reggie, who won international fame after officials spent $200,000 trying to catch him. Reggie was finally snagged in 2007 with a dog-catcher's pole.
"This has been Siberia as far as the city of Los Angeles is concerned," said Martin Byhower, a science teacher who for 30 years has led volunteer efforts to pick up trash and restore habitat for native insects and birds. "To us, it's an abused paradise in desperate need of help."
FOR THE RECORD:
Park restoration: An article in the March 16 California section about Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park included a caption that said student volunteer Daria Clark, 17, was from Rancho Paloma. Daria is a resident of Rancho Palos Verdes. —
And help is finally coming. The 231-acre park straddling the communities of Harbor City and Wilmington closed a week ago in preparation for a makeover. A $111-million Lake Machado ecosystem rehabilitation project is scheduled to break ground March 22. The money is part of Proposition O, a park bond initiative approved by voters a decade ago.
So, what took so long?
Many park supporters blame delays on municipal neglect in a community with a largely low-income, non-voting constituency.
"Enough is enough — no more waiting," said Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, whose 15th District includes the park. "We owe it to this community to restore this lake as a venue to celebrate nature, diversity and families."
Buscaino said the goal is "to see "families kayaking, fishing and even swimming in Lake Machado" within three years.
The lake is fed by Los Angeles County's flood control system; whether public swimming and boating are ever allowed remains to be seen, given that existing laws restrict such activity.
In the past, some naturalists have suffered respiratory problems and skin rashes after accidentally being immersed in the lake.
The long-awaited ecological restoration will include mechanical dredging along the shore and huge vacuum cleaners sucking up sediment laced with pesticides and other hazardous substances from bottom of the lake. "We'll dry it on the site and then transport it to a location certified to accept it," said Jacob Haik, Buscaino's deputy chief of staff.
The dredging is expected to significantly improve water quality and make it easier for native plants and fish to thrive. However, it may not significantly reduce the non-native apple snails, Florida banded water snakes, bullfrogs and snapping turtles that lurk in the murky shallows.
Lake Machado is a state-designated "impaired water body" because of its witch's brew of trash, algae, coliform bacteria, foul odors and hazardous substances. Adjacent habitat is strewn with broken glass. Interlopers wage paintball wars and drive vehicles through the nesting and foraging grounds of more than 300 species of birds. The park has only one working restroom and no security. Brush fires are annual events.
When the wind kicked up one morning, smoke from illegal bonfires blew across several encampments on the south end of the park. In one of them, a 24-year-old woman was bringing a pot of water to boil over a campfire in a site shared by about 20 men and women she described as "people with problems and no other place to go."
Across the lake, two dozen volunteers from local schools and a nonprofit conservation group called the International Environmental Service Club were planting native black sage, purple sage and coyote brush in hope of attracting endangered species including the California gnatcatcher and the Palos Verdes blue butterfly.
Their work was part of the continuing ecology campaign organized by Byhower, 61, and his protege, Jose Sandoval, 17, a Banning High School senior and expert bird watcher who grew up in the area.
Byhower and Sandoval basked in the results: restoration of a few more yards of what used to be one of the most productive ecosystems in Southern California.
"All I want is for this park to be a fraction of what it once was," Byhower said. "Then I'll be happy."