Ballona Wetlands: Battle to Rebuild a Marsh : The National Audubon Society Hopes the Completed Project Covering a Hotly Disputed Area Between 175 and 325 Acres Will Attract as Many as 994,000 Visitors a Year

Times Staff Writer

Linda Rhodes, Eric Metz and Bob Dahl stood atop a dirt mound that once served as the right of way for the old Pacific Electric interurban trolley line near Culver City, perusing via binoculars six great blue herons that had set down in a small coastal marsh nearby.

The herons moved about with seeming nonchalance, isolated from the humans by several hundred feet of muck and weeds. Slowly, they cavorted before a backdrop of the masts of passing sailboats, strangely disembodied from their invisible hulls by a wall separating the marsh from the yachting channel of nearby Marina del Rey.

Hotly Disputed

The place itself is called the Ballona (pronounced in the Spanish way, " buy-owna ") Wetlands, an area of somewhere between 175 and 325 acres, depending on who is measuring, that has become one of the most hotly disputed pieces of real estate in L.A. County. It is sandwiched, sort of, between Playa del Rey, Marina del Rey, Westchester and Culver City. Culver and Jefferson boulevards run right through it and Lincoln Boulevard is its natural eastern boundary.

From the south, the ceaseless screech of jet engines from L.A. International Airport interfered with conversation and, surrounding the little marsh, automobile traffic and other signs of human habitation gave the area a decidedly abused, urban wasteland flavor.

The ground is littered with broken glass and Styrofoam, chunks of which intruded on a lively procession of tiny fiddler crabs scurrying about in such large numbers that the earth appeared to be moving. The species is distinctive both because of its size--fiddlers are often just a half inch across--and because of flashes of claw, which produce a white arm in a jerky movement that suggests the drawing of a bow across violin strings.

From the right-of-way vantage point, next to some pilings that remain from the old Red Car days, Rhodes, Metz and Dahl took all this in contemplatively, aware of the certain urban irony that had brought them together. They have been assembled by the National Audubon Society essentially to rebuild a swamp. According to the most preliminary of plans, the society hopes this regenerated swamp will attract as many as 994,000 visitors a year.

Slimy Renaissance

Sometime in the next three to five years, if things go right, the dried and/or shrunken remains of what was once one of the most important natural estuaries on the West Coast will be turned back into something approaching the kind of habitat it was 135 years ago. And as part of this slimy renaissance, an interpretive center will be constructed--designed by Rhodes, project architect for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which opened last year. What may eventually be called the Audubon Wetlands at Ballona Creek is intended to make as significant an impression on Southern California as the Monterey Bay Aquarium has made in the north.

The interpretive center would be the largest such facility for study of a marsh in the country and one of just a handful of examples in the United States of aquaria and museums that concentrate specifically on the environment of the immediate area in which they are located. In that sense, the center would be like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, all of whose exhibits depict species from the bay, whose waters lap up against pilings that support the building itself.

A large part of the financing for the Ballona Wetlands project--at least $10 million for restoration of the marsh and construction of the center--will come from the Summa Corp., the vestige of Howard Hughes that was forced to accept the reclamation project in exchange for Coastal Commission authorization to develop an enormous new condominium and marina project that will surround the wetlands. The development, Playa Vista, will graft a large yacht basin onto the existing Marina del Rey complex and fill the remaining acreage outside the marsh and a contiguous buffer zone with a $1 billion development housing 20,000 people--virtually all of them decidedly upscale. Hughes and/or Summa has owned all of the land in question, including the remains of the marsh, since the 1940s.

Development of Playa Vista will end several years of hard-fought warfare between developers, who have seen the area as one of the last undeveloped parcels of coastal real estate in the area, and conservationists, who have contended much of it is too fragile to be developed without severe environmental damage.

Construction, Development

Rhodes, whose appointment was made public earlier this week, will fill a position at Ballona equivalent to the post she held at the aquarium, where officials called her crucial to construction and development of what has become a runaway success--drawing 1.5 million visitors in its first seven months of operation.

Metz, a former staff member of the state Coastal Commission, and Dahl, who has long experience as a museum and aquarium exhibit designer, will round out an Audubon Society team that hopes to turn the swamp into a dazzling educational experience that will attract schoolchildren, local residents and tourists to a rich sampling of environmental displays that Dahl, with a hearty laugh, said would be a sort of "world of ooze."

Swamp , though, is really the wrong word, the three of them say, opting for marsh , nomenclature that, to a marine biologist, conveys the proper meaning. The Ballona Wetlands represents one of the last remaining tidal marshes in California and, as such, is an important ecosystem supporting a striking diversity of marine plants, fish, birds and mammals ranging from eelgrass and the tiny fiddler crab to foxes, Canada geese, herons and an occasional eagle. Grizzly bears once lived there, but even the Audubon team isn't hoping to reintroduce them .

For bird species flying south from as far away as the Gulf of Alaska, the wetlands becomes, as Dahl likes to put it, "a Chevron station" on the long migratory journey. Flocks can set down and stay a week or two, regaining their strength for the rest of the trek. Without Ballona, the reproductive habits of many of the birds--some of the species are already endangered--that now stop there might be seriously affected.

Development, Encroachment

But the last few decades have not been good for the Ballona Wetlands. Urban development and encroachment has reduced the acreage from the 1,750 thought to have existed naturally in about 1850 to as little as 10% of that area today. As recently as the 1920s, the wetlands survived almost full sized and essentially intact, with Ballona Creek--in the days before it was turned into a concrete-lined flood control channel--meandering across what is now the Marina and discharging its water across the beach at a point several hundred yards south of where its ersatz concrete replacement, built in about 1930, terminates now.

In 1850, just as California achieved statehood, officials ordered a survey of wetlands in the state. At the time, it came to 5 million acres. Today, according to Audubon Society calculations, the total has fallen to 300,000--the vast majority of that in the northern part of the state. True estuaries--unique coastal marshes that are affected by tides--have been cut back from 381,000 acres statewide at the turn of the century to 125,000 today, according to the Institute of Marine Resources at UC San Diego.

The disappearing estuaries have played a key role in escalating the threat to endangered species such as the California Least Tern, which would gain important breeding space in the restored Ballona wetlands. Eventually, steelhead trout might be lured into the marsh. It would be the farthest point south they have been recorded in the state in decades. And the wetlands could become an important home for a bird called the California Clapper Rail and the Belding's Savannah Sparrow, an endangered species.

As many as 25 great blue herons visit the wetlands even now and Audubon officials hope more of them can be induced to breed there, perhaps in a eucalyptus grove on the site where visitors could observe them at comparatively close range.

There are still nine acres of delicate sand dunes on the western edge of the wetlands area. Even though houses in Playa del Rey intrude onto the dunes, Dahl said a species of tiny owl is still present that lives in burrows deep in the sand.

Halt Deterioration

It will fall to Rhodes, Metz, Dahl and the rest of an Audubon team that has not yet been assembled to bring a halt to the steady deterioration of the Ballona Wetlands. But the process of doing so will require that many things be done that, at first flush, may seem completely antithetical to the concept of the contemporary urban metropolis.

For instance, where flood control and mosquito abatement programs--accepted urban necessities--have converted hundreds of miles of streams into storm sewers and seen the drainage of large amounts of marshlike land, restoring the wetlands will entail the reintroduction of a salt and fresh water bog in the midst of a densely populated part of Greater Los Angeles.

Where the Army Corps of Engineers assiduously diverted Ballona Creek so its seasonal runoff would not flood the surrounding landscape, the restoration of the wetlands depends on re-establishing the flooding--under carefully controlled conditions. In all probability, what this will eventually require is dikes to prevent flooding of the streets that now traverse the remaining wetlands area.

And, so natural tidal action can wash the marsh with nourishing sea water on a regular schedule, some means will have to be found to vastly increase the amount of tidal water that now backs up through culverts into the wetlands. To keep the place from becoming a refuge for mosquitoes, the wetlands reclamation project will have to keep the water in the marsh constantly in motion and some non-native species, such as mosquito larvae-eating fish, may have to be introduced.

But the marsh can't survive in a saltwater environment alone. Its ecology requires periodic infusions of fresh water that historically came from Ballona Creek, which got its water from the natural runoff of the hills and terrain of the city at large. Flood control has permanently removed the source of much of the runoff water, so Metz is faced with a formidable challenge in terms of the science of hydraulics. He must somewhere find enough fresh water that the natural standoff between saltwater and fresh can be re-established.

There may be water underground, but drilling far enough to find it could prove prohibitively expensive, Metz said in an interview. Other possible sources include recapturing water that now flows through existing storm sewer systems--perhaps even by rediverting water that is contained by the concrete ditch now called Ballona Creek.

But this so-called "urban runoff" would require purification before it could simply be allowed to flood into contact with environmentally delicate plant and animal species, Metz said. Another possibility is use of partially treated waste water--a commodity that would be fairly easy to come by if it were not for the question of getting it to the marsh from treatment plants where it might be available.

Biggest Challenge

It is a quandary whose irony is not lost on anyone involved in the project: The biggest challenge to the successful restoration of the marsh may be finding water to make it swamplike again--a state in which the area existed naturally for thousands of years before 20th-Century urban planners got involved.

Even at its most moist times, though, the restored Ballona Wetlands will remain what it always was--a marsh, to be sure, but a marsh that is the unique product of the indigenous L.A. ecology which, Rhodes noted, is basically a desert environment. "Even historically, the amount of water in the wetlands was very seasonal," said Glenn Olson, statewide director of the Audubon and the person who is the titular project director for the program the three others are to develop.

"You would get fresh water when it was available," Olson said. "And sometimes it wasn't."

"This was a real desert environment," noted Rhodes. "Naturally, you have the kinds of runoff you find in the desert. That is one of the things that it would be nice if we could get across to people.

"The main message here is that Southern California marshes are very special kinds of marshes and they are, in fact, maybe not the most spectacular or attractive kind of marsh at first glance. People need to be intrigued enough so they don't just let them be filled in and developed.

"People farther north or in the East, where estuaries are much larger, are more sensitive to them. Obviously, in these smaller marshes here, there has been very little thinking on the part of the public. I don't know that they understand that Ballona was a marsh.

"The big challenge is going to be to show them that it is a working biological system, filled with living things."

To a museum-designer, formulating a plan to display the marsh equivalent of the desert environment is a unique challenge because desertlike conditions are so comparatively subtle. Unlike the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which can rely on such natural draws as a sea otter den and a 40-foot fiber-glass reproduction of a whale, the Ballona Wetlands interpretive center will focus on species that are smaller in size and less spectacular in behavior.

It is a challenge, Rhodes said, but not an obstacle. She noted that the largest exhibit in Monterey is built around a bed of giant kelp which, though the plants sway to simulated wave action, are still tall, naked brown plants. "Up until a week before the aquarium opened," Rhodes recalled, "other museum people were coming in and telling us, 'Kelp will never sell.' " Today, the kelp tank is the aquarium's star attraction.

Designing Buildings

It will be Rhodes who designs the building or buildings that will house the interpretive center, which will occupy a site--of probably about two acres--somewhere on the outskirts of the wetlands. While land-use plans approved by the Coastal Commission have included a small area at one corner of the marsh where the interpretive center would be placed, Rhodes and Olson said the site is not binding and the actual center probably will be somewhere else.

Rhodes isn't even certain of the size or cost of the building but she said it will be unobtrusive. Exhibits in the center will mirror ecological events occurring in the marsh outside. One possible crowd pleaser would be a model of the entire wetlands that would simulate tidal action throughout the area, but with the time of the tidal cycle compressed to an hour or less.

There isn't a definite budget for the project, either, but Rhodes said detailed plans for the project will be completed by the end of the summer. A preliminary estimate prepared for Audubon by a consultant proposed several possible general designs that would range in price from $1.9 million to $3.5 million. Projected attendance levels range as high as 2,000 visitors a day during the week and 4,500 a day on weekends, though Rhodes cautioned that none of the preliminary estimates is necessarily reliable.

Rhodes said at least some of the money for construction of the center would come from the amount Summa has guaranteed to provide for the overall wetlands restoration. But some of the funds will have to be raised elsewhere--probably from private contributors. Rhodes and Olson said the goal for the interpretive center is for it to be self-supporting yet educational. To meet both of those objectives, all four of the experts agreed, the center will have to be both flashy enough to attract the public but with enough depth to be scientifically legitimate.

Sometime this summer, crews may start working to tear out ice plant that now chokes off much of the native vegetation in the marsh. The ice plant was introduced earlier in this century. Eighteen months from now, if things go as planned, it is possible that final plans for the center could be ready and permits could be in hand to go ahead. About two years after that, at the very earliest, the center could open for business.

Commission Lawsuit

But nothing, of course, is certain. Still to be resolved is a lawsuit filed against the Coastal Commission by the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, a local group represented by the Center for Law in the Public Interest. The suit seeks to block commission approval of a wetlands area of 175 acres, arguing that between 250 and 325 acres should be set aside. Summa has vowed to fight the expansion of the area, since increasing the size of the marsh that would be preserved would cut into the amount of space available for condominium, marina and commercial construction.

It is estimated that Summa will not be able to begin construction for about two years, if then. Plans for the interpretive center and wetlands restoration could be mired in some of the same delay. As the designated redeveloper of the marsh and the interpretive center, the Audubon Society, which until now has been an environmental group advocating preservation of much of the site, has technically become a developer--and one that must, Audubon director Olson noted, obtain building permits and coastal commission approvals just like Summa.

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