The National Audubon Society has announced plans for an extensive restoration of the 216-acre Ballona Wetlands north of Playa del Rey that will include a museum and marshes that are used by at least 129 bird species.
The wetlands once covered more than 1,700 acres, including Marina del Rey and part of Venice, but a century of development has taken a severe toll, said Eric Metz, Audubon’s project manager for the wetlands. Much of the remaining wetland area is in poor condition as a result of a flood control system installed 50 years ago to drain the area and prevent salt water from entering it.
The society plans to use a $10-million grant from Summa Corp. to install a complicated fresh- and salt-water circulatory system, remove vegetation that is not native to the area, create salt-water channels and fresh-water ponds and construct a moat around a two-acre area dubbed “Bird Island” that will allow birds to nest without danger from predators.
“It is a very exciting area, a living laboratory,” said Ed Tarvyd, a marine biology professor at Santa Monica College and a member of Audubon’s scientific advisory committee for the wetlands.
Among the bird species that now use the Ballona wetlands are the American bald eagle, peregrine falcon, California least tern, brown pelican and Belding’s savanna sparrow, all listed as endangered species by the federal or state government.
“Wetlands are a very rare and endangered habitat all over the United States,” he said. “Traditionally, these areas have either been dredged out or paved over. But these are the places where migratory birds traveling from Alaska to Central America will stop. As the wetlands disappear, the birds will disappear.”
Glenn Olson, Audubon’s regional vice president, said the restoration, which is expected to take 10 to 13 years, is not scheduled to begin until late 1987.
In the meantime, several key obstacles remain. Summa Corp. has agree to donate the land and give $10 million to the Audubon Society in return for preliminary approval of a $1-billion condominium and marina project it wants to build on about 700 acres north and east of the wetlands. Transfer of the deed is contingent on approval of the Audubon Society’s plans by the city of Los Angeles and the California Coastal Commission and the resolution of a lawsuit against Summa.
The Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, a 1,500-member organization that has fought for the last eight years to establish the wildlife sanctuary, sued Summa in 1984 to obtain more than 100 additional acres it claims are part of the wetlands.
Construction of the museum, grading of the property to allow water to flow once again through the area and the installation of automated water circulation systems should be completed in two or three years, Olson said.
Metz said the society plans to divide the area into four sections: Bird Island and east, north and south wetlands.
The marshes in the three wetlands and the moat around Bird Island will contain salt water from Ballona Creek, which at high tide is flooded with salt water from the ocean.
The north wetlands area will have a water circulatory system separate from the rest of the wetlands because it has suffered less damage than the other sections of the sanctuary. The society will gradually plant native species to replace foreign plants such as ice plant and pampas grasses that now flourish on several acres of dunes on the western edge of the north wetlands, Metz said.
Access to the north wetlands will be limited to scientists and occasional small groups brought in by the society. Access to the smaller south wetlands will also be limited.
The east wetlands, next to the site of the proposed museum, will be the most accessible. People entering through the museum will be able to walk on a 1,000-foot trail through the area. In addition to salt water marshes, the public will also be able to observe wildlife on three fresh-water ponds and a fresh-water marsh that the society plans to create using water from the Jefferson storm drain.
To avoid pollutants often found in storm drains, water from the first rains of the year will be diverted directly into Ballona Creek, Metz said. Drain water tested after the system has been flushed by the first rains have been found to be within the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s toxic metal limits for drinking water, he said, adding that the high bacteria level often found in storm drain water should not harm the wetlands.
Danger From Sewage
But Metz told a group of Westchester and Playa del Rey residents at the public unveiling of the society’s plans Tuesday night that the wetlands could be damaged if toxic waste or sewage is dumped into Ballona Creek or the Jefferson drain and flows into the sanctuary. He said the sanctuary staff can protect the wetlands from contamination by pollutants only if is notified in time to close the gates that divert water into the wetlands.
That danger, and the problems posed by the fact that Culver Boulevard and the planned extension of Falmouth Avenue will go through the wetlands, are two of the challenges of restoring and maintaining a wildlife sanctuary in an urban area, Metz said.
“Although two major roads will traverse the area, the wetlands are worth preserving because even in its current degraded state it serves 129 bird species, 19 mammal species and nine species of amphibians and reptiles,” Metz said.
The restored Ballona Wetlands will be the largest coastal wetland area in Los Angeles County, Metz said, noting that the society chose to put a museum there because it is easily accessible and is expected to attract more than 300,000 visitors annually. In addition to the $10-million grant, it plans to raise an additional $6 million to pay for the museum.
“This sanctuary gives us a beachhead for a major environmental education program in an urban area,” he said. “Most of the people who vote on bond issues that will pay for other wetlands live here. If the average person off the street gets excited by the unusual and exciting presentation we are making here, then the next time he hears the word wetland he will think of that experience,” he said.
The museum will have indoor and outdoor exhibits including aviaries, a computer to help people understand the hydrology of the wetlands, a lagoon exhibit featuring sharks, rays and large fish, a stream exhibit in which people can look through windows below the water line, and a theater where the flight of a flock of thousands of Canada geese will be projected onto the ceiling.