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Wetland Backers Welcome Developer’s Expansion Plan

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

It has been cut off from the ocean, chopped up by roads, buried beneath truckloads of mud and silt. Yet, the remnants of the Ballona Wetlands offer the best chance for a coastal wildlife refuge in an area choked by urban sprawl.

The main reason is simple: Along the coast of Los Angeles County, there are no other major wetlands left to save from development.

So conservationists long ago chose this drained and desiccated marsh in West Los Angeles to make a last stand in a metropolis that has paved over 95% of its wetlands.

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They have had successes. During a near quarter-century of environmental battles, developers of Playa Vista have been forced to set aside 340 acres for wildlife habitat, including 190 acres of salt marsh and $13 million to help restore it.

Not a bad start, wetlands experts say. But it’s hardly enough to secure a refuge for wildlife at the foot of such a massive development. Pocket wetlands tend to wither from the pollution, noise and light that spill from the urban jungle.

Now, Playa Vista officials are willing to make another concession, for a price. They will cut their housing development in half and sell enough land to double the size of the salt marsh. The first step in the deal is an appraisal, which is already underway.

The proposed sale of 193 acres through the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to the state government has fired the imaginations of those who have envisioned these weedy bottom lands transformed into a lush oasis.

“Bigger is better, when it comes to restoring tidal marsh,” said Joy Zedler, a leading wetlands ecologist.

By doubling the acreage, and connecting it to another 68 acres of state-controlled land, the wetlands would be big enough to encompass salt marsh, intertidal mudflats and other wildlife shelter and feeding grounds, ecologists say.

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Tidewater could meander through more than 400 acres, once the area is properly engineered, with additional upland acres acting as a buffer against urban intrusion.

With the flow of rejuvenating tides, Ballona could once again be a nursery for halibut, ecologists say. It could reclaim its role as a major stopover for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.

It could be a place for the public to marvel at the smoky blue wings of a giant heron as it fishes for supper; or for birders to spy on the endangered Belding’s savannah sparrow, nesting in the pickleweed.

“It’s wonderful to dream about Ballona,” said Zedler, a former San Diego State University professor who now holds an endowed chair in restoration ecology at the University of Wisconsin. “It could be so important to the diversity of life in the region. It could be an oasis for people, too.”

Wetlands ecologists, who have fought over Playa Vista’s plans in the past, share strikingly similar views on how easy it would be to rescue the wetlands.

The most important engineering work involves allowing seawater to penetrate land that has been cut off from the ocean since Marina del Rey was built in the early 1960s and Ballona Creek was lined with concrete.

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The engineering is relatively straightforward. All it would take is opening the floodgates that line the creek, or building a few extra culverts. The mouth of the creek is usually engulfed with seawater pushed in by the tides.

An experiment in the mid-1980s demonstrated how eager the ocean is to reclaim this low-lying land. The Audubon Society opened floodgates for a few hours to see what would happen.

“It was fantastic,” said Ed Tarvyd, a marine biology professor at Santa Monica College who watched from atop a nearby bluff. Water quickly deluged the area.

The experiment worked a little too well. The seawater began to inundate Culver Boulevard, forcing the hasty closure of the gates.

Playa Vista’s developers, in their own $13-million restoration plans, propose installing automated floodgates that would shut to control tidal flows.

Other wetlands experts suggest a more costly solution. It would involve elevating Culver Boulevard and building a berm along one edge of the wetlands to protect low-lying buildings along the beach in Playa del Rey. All this would be possible if the size of the salt marsh were doubled under the deal pushed by the Trust for Public Land.

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Ecologists also strongly recommend removing the 15-foot-deep layer of mud and silt dumped on a different portion of the land in the early 1960s when the county dredged the harbor in the process of developing Marina del Rey.

“This is not a site that humans have treated gently,” said Michael N. Josselyn, a wetlands restoration expert advising the Friends of Ballona. “So it’s not a site that a gentle hand could restore to its former glory.”

Such extensive restoration would cost $100 million or more, experts say. But once this land is put in the hands of an agency such as the California Department of Parks and Recreation, many officials are confident the money would begin to flow.

“The actual restoration is easily doable, given a variety of funds available,” said Bob Hoffman, who handles such projects for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Port of Los Angeles, for instance, must create new wetlands or restore old ones to make up for what has been lost to port expansion. The harbor agency has spent more than $100 million on wetlands restoration in San Diego and Orange counties and now would like to find a project closer to home.

“Ballona would be a great thing to do for the city,” said Ralph Appy, the port’s director of environmental management. “We are very interested in doing some restoration there.”

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Other money could come from federal offshore oil and gas lease revenue and various state agencies that are flush with cash from Proposition 40, which passed last month.

The state Coastal Conservancy, for instance, has $240 million to spend in coming years to buy and restore land.

“Part of the Coastal Conservancy’s mission is to help resolve long-standing land-use issues,” said Sam Schuchat, the conservancy’s executive officer. “Ballona certainly qualifies. It would be nice to put this baby to rest.”

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