In a first step toward restoring one of Southern California's few remaining wetlands and opening it to the public, the state has approved spending $6.5 million for planning a massive restoration of the degraded Ballona Wetlands — but conservationists are at odds over what that means for the future of the site.
Though construction is still years away, the question of how drastically to alter the existing landscape in order to revive the remaining 600 acres of the Ballona Wetlands is polarizing conservationists who fought for three decades to protect the site from the sort of development that ate up most of it.
"It's going to be a delicate balancing act," said Lisa Fimiani, executive director of Friends of Ballona Wetlands and a cautious supporter of restoration. "It's going to be: What habitat do you want to bring back and at what cost? Because some of it will be altered."
Restoring the site will require some large-scale changes, said restoration supporters like Shelley Luce, executive director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, a state organization whose nonprofit foundation will use some of the money to collect scientific data and conduct environmental reviews.
Initial proposals call for spending $100 million to remove concrete levees and truck out tons of sediment dumped on the property, allowing water from Ballona Creek and the sea to flow into the wetlands. Bike paths would be built atop earthern flood-control berms on the reserve's perimeter and public boardwalks would allow visitors access to the site without disturbing plants, birds and other wildlife.
"We have the potential at Ballona to restore this degraded and damaged habitat and return it to a beautiful, sustainable natural refuge for people and wildlife," Luce said.
The vast coastal wetlands once spanned 2,000 acres at the mouth of Ballona Creek, covering much of what is now Marina del Rey, Playa del Rey and Venice. Only a quarter remains today, much of it a dry, fenced-off expanse of brush that is littered with garbage in places, surrounded by high-rises and subdivisions and criss-crossed by congested boulevards.
Developers and environmental activists wrangled over the site for decades before the state agreed in 2003 to spend $139 million to acquire it as an ecological reserve. Still, state officials and a number of environmental groups say it is far from a healthy, functioning ecosystem.
The soil was raised high above sea level with the sediment scooped out decades ago when Marina del Rey was built. Though the open space supports wildlife, much of the habitat is degraded and ocean waters must again reach deep into the marshlands if plants and animals are to thrive again, restoration proponents say.
Critics say the reserve is not as degraded as portrayed by restoration proponents. Some local environmentalists oppose the project, which they say would disrupt rare birds and flowers that already live there.
"We are opposed to industrial-scale habitat conversion, including bulldozing that destroys current ecosystems," Kathy Knight, conservation chair of the Sierra Club Airport Marina Group, told members of the the Coastal Conservancy, which approved funding for the studies on Thursday.
Instead of a grand reshaping of the site, Knight and other critics said, funds would be put to better use on more delicate improvements, such as using volunteers and schoolchildren to plant native vegetation or buying up surrounding property to use as a buffer zone.
For now, the bulk of the reserve remains off-limits to the public except through guided tours or by special permission.
On a tour of the wetlands Thursday, two dozen state government officials had to be escorted by a ranger into one area near Marina del Rey, ducking below bushes and squeezing through an opening in a chain-link fence.
On the other side stretched a field of vegetation, its silty soil pocked with gopher holes and marred with pieces of discarded clothes and trash. A narrow, steep-banked channel known as the Fiji Ditch, an official for the Conservancy noted, is the only vein of ocean water that still penetrates the wetlands.