A Friend of Ballona
Ten percent of all of California’s wetlands remain today. Situated between a six-lane stretch of Lincoln and sands of Playa, Ballona Wetlands are the largest surviving wetland in Los Angeles, and its creek is the principal storm drain into the Santa Monica Watershed. Despite the many insults endured during the last century, including being the landfill dumping ground for the creation of Marina del Rey, the wetlands are reviving and, in some areas, thriving. For the past few decades, the act of restoring this habitat has involved scientists and botanists and the committed efforts of local volunteers.
Once owned by Howard Hughes, the wetlands were placed under the protection of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2003. Its current Environmental Impact Report proposes to move the levies, reconnect the wetlands to the creek, and remove the excess landfill. Along with the CDFW, the California Coastal Commission and the Bay Foundation also supervise overall restoration efforts. But the daily maintenance is handled by the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, a non-profit group founded in 1978, which has removed 204 tons of invasive plants, planted and revived over 800 native species, and removed 38 tons of trash – all by hand. Since the group’s inception, nearly 300 birds have returned.
Much of the fieldwork is conducted and organized by Patrick Tyrrell. As the manager of habitat restoration and upper education, Patrick handles high school, college and adult programs education and also coordinates all community-based restoration projects. On a day where Painted Lady Butterfly filled the skies, Patrick spoke about his life-long relationship to this place, and why it matters to all of us in Los Angeles.
The following interview was conducted and edited by Jennifer Allen, a journalist and an author, most recently of “Mālama Honua – Hōkūle’a – A Voyage of Hope,“ published by Patagonia.
Playa Del Rey, it’s a great place to grow up. At its center is the Ballona Wetlands. As a kid, the wetlands were this big, open amazing space where my friends and I could come and play and explore and get dirty and find lizards and snakes. You’d see birds here and there, like the Egrets and the Herons, and even as a kid, you know how lucky that is, especially in a city like Los Angeles.
There was this one area to the south called West Bluff. West Bluff was the last undeveloped area here and, in high school, we’d go out there at night and you could see the whole city lights. This beautiful cityscape extended forever. And then right below, in the wetlands, it just black and you could hear the frogs croaking and you knew there was a lot going on down here in the wetlands. It was a place to come and see and hear the great contrast between the rest of Los Angeles and this place right here. After going to college in Vancouver, I was passionate about the environment and I felt it was a direction I wanted to work in. The first time I volunteered with Friends of Ballona Wetlands, I knew this was where I want to be – out in the field.
The main goal of our work is to restore a piece of land that has been basically through about anything and everything you could imagine over the last 150-200 years – from agriculture to oil extraction to having a railroad coming through here. In the early 1900s, there was a car race track, “The Motordrome,” a wooden race track, open rail on top, right off of where Lincoln is now. It was famous for the highest speed record in North America. Then, when they built Marina Del Rey, they dumped all the landfill here.
This area has been through a lot. The introduction of plants from all over the world has really affected this place, too. Plants are brought here either accidentally or intentionally, whether it’s down the street or next door or where ever they came from, even natural areas, these plants are able to dominate and take over. In the early ‘90s when we first got the permission to do our work here, it was mostly ice plant. Ice plant had completely come to dominate. The early stages were just getting the ice plant out and slowly starting to re-establish the native coastal dune species.
We do community-based restoration, all by volunteers, pulling a weed here, putting a seed there, planting a plant over there. We also do trail maintenance, watering and fencing. It’s slow, painstaking, sometimes arduous work to hand-pull these weeds. But it allows the public to come out and get involved and feel like they’re a part of the land. It’s very intimate. You’re literally getting your hands dirty, and being a part of the land. I think that’s really important especially because at the moment, the reserve isn’t open to the public. The freshwater marsh is open – that’s the only section that is open. The plan is to eventually allow for a well-regulated public access. But our concern is primarily for the wild life, especially for the rare and endangered species. That’s always goal number one to protect and enhance the habitat for the wildlife.
The state is planning a comprehensive restoration of the area, which is very different from our community-based restoration. This will involve removing much of the landfill and dirt that was dumped here during the construction of Marina Del Rey. The plan would take the levy that is essentially a straight concrete channel, and push the levies out. Right now the water rushes past us when it’s raining. We get a little bit of tidal flow into the wetlands because of the tide gates. This plan would allow the creek to function much closer to the way it functioned, historically. And we would get back some of the wetlands we lost.
The wetlands are some of the most important ecosystems on the planet and they are also amongst the most threatened. Wetlands support species that aren’t found anywhere else, that includes plants and animals. A lot of the nutrients from upstream end up here and that in turn will attract the little things and that attracts the big things and on and up the food web. Wetlands are also the transition between land and ocean. So you have the terrestrial species uplands, plants species, the marine species and you have the things that live right on the margin between the two – all these things rely on the wetlands.
One of the roles of a coastal wetland is as a fish nursery. The fish swim into these channels to spawn as it’s this nice safe protected area that allows them reproduce before going out in the ocean. This is something we want to see increase when the restoration is completed and that landfill is removed, so that it will be performing that role even better than it is now. More wetlands mean more fish, more fish means healthy fisheries, and healthy fisheries mean healthier marine ecosystems. It’s all connected.
Technically, the top of our watershed is Griffith Park. From there, the water flows underground, and then, just east of Culver City, the creek emerges as an open channel all the way to the headwaters. The Water in the creek is untreated storm water, gathered from about 130 square miles of Los Angeles – including Culver City, Inglewood, Beverly Hills, West Hollywood and parts of Santa Monica. That’s a lot. And it goes right into the ocean. So we’re the end of the pipe, literally. Anything that is happening up stream of us, this is where it comes.
Water has been naturally draining this way for the last ten thousand years but with urbanization, the problems with trash and pollution, it’s very much a critical issue that as a city we are starting to deal with it. Measure W was passed in November, and will fund upstream projects to capture storm water and catch some of trash at the source. This will decrease the pollution and trash from flowing here.
One of the natural properties of a wetland is to act as a filter. Today, we have the freshwater marsh. That was restored and, in addition to being wildlife habitat, and preventing upstream flooding, is designed as a natural treatment system. The water that exits that system is going to be cleaner than the water that enters it. So that’s a new paradigm for how we deal with water. Rather than thinking about flood control and flushing it out to the ocean as quickly as possible, we’re thinking, What can we do upstream, and how can we utilize wetlands, in their natural properties as kidneys of our water systems to clean stuff out before it flows out to the ocean?
In the freshwater marsh, we saw a bird, called The Virginia Rail, return as a nesting species, it was gone as a nesting species for almost a hundred years. And then post-restoration, boom, it came back. The Least Bittern, The Vireo, other native species, both came back. When you see species declining everywhere else and then you have these success stories, you know you are doing something right, right there. The El Segundo Blue Butterfly, a federally endangered butterfly, also came back. What’s amazing about this butterfly is its intimately tied to its host site. So the entire life cycle of the butterfly — from the egg to the larva to the adult butterfly — is intimately associated to the host plant, sea cliff buckwheat. You lose the plant; you lose the butterfly. Both the caterpillar and the adult both eat only that plant. So if you want to recover the butterfly, you plant the buckwheat. We planted buckwheat, and the butterfly returned. That was really huge, just off the charts, huge. That’s the goal, at the end of the day, preserving the biodiversity and enhancing what is already here.
This place and this work have enriched my life in so many profound ways. Being able to just look around and know what that bird singing is, and know what that plant over there is, and know what that butterfly is, and know what was blooming over there last year, and what’s going to be blooming here next year… I often describe working here and being here as like that moment in “The Wizard of OZ” where it goes from Black and White to Technicolor, where all of sudden you see and hear and feel what you did your whole life but not know you were even aware of it. Until now, and that’s an investment in time spent out here. Life is so much richer because of my time out here.