Victory for the Ballona Wetlands at the California Coastal Commission
For more than 30 years activists have worked to protect undeveloped land where some of the last native plants and animals of the Los Angeles coast still thrive – a place nestled in the Ballona Valley in between Los Angeles International Airport and Marina del Rey. The remaining open spaces and the marina were once part of a vast coastal marsh floodplain that was created by the confluence of the Los Angeles River, three other streams and the Pacific Ocean.
What still remains undeveloped is a place known as the Ballona Wetlands. A significant part of these wetlands, along with adjacent grasslands and meadows, were acquired by the State of California when a purchase agreement was finalized in 2003 with Playa Capital, LLC, the latest in a series of speculative developers that had included the heirs of Howard Hughes, legendary downtown developer Rob Maguire and the golden boys of Hollywood in the 1990s, DreamWorks SKG – Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
After Spielberg and his partners bowed out of being one-third development partners of the proposed Playa Vista development in 1999, remaining were some real estate investment trusts (REITs) owned by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and pension fund investors Union Labor Life Insurance Company. But grassroots environmental groups that had built a coalition of more than 100 organizations allied with them to be – as Variety put it – “relentless” �� in their opposition to developing this last remnant of coastal wetlands in the heart of the migratory Pacific Flyway for birds – did not stop their activism just because DreamWorks left the project. In fact, the political street theatre troupe, FrogWorks (with its name inspired by DreamWorks), soon took its story to Wall Street and performed on the streets near the New York Stock Exchange, as well as outside of Morgan Stanley’s New York City headquarters – in January, no less!
Activists organized letter-writing campaigns, scheduled citizen town hall meetings, got involved with LA City mayoral campaigns and continued with the constant drum-beat that these lands should not be built on. When then-Governor Gray Davis finally decided to use funding the activists had helped include in a couple of parks and wildlife bond measures to acquire some 640 acres of the coastal zone land at Ballona, (and Playa Capital was already building on the remaining 400+ acres), the activists who’d long desired to protect these precious lands thought they would be retiring - helping to plant native plants and educate the public about the importance of stewardship of this wild and imperiled coastal mosaic of habitats.
Unfortunately, after Davis was kicked out of office in a recall largely funded by US Congressmember Darrell Issa, the state of California went downhill financially. After that, the Ballona Wetlands mostly had an absentee landowner – an agency that never really wanted the land and that was not used to managing reserves close to urban areas – the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW.) So perhaps their regular absence explains why this agency didn’t notice that there were two large drain mechanisms that prevented rain water from soaking into the wetland sponge-like soils. These mechanisms, according to representatives from Playa Capital, were built by their engineers in 1996, when the company still thought it would be constructing one-half of its massive, dense city atop the areas where these drains were constructed.
Why would this company have constructed the drains?
Well, if you have land in the California coastal zone and you want to build structures and roads there, you don’t want them to be declared to be wetlands – due to an important Bolsa Chica Wetlands lawsuit that clarified in the state appellate courts that the Coastal Act would not allow such activities. They wanted dry land so they could obtain permits from the Coastal Commission once they were ready to build Phase 2 of their project. Did Playa Capital forget about the drains when they sold all of the land they owned in the coastal zone? The record is unclear on this count.
But it is clear that these illegal, unpermitted drains (which would have required permits from the California Coastal Commission), prevented rain water – the primary source of water for the wetlands – from making the wetlands wet – for more than 20 years!
This became transparent as a result of a series of actions. I first noticed the drains and wondered aloud about them to my partner, a biologist also trained in hydrology, Roy van de Hoek, who’d seen them, but began observing them more closely and we also conferred with one of our Ballona Wetlands naturalists, Jonathan Coffin. Jonathan began photographing the drains at different times of year, including during rainy times, and that’s when it became obvious that the rainwater was indeed draining out from some significant parts of the wetlands where a number of activists had noticed and remarked that they missed seeing ducks and shorebirds in what used to be heavily ponded water areas. Jonathan showed his photos to Patricia McPherson at Grassroots Coalition, an activist who had been uncovering illegal and questionable activities by Southern California Gas – at their methane storage field at Ballona for years.
Patricia then reported these findings to enforcement staff at the Coastal Commission, who corresponded with Playa Capital and the current landowner, CDFW, to determine how and when the drainage structures had gotten there. The Coastal Commission staff then declared that these were indeed illegally installed structures, and concluded that there were violations of the California Coastal Act that needed to be remedied.
Then nothing happened.
Because the Coastal Commission shares legal counsel (the state Attorney General) with CDFW, they do not as a rule file litigation against their sister agencies. But the Coastal Act allows for citizens and citizen groups to file enforcement actions, so Patricia hired public interest lawyer Todd Cardiff, who filed an enforcement lawsuit that resulted in a settlement which required that the California Department of Fish & Wildlife would file an application to cap these illegal drains so that rainwater could once again feed these coastal marsh lands.
This past December 14th, in Dana Point, the Coastal Commission met and after a lengthy hearing, voted unanimously to require CDFW to cap these drains. Staff for the Commission had suggested – at the request of CDFW – that the drains not be removed until a determination had been made about a terribly destructive plan CDFW has on its agenda, in cooperation with SoCalGas. Activists call this plan an industrial habitat alteration, and Sierra Club, Los Angeles Audubon Society, Food & Water Watch, Ballona Institute and numerous other groups have opposed the plans, warning they would be detrimental to the wildlife at this fragile ecological reserve.
SoCalGas is involved because they have a huge network of gas pipes and wells under the wetlands where they store fracked gas they pipe in from Oklahoma and Texas (the storage field is similar to the one in Aliso Canyon that is still leaking gas and toxic chemicals which are making residents sick.)
And SoCalGas wants to access public funding through this massive industrial project to modernize their equipment, implement slant drilling and ensure they can continue the storage operations for many years. Food & Water Watch, Ballona Institute and Indivisible-43 are working to shut this facility down, so that the City of Los Angeles can make good on its stated commitment to only have 100% renewable energy (gas from this storage field currently powers LADWP’s Scattergood power plant down the road from Ballona.)
After the Coastal Commissioners heard about all of these complications, they became concerned over staff’s recommendations, as activists warned that this plan would bulldoze everything and start over, converting a mostly fresh and brackish water coastal wetland into an extension of Santa Monica Bay. Such a plan is not only historically inaccurate according to restoration ecologists and scientists (like Dr. Margot Griswold and Dr. Travis Longcore) who’ve studied the historical geography and ecology of the area – but would essentially wipe out functioning habitat for eight species on the California or federal Endangered Species lists, and dozens of species on other sensitive lists, like the California List of Species of Special Concern.
In light of these expressed concerns, the Coastal Commission, led by a couple of newly-appointed Commissioners who appear to be taking their jobs very seriously to protect coastal resources, declared that the illegal drain situation was not to be tied to what may be a flawed plan for Ballona that activists even hesitate to call a “restoration,” – but that CDFW would be required to return to the Commission within months with a plan for fully removing these drain structures. Given that there are methane gas pipelines beneath the surface of the soils, that application process will also likely prove highly controversial.
Nevertheless, activists from Sierra Club, Grassroots Coalition, Ballona Institute and Ballona Ecosystem Education Project were all thrilled that the Commission voted unanimously to close up those illegal drains so that the winter rains could refresh the wetlands, and that the more complete drain removal would not be tied to what some activists refer to as the bulldozing project masquerading as a restoration.
This Coastal Commission victory is a huge win for the Ballona Wetlands. The implications of learning that these drains have been not allowing rainwaters to enter the soils in parts of the ecological reserve for more than 20 years are significant.
All of the scientific studies that CDFW and the US Army Corps of Engineers have relied on in their draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) were compiled during the past decade when an important portion of the wetlands was being deprived of its most important water source.
Therefore, activists maintain that the EIR/EIS must be withdrawn, and the wetlands allowed to have its fresh rainwater soaking into the soils for at least 8 to 10 years before a new baseline for scientific study can be properly employed.
With this new, dramatic information now having been revealed, Ballona Wetlands advocates are asking that members of the public write to and/or call the following decision-makers to ask that the draft EIR/EIS be withdrawn until a new baseline for scientific study can be assured, including new delineations of wetlands – which must be undertaken after a proper amount of time can pass (8-10 years) once the rain waters again are soaking into the soils. All of these elected officials have some discretionary influence or actual decision-making authority for this project.
The Honorable Ted Lieu
United States Congress – 33rd District Rep.
5055 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 310
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Phone: (323) 651-1040
The Honorable Maxine Waters
United States Congress – 43rd District Rep.
10124 South Broadway, Suite 1
Los Angeles, CA 90003
Phone: (323) 757-8900
The Honorable Kamala Harris
United States Senate
312 N. Spring Street, Suite 1748
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Phone: (213) 894 - 5000
The Honorable Dianne Feinstein
United States Senate
11111 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 915
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Phone: (310) 914-7300
The Honorable Janice Hahn
Supervisor, 4th District
County of Los Angeles
500 W. Temple Street, Room 822
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tel: (213) 974-4444
The Honorable Ben Allen
California Senate, 26th District
2512 Artesia Blvd #320
Redondo Beach, CA 90278
Phone: (310) 318-6994
The Honorable Autumn Burke
California Assembly, 62nd District
1 W Manchester Blvd, Inglewood, CA 90301
Phone: (310) 412-6400
The Honorable Mike Bonin
Los Angeles City Council, 11th District
200 N. Spring St. #475
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Phone: (213) 473-7011
The Voice for Nature on the Los Angeles Coast