Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability
Senior Seminar (Instructor: Peter A. Bowler)
University of California, Irvine, March 1998


By Irma Garcia


Before development exploded in California, the state contained about 5 million acres of wetland habitat. Unfortunately, over the years California has been willing to part with 91 percent of its wetlands, Southern California having lost 95 percent. Los Angeles County has only one wetland remaining. This being the Ballona Wetlands located between Marina del Rey and the Westchester bluffs, it was once a major part of California’s natural wetland systems. Before development, Ballona wetlands natural habitat covered 2002 acres. This area, 800 to 1000 acres, referred to as Playa Vista by its owners is made up of salt marsh freshwater marsh and part upland and dune areas. It is considered Los Angeles’ largest ‘wetland ecosystem’. Although degraded over the years it still functions as a normal natural wetland - providing vital services. A major function it provides is that it filters out toxic wastes and pollutants from stormwater runoff before they reach the Santa Monica Bay. It is "a coastal plain, and acts as a flood plain for the surrounding area" (FOBW Information folder 1998: Fact Sheet). Ballona is an integral part of the Pacific flyaway, providing vital feeding and nesting habitat for over 185 species of birds, including some on the federal endangered species list. The southwestern willow flycatcher, an endangered species, was just recently seen by developers in an area cleared for construction. Ballona is no doubt a welcomed refuge to all species, both flora and fauna, from the industrial landscape of Los Angeles. The Friends of Ballona Wetlands have said it is "a spawning ground for commercial and sport fish, and a vital source of nutrients for the entire coastal marine environment" (FOBW Information folder 1998: 20 years of Commitment,). Its uses go deep into the recreational, educational and spiritual areas.


The Ballona wetlands is the center of much controversy. There has been a settlement made between the Friends of Ballona Wetlands and Thomas Maguire partners (now Playa Capital) to develop two thirds of the land with the DreamWorks’ "Playa Vista project." One third is to be saved and will undergo a restoration project headed by Playa Capital. Playa Capital has agreed to provide for 297 acres of wetland and surrounding area, in exchange for the right to develop the rest of the land. They have promised to manage and maintain these 297 acres of land to function as a natural wetland. They have donated $12.5 million for a restoration fund they say will not be used as mitigation by Playa Capital.

With all the restoration and funding being put into Ballona, there are still many environmental groups that are adamantly opposed to the settlement and prefer to save all of Ballona’s acreage. These groups consist of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project, the Sierra Club Ballona Task Force, Ballona Valley Preservation League, Alliance for Survival, Ballona Wetlands Land Trust, LA Green Party, LA Earth First, CALPIRG, Sea Shepherd Society, and the Wetlands Action Network. They acknowledge that Playa Vista is not all wetland, but open space that needs to be saved from over development. They all stand in agreement that the proposed DreamWorks project will cause detrimental harm to the wetland and surrounding community. If completed, the DreamWorks project will be "the 4th largest source of smog in the city," (Frankel 1998), possibly doubling the congestion during rush hour on the 405 San Diego Freeway (which is unbearable at today’s levels). Rex Frankel, a writer and activist with the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project has reviewed LA airport studies that indicate 175,000 cars already use that area of the 405 Freeway on a daily basis. Even traffic studies done by the developers, state that the proposed project will increase traffic by 28 percent. In order to accommodate the increase of traffic, the developers plan on doubling the number of traffic lanes on Lincoln Blvd. Frankel stated in an interview that this, "ultimately means taking 17 feet off the fronts of businesses on each side of the street…destroying existing local shopping districts" (Glen 1997).

The "restoration" project is being contest by the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project. Rex Frankel says that the freshwater marsh to be ‘restored’ by Playa Capital is a misconception. This marsh will be "serving as a catch basin for all the polluted street runoff from the eastern paved areas at Playa Vista… these pollutants will be absorbed by the plants and soil of this "fresh" water marsh, the soil and plants will have to be removed every 1 to 5 years, and taken to a toxic waste dump" (Frankel 1997). To whose benefit will this restoration project be created?


Ballona has had a history of degradation after the European conquest. Ballona wetland was inhabited by native Americans which lived self-sustainable life styles, the Shoshones, "nicknamed Gabrielinos by an Anglo journalist, after the Spanish mission in the area" (Tagawa, 1997). Several village sites and burial grounds surround the proposed Playa Vista even to this day (Tagawa, 1997). The Friends of Ballona Wetlands have indicated that during the 1930’s and 1940’s oil wells covered the Ballona area. In the late 1930’s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized Ballona Creek and diked its banks causing sever degradation to the wetlands. In the 1950’s, two thirds of Ballona Wetlands were completely developed over. Before the 1978, the originally proposed project, mitigation had never been an issue of much importance. Restoration at that time was not yet considered part of the development much less negotiated in a business deal.


Fortunately, in the last twenty years the Ballona Wetlands has had the support of several environmental groups wishing to preserve and protect the wetland from being developed. Some of these groups have gone as far as to educate the community about the values of a wetland ecosystem. Friends of Ballona Wetlands have been among these groups. The Friends formed as a grassroots environmental group in 1978 in order "to fight against a development plan devised by the Summa Corporation, the heirs to Howard Hughes" (FOBW Information folder 1998: Mission Statement). The Summa Corporation had wanted to develop over the majority of the wetlands but their plans were put off due to grueling lawsuits with the Friends. Over the years, by pulling together with other organizations to protect Ballona, the Friends have proven to be true friends of the Ballona wetlands. For the last twenty years, the Friends have been frequently involved in lawsuits with developers to stop development. Under the California Coastal Act, in 1984 the Friends were successful in blocking a land use plan approved by the California Coastal Commission that would have allowed the Summa Corporation to develop all but 172 acres of the remaining open space. The lawsuit with the Summa Corporation continued for many years until 1989 when Maguire Thomas partners took over the position of developer and drew up a lawsuit settlement which the Friends of Ballona Wetlands felt they could not pass up. When Mary Thomson, a Board Member of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, was asked how she felt about the project she said, "its the best thing for Ballona."


Is it the best solution to develop two-thirds of the area? In previous years, Ballona wetlands was not as saturated by non-native plants to the extent that it is today. One of the reasons was made clear by Ruth Lansford, the President of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands, in an annual meeting held February 26th, 1998. Lansford informed us that the old deteriorated flap gates (tidegates) that had been removed last year, had allowed salt water in the past to flow in, providing adequate salt for the native flora. She said that almost immediately after the old flap gates were replaced with new tidegates and salt water was nearly cut off completely, the native flora started to show signs of being taken over by non-native plants. In a fact sheet given to me by Ruth Lansford, it states that without the salt water flowing in, each year that passes the wetlands will dry up, increasingly shrinking the wetland acreage.

Coincidentally, on January 8th, Congresswoman Jane Harman and Councilwoman Ruth Galanter established with the Army Corps of Engineers that the existing conditions of Ballona are deteriorating because of the lack of salt water able to enter the marsh. They "discussed the benefits of replacing the tidegates and allowing more needed salt water into the marsh" (Friends of Ballona Wetlands Newsletter 1998). A special fund within the Army Corps of Engineers has existed to correct environmental damages caused by previous Army Corps of Engineers projects. The degradation caused by the 1930’s diking of the wetlands from Ballona Creek fits well in the category of environmental damages caused by Army Corps of Engineers. The Ballona wetlands will benefit greatly by the replacement of suitable tidegates that will allow the appropriate salt water in flow. At the annual meeting, Ruth Lansford was confident that the Army Corps of Engineers would side with the funding of the Ballona channel tidegates and agreed that the wetland would especially benefit. This would rejuvenate all of the areas dominated by non-natives, creating a healthy rippling effect for Ballona wetlands (Playa Vista).


The first reason is that the Friends of Ballona Wetland have much to gain if the DreamWorks project goes through. In the agreement made with Playa Capital, the Friends would be "entitled to exercise their legal rights to comment upon the Public Agencies’ compliance with legal requirements related to the approval process, including, without limitation, submitting comments to Draft EIR’s" (FOBW Information folder 1998: Fact Sheet). The Friends will also be given a seat on a Wetlands Committee that participates along side the landowner and Coastal Commission in urban planning and development decisions that affect the wetlands. This will give the Friends "an equal role in restoration planning with the other committee members (Los Angeles City Council District No. 6, the State Controller’s Office and Playa Capital)" (FOBW Information folder 1998: Fact Sheet).

Secondly, the media such as the Los Angeles Times, Outlook, and the Marina Del Rey Argonaut have stopped printing anything regarding saving all of Ballona. They are giving a one sided view on the Ballona debate that is slanted towards the DreamWorks project. For example, a commentary in the Los Angeles Times by Rubell Helgeson titled "A Phony War to Save the Ballona Wetlands," gives only the view of the development side. He voices his opinion in that it is "baseless" to claim that DreamWorks or other elements of Playa Vista will degrade the wetlands or Santa Monica Bay. Rubell Helgeson is a planning consultant in Pacific Palisades.

The Argonaut of Marina del Rey has published similar articles. What is most disheartening is that a Sierra Club member would write to the editor and cry out how he would prefer to develop 80 percent of the land with office buildings and a retail stores instead of leaving all of the land as it is. His opinion to the editor, that "an April-May article [in the Southern Sierran] implies that the entire Playa Vista site is a valuable wetland ecosystem" he explains that "only a small portion of the entire 1000 acre site –less than 20 percent- consists of wetlands," but never implies that the 1000 acre site is not valuable. This man feels that three Southern Sierran articles "contain misrepresentations or foster misconceptions regarding the project [Playa Vista development]." Yet, he flatly states that returning tidal flows to the wetlands will "allow animal life populations to return," which he has assumed and stated in this article that the Playa Vista project will accomplish, not the Army Corp. of Engineers.

Third and most importantly, the Friends of Ballona Wetland have been silenced. Under their agreement with Playa Capital "the Friends won’t state or imply that the plan would have an adverse impact on the restoration of the wetlands, ‘provided that the petitioners (Playa Capital) conclude in their good faith reasonable judgment from any EIR’s relating to the revised Playa Vista Plan and that the revised Playa Vista Plan will not have an adverse impact on the restoration of the Ballona Wetlands" (FOBW Information folder 1998: Fact Sheet). Are the Friends of Ballona Wetlands doing the best thing for the land?


The question needs to be asked, "does Los Angeles need 10,000 living units, 1,500 hotel rooms, and 900,000 square feet of retail space? Can it survive without the 1.3 million square feet of office space? Whatever the case may be, we are faced with the fact that 91 percent of California Wetlands have already been traded in for development. Ecosystems, that have a far greater value to human kind than all business ventures combined, have been almost completely wiped off the coast of California. An ecosystem equal to the productivity of a rainforest is quickly being eradicated from our shores. Yet, today in LA we are fighting against the odds to save what is considered the last wetland in Los Angeles County. One thousand acres of degraded land is what is left and even that is difficult to save. Is this "the most environmentally and socially responsible project in the country," as Michael Dieden has stated? If so, our understanding of environmentally and socially responsible is valueless.


"Ballona Channel Tidegate Update." Friends of Ballona Wetlands Newsletter [Playa del Rey] Jan. 1998: 2.

Francis, Hugo. Letter. The Argonaut [Marina del Rey] 6 Feb. 1997: 7.

Frankel, Rex. "Engineering the Future of Ballona." The Ballona Free Press. [Westchester] Nov. 1997: 2.

Frankel, Rex. "The Last Stand for Open Space in L.A.: A Ballona Wetlands Update." 1998

"Friends of Ballona Wetlands." 22 Jan. 98.

Friends of Ballona Wetlands Information Folder. "Friends of Ballona Wetlands: 20 years of Commitment," "Fact Sheet," "Mission Statement: Friends of Ballona Wetlands" 1998.

Helgeson, Rubell. Commentary. "A Phony War to Save the Ballona Wetlands." Los Angeles Times 6 Dec. 1996: B10.

Lynch, Glen. Interview. The Ballona Free Press. [Westchester] May. 1997: 2.

Tagawa, Rick. "History of the Ballona Valley." The Ballona Free Press. [Westchester] Nov. 1997: 2.

Additional References not cited

Ballona Land Trust Mission Statement

Effort To Protect Ballona Wetland Moves Forward
Protestors Target Spielberg, ‘Lost World’