Investigation underway over drainage system at Ballona reserve
The Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve, part of the last 5% of California's remaining wetlands, was saved from development, but now Sierra Club activists and environmentalists are troubled by the discovery of a drainage system that may have impacted the approximately 600 acres of wetlands and uplands adjacent to Playa Del Rey.
It recently came to light that Playa Capital Co. LLC, the developers of the Playa Vista housing project built on the Ballona ecosystem, allegedly placed a drainage system on the wetlands. Grassroots Coalition President Patricia McPherson explains: “We were alerted by Ballona naturalists of these devices, and once we understood their extent, we began immediate demands to the Coastal Commission to investigate what we now have confirmation is illegal activity on the part of Playa Vista developers. “
On June 12, the California Coastal Commission issued a letter to Playa Capital stating that they were in violation of the California Coastal Act for not having a permit for the drainage system, which constitutes a development, according to the commission. The letter sent to Playa Capital and copied to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and the California State Lands Commission requested the production of any authority for putting in the drainage system. So far, none has been forthcoming.
Assessing the damage
A system of underground drainage pipes with surface risers designed to drain the public wetlands of ponding water is the subject of the violation. The magnitude of the damage to the public resource caused by years of wetland draining is currently unknown. Water naturally ponded and recharged the groundwater aquifers prior to the illegal drainage.
Joe Young, chair of the Angeles Chapter Airport Marina Group, said: “We have been wondering why the wetlands have been looking so dry for years despite rains. We are surprised that there has been no hydrology study on Ballona, including the potential impacts from the drainage devices.” The devices, according to the City of Los Angeles, are private drainage devices and are not and never were part of the City’s drainage system for the area.
Based on the discovery, Grassroots Coalition has asked the coastal commission to investigate the presence of an even larger, deeper drainage device.
California Coastal Commission Senior Deputy Jack Ainsworth acknowledged harm by the drainage system during the agency's June meeting. Staff also has expressed concern regarding harm to the wetlands from drainage offsite by Playa Vista. If the Playa Vista dewatering affects the wetlands, then it is also an issue the commission may investigate. Dewatering is necessary for existing oilfield gas intake systems to be kept free of water and silt.
Mounting concerns for wetlands
Angeles Chapter members are concerned that dewatering the wetlands, especially during a period of drought, would be very detrimental to flora and fauna. The drainage also fails to allow for recharge of the aquifers. Concerns exist because the state agencies charged with protecting this publicly owned land have not revealed the drainage since studies began in 2005.
Grassroots Coalition has joined with the Sierra Club and other groups in seeking the immediate removal of the drainage devices, study of damages done and reparation of the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve. The actions come at a time when the coastal commission is looking for legal changes to allow them to enforce their decisions.
The Ballona reserve's seasonal freshwater wetland/upland complex was acquired by the public in 2003 after a decades-long fight to save it from development.
Photo: Evidence of the drainage system at the Ballona reserve. Credit: Grassroots Coalition
Kathy Knight is Conservation Chair of the Airport Marina Group of the Angeles Chapter Sierra Club.