Community focused restoration in Ballona Wetlands

Photo: Ballona Wetlands – courtesy of the Trust for Public Land

By Cristina Mancilla

This month, NOAA is celebrating Habitat Month to increase awareness about the role and connection of healthy coastal habitats to the nation’s communities and ecosystems. The Ballona Lagoon Restoration Project supported by NOAA and the recently approved Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project led by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) are fostering resilience by putting communities at the center of habitat restoration. The projects emphasize community engagement and they signal the beginning of a critical refocusing on inclusivity and justice in understanding what it means to restore habitat.  

Located in Los Angeles County, the Ballona Wetlands once spanned over 2,000 acres and was home to the indigenous Tongva people for nearly 10,000 years. Today, less than 600 acres of wetland remain. Despite severe degradation, the Ballona wetlands are one of the largest remaining coastal wetlands in Southern California, supporting 9 species of marine fish and nearly 60 species of birds. 

Coastal wetlands provide critical habitat for thousands of species, defend against coastal storms and erosion, effectively capture and store carbon, and have supported indigenous communities for centuries. In California, development and habitat conversion has destroyed over 90% of the state’s coastal wetlands and they are now one of the most endangered habitat types in the west.

In the mid 19th century, with the arrival of Spanish colonizers, the Tongva people were marched against their will from the Ballona wetlands to build a mission in San Gabriel – disease and violence decimated their population. By the end of the 19th century 250,000 Tongva people had been reduced to 9,000. The wetlands were rich in resources and its estuaries, creeks, and marshes made it a prime location for trade and development. Settler colonialism and its insatiable hunger to conquer and profit stopped the Tongva people from returning to their ancestral lands.  

Throughout the 1900s, several failed development projects degraded the wetlands and later the discovery of oil left much of the area disfigured and contaminated. However, the most devastating blow to the Ballona wetlands occurred in the 1960s with the construction Marina del Reya harbor and seaside complex, which consumed more than 900 acres of wetland.  

Thirty years later, a complex of luxury condominiums, apartments, and townhouses named Playa Vista threatened to destroy much of the remaining wetland, but united community advocacy from groups such as Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, Heal the Bay, and spiritual leaders from Gabrielino (Tongva) -Shoshone Nation, saved most of the condemned wetland from development. Although much of the remaining wetlands were spared, the construction of Playa Vista still desecrated the sacred lands of the Tongva, including the largest known Tongva cemetery, Saa’angna, which was disturbed, disrespected, and relocated to accommodate a drainage ditch for the housing complex.  

What remains of the Ballona wetlands is now protected as the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve (BWER) and it is one of the last remaining wetlands in Los Angeles County.  In an effort to improve access and to increase community engagement within the area, NOAA supported a restoration effort that brought together over 100 volunteers to remove invasive species coupled with educational tours and other outreach efforts.

After years of small-scale restoration efforts, community advocacy, and grassroots mobilization on behalf of the community and members of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe, CDFW approved the largest-scale restoration plan in Los Angeles County to date. Several community-based organizations were involved in planning the Ballona Wetlands restoration project and it resulted in one of the most ambitious public-access-centered restoration projects approved by the CDFW. Given their location in the most populated county in California, improved public access to the area could engage tens of millions of visitors.

The final environmental impact study for the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve (BWER) restoration project was approved in December of 2020 and it will include a net increase of approximately 200 acres of coastal wetlands, replace approximately 9,800 feet of existing Ballona Creek levees with transitional zones to accommodate for sea-level rise, and require the decommissioning of many active oil wells and associated infrastructure. The restoration plan also includes an installation of 5.5 miles of pedestrian-trails and two bridges to provide access to the Reserve.  

The Ballona wetlands carry a heavy, painful history – not only the physical degradation of the landscape but the trauma experienced by hundreds of Tongva members. In its full sense, restoration cannot be achieved without accepting that irreversibility and acknowledging the true history and meaning of a place. The history, projections, and hopes surrounding the Ballona wetlands project is evident of this need, and it challenges us to think deeply about what restoration means and to whom.  

Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) launched our Inclusive Coasts Initiative in 2021 to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) in grantmaking, project design and implementation in the coastal sector. RAE’s Inclusive Coasts Initiative challenges restoration practitioners and project implementors to consider the meaning of restoration for different communities in order to center justice and inclusivity in coastal habitat restoration.   

Cristina Mancilla is a Summer Fellow with RAE in partnership with the Yale Environmental Fellows Program. She is a Master of Environmental Science and Management candidate at the University of California at Santa Barbara where she is specializing in Conservation Planning and Coastal Marine Resource Management. She is passionate about incorporating justice and inclusivity in conservation project implementation, particularly by working closely with communities. Cristina is from the Lower Rio Grande Valley in South Texas and an alumna of Williams College.