Ballona Freshwater Marsh

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Traffic waits for a green light near the edge of the Ballona Freshwater Marsh

Not far from the L.A. coastline, at the corner of Lincoln and Jefferson is a small marsh.  The Ballona Freshwater Marsh is part of the much larger Ballona wetlands.  Though the sound of traffic is consistent, just feet away is another world filled with plants, wildlife and the song of birds.

A dirt path between the busy streets and the marsh makes for a easy pleasant walk. No public access paths go into the marsh, which is being restored, so the vegetation can become establish and the birds that nest here can find refuge. On higher ground, nearer to the streets, grow toyon, coyote brush and California sunflower. By the water, California Sycamore and arroyo willows grow with wild roses and bulrushes underneath. It is an unique glimpse of what was once common before modern day Los Angeles.

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Coastal cholla cactus (Opuntia prolifera) is one of several cactus species found near the Southern California coast

Many residents of coastal Southern California think they live in a desert region. When I tell people that I’m planting a native garden, the response is usually “Oh, like cactuses?” And while there are some native cactuses and succulents that grow here, the vast majority of the flora isn’t. We are part of a Mediterranean climate with (relatively) wet winters and dry summers. The average rain fall for Los Angeles is 14.77 inches per year. Though looking at the record, few years is the total close to the average. Years with less than 10 inches of rain are followed by years of 20 or 30 inches of rain (Los Angeles Almanac). Rainfall in SoCal is either feast or famine.

Below the bluffs of Playa del Rey sits the Ballona Wetlands

Another aspect of coastal California is it supported some large Wetlands, mostly by the coast but often further inland. The Los Angeles basin alone had 14,000 acres of wetlands. With the growth of Los Angeles and the surrounding communities over 95% of Southern California’s wetlands have been destroyed. These lost wetlands are hinted at in some of L.A.’s street names. La Cienaga, a major north-south boulevard, is Spanish for the swamp. World famous Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills comes from Rodeo de las Aguas – Round-up of the Waters – where streams from the Hollywood Hills flowed together. (The Lost Wetlands of Los Angeles)

In the Los Angeles basin, these wetlands were interconnected as the waters flowed down to the coast where they formed the Ballona Wetlands, a mix of wet meadows, willow thickets, salt marshes and tidal flats. Through this meandered Ballona creek with its seasonal fluctuations of water tying the various elements together.

A dry stream bed in Ballona Discovery Park surround by native plants

Across Lincoln Blvd., north of the marsh, is the Ballona Discovery Park. In the park are displays explaining the various aspects of the wetland. Landscape with native plants from the area, this peaceful park is a great introduction to the wetlands. The park also shows that a drought tolerant native garden doesn’t have to be weedy or scraggly. There’s also a reproduction of the typical home used by the area’s Native Americans. Not quite 100% authentic with rebar being used in place of branches.

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Birdhouse line the pathway in Ballona Discovery Park

This two thousand acre wetland, besides providing habitat for wildlife, was a valuable resource for the Tongva people. The Tongva people occupied most of what is now Los Angeles as well as the southern Channel Islands. This diverse terrain provided an abundance of resources. Food and supplies obtained by those living in and by the wetlands could be traded for resources found in the drier hillier areas or out on the islands.

But that began to change with the arrival of settlers from Mexico. Diseases from the old world along with the Spanish missions disrupted the Tongva’s society. In the 1820’s, Augustine Machado was given a 14,000 acre land grant that included the wetlands. He named his grant Rancho La Ballona. With the introduction of Machado’s livestock the wetlands too began to be destroyed.

From the Ballona Discovery Park there is no simple path to the wetlands. Upon reaching Lincoln, walk up hill to Bluff Trail Road, cross Lincoln at the light, walk down hill to a dirt road that heads down to the water. There’s no way to make this walk a simple loop so do expect to do some backtracking.

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In Spring, the new leaves on laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) come out red, fading to green with red edges and center.  By Fall, most of the leaves have become a solid darker green.

The slope surrounding the wetlands are as much a part of this ecosystem as the marsh itself. Many animals that fed and hunted in the marsh come here for shelter or to stay dry during the wet winters when the water levels rise. But the habitat lining the dirt road going downhill is heavily degraded. Still among the invasive grasses and wild mustard a few native plants can be found, including several large laurel sumacs along the roadside.

Mulefat and coyote brush growing side by side.  Though both belong to the same genus, at first glance they appear to have little similarity.

At the bottom of the road, going left brings you up to another part of the bluff that has been restored. Here is a better sense of what these hills once looked like. Mulefat lines the path and is one of the dominant plants around the marsh. A cousin to coyote brush, they bear little resemblance. Coyote brush has very small jagged leaves and grows as a dense brush.  Mulefat has long pointy leaves like a willow and seems to sprout from the ground as a bunch of tall, sparse branches.

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Dew covered flowers of mulefat.  The entire flower head is around the size of a quarter.

In the moister soil by the wetland, mulefat becomes a green, lush plant compared to the scraggly mulefat located in the drier Baldwin Hills five miles away. But the flowers of both mulefat and coyote brush are similar. Small inconspicuous white bunches that pale next to some of California’s more showy wildflowers.

According to Wikipedia, another common name for mulefat is water-wally, an infinitely more fun name.  Water-wally!

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Leaves and catkins of the Southern California black walnut (Juglans californica)

Also found along the road is a plant more rare now, the Southern California black walnut (Juglans californica). A valuable food source for wildlife as well as the Tongva, the nuts are much smaller than commercial walnuts. Once common through the region, agriculture and development destroyed most of its habitat.

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View of the Ballona Freshwater Marsh looking north towards L.A. and the Santa Monica Mountains

The path soon dead ends. Head back down and take the other path to walk along the waterside.

Besides agriculture, the growth of Los Angeles started to take its toll on the Ballona wetlands. Starting with the 1900’s, homes were being developed on the bluffs and roads cut through the area to bring people to the beach. In the 1920’s, oil was found and more damage was done. With the establishment of LAX nearby, Howard Hughes bought a big chunk of the wetlands to build his aircraft factory and a private landing field. Much of the wetlands were filled in.

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Spittle bug!  What appears to be someone’s spit is sap frothed up by a spittle bug larva to make a protective, if gross, home.

Ballona Creek was encased in concrete, cut off from the land it nourished. The concrete channel was for flood control, not realizing wetlands play an important role in absorbing excess water, both from overflowing rivers and surging waves.

A remanent of Centinela creek channels urban runoff into the wetlands.

Much of the water that now flows into the marsh is urban runoff.  One of the inflows is what remains of Centinela Creek. There is some argument about whether the creek is still a creek or a drainage ditch.  Unfortunately most of Los Angeles’ waterways have been treated as drainage ditches and encased in concrete.  The creek had been cut off from the spring that was its original source but because of the amount of water runoff from L.A. has a heavier water flow now.

The seed head of tule (Schoenoplectus acutus var. occidentalis), a common plant in Southern California’s wetlands

The water supports large ‘islands’ of grass-like plants.  Called tule (Schoenoplectus acutus var. occidentalis) these plants were used in making shelter for the Tongva. Many of the water fowls find refuge in them. These water-bound patches offer them protection from coyotes as well as from feral cats and dogs.

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An early bloomer, this California wild rose (Rosa californica) is hidden in a thicket by the water’s edge

Arroyo willows, sycamores, and mulefat are the most common plants lining the banks to the marsh. Mixed with them, but just waking from their winter dormancy are California wild roses (Rosa californica). Cousins to our garden roses, in a month or two they’ll be displaying pink flowers.

One of the most fateful changes came in the 1960’s when a large portion of the tidal flats and salt marshes were dug up and dredged to create the harbor of Marina del Rey. Beside destroying these areas, the mud dug up was dumped on the upper part of the wetlands, smothering them.

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A great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) hanging out.  Many birds find food, rest, and shelter in the marsh.

The problem was the wetlands weren’t seen as a valuable ecological asset but as a wasteland. On a plaque honoring Burton Chase, who spearheaded efforts to build the Marina del Rey, the effort to build the marine “…converted these formerly mosquito-infested mudflats into the now world-renown Marina del Rey…” Now, granted, by the 1960’s, the wetlands were probably severely degraded yet their destruction reflects our tendency to place no value on land with no readily seeable productiveness. However, the coastal wetlands are some of our most valuable land. Besides providing habitat for native plants and wildlife, it helps absorb surging tides and storm waves while also filtering out pollutants from run-off. Coastal wetlands reduce erosion from the ocean.

Marina del Rey is a wonderful asset for Los Angeles. But perhaps if the value of the wetlands were recognize when it was built, preserving some of the tidal flats could have been incorporated into the design. Now, over forty years later work is being done to recreate some of it.

Following the death of Howard Hughes, plans were drawn up to develop the remaining wetlands. Luckily groups such as Friends of the Ballona Wetlands fought back. The result was the development was scaled back and 600 acres of the wetlands were purchased by the state of California as a preserve.

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A pair of cinnamon teal ducks (Spatula cyanoptera) looking for food

And that marsh at the corner at Lincoln and Jefferson? It’s not included in the new state preserve. Instead, through negotiations with the developer what could have been a simple drainage basin became a fresh water marsh where one hadn’t existed for years.  Since 2003, over two hundred species of birds have made a home here or used the marsh as a rest stop on their migrations (For a list of birds seen at the marsh go to Ballona Bird List).

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A rake left behind is a reminder this little spot of nature is a carefully managed restoration

So this wonderful spot of nature in Los Angeles is itself man-made. As we come to recognize the need to bring nature back to the city, we may need to build more of these natural preserves. Left alone, this corner of Lincoln and Jefferson may have never recovered but remained a field of invasive weeds that are dead most of the year.

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South of the marsh are fields of weeds mixed with some remaining native plants.  Plans are being drawn up and debated to restore these areas.

Indeed, most of the Ballona Wetlands appear just like that.  After a wet winter, the fields become green, then a soft yellow as the wild mustard flowers followed by the brighter yellow flowers of crown daisies.  As summer warms up, these invasive plants die off.

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Surrounded by non-native ice plant sits a pickleweed plant (Salicornia pacifica)

South of the freshwater marsh is such an area.  Mixed with the mustard and crown daisies are patches of ice plant and a few palm trees.  But a little further from the road is a large patch of pickleweed (Salicornia pacifica).  An interesting looking plant, pickleweed is an inhabitant of the salt water portion of the Ballona Wetlands.

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Seeking to reclaim its territory, a young black sage (Salvia mellifera) blooms among the weeds

Also, against all odds, I came across a small black sage (Salvia mellifera) growing near the road.  I saw no other sages near, but somehow a seed landed here and took root.  So, despite the the years of abuse, the original flora of this area still holds on.

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A red willow (Salix laevigata) in bloom, one of several willow species found around the marsh

But walking the paths along the Ballona Freshwater Marsh, it’s gratifying being able to look between the willow trees to see that living body of water supporting a large variety of birds. Not just water fowls, but songbirds and raptors too.

During the rainy season expect to get a little muddy

It can be frustrating too. This small patch of restored nature can easily be overwhelm so fences keep the public to the side. Instead getting to be immersed in nature, you get to look in. Half the time I’m closer to the traffic than the water. Perhaps as more of the wetlands are restored, trails will lead inward. Still, there is plenty to see.

Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata)

Of course, mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) can be seen. Other duck species I spotted include northern shoveler (Anas clypeata) and the cinnamon teal (Spatula cyanoptera).

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Two cinnamon teals (Spatula cyanoptera) foraging.  Mainly plant eaters, they also feed on aquatic insects.

It’s fun to watch the teals as they do underwater ‘headstands’ looking for food with their back half sticking straight up.

A pair of Canada geese (Branta canadensis)

Canada geese (Branta canadensis)  are often found swimming or flying overhead. They’re never in huge numbers here, often seen in pairs, unlike the large groups often found wintering in the fields of the Midwest.

American coots (Fulica americana)

Also common are American coots (Fulica americana), though I’ve always known them as mud hens. Like mallards, they seem to be found in most bodies of fresh water around California.  Unlike ducks, coots don’t have web feet, but broad lobe of skin on their toes that help propel them in the water.

A mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) gathers seeds on the ground but seeks safety in the trees.  It is estimated that there are over 350 million mourning birds in the US.

From the distance I’ve seen hawks perched up in the higher trees and caught glimpses of egrets flying into a shelter region. Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura), with their particular whistle as they take off, forage in the brush as do many songbirds. So while the fence keeps me out and makes me long for a better telephoto lens, I will keep returning to watch this re-born wetland.

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A California bush sunflower (Encelia californica)

All photos by Alan Starbuck

A lot of the information I found about the Ballona wetlands came from these sites:

Friends of the Ballona Wetlands

Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project

About the lost wetlands of Los Angeles, see The Lost Wetlands of Los Angeles

7 responses to “Ballona Freshwater Marsh

  1. The blue elderberries do not seem to be very common there. I was told that they live in Kenneth Hahn Park, but I do not remember every seeing any there. Do you know if they are common?

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    • I recall seeing a few elderberries near the marsh, but not many. With the marsh being restored/recreated there may have been more (or none) in the area historically. I do see a lot of elderberry trees in Kenneth Hahn. Many of them are currently blooming.

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      • That is good to get confirmation about that. I really was not looking for them because I did not expect to see them in some places. I had wanted to grow black elderberries, but none of the catalogues that I would have purchased them from could send them to California. I like the blue elderberries enough that I do not need to bother with the specie from the East. I sort of wonder why they can not be sent here anyway. If there is a problem with them becoming invasive, I really do not want them.

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      • When the blue elderberries aren’t in bloom or have fruit they kind of get lost among the other plants, especially in the late summer when they lose all their leaves. Only a few plants can I recognize from the bark!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this profile of both a place and of what can be accomplished when restoration efforts get underway. It’s a good reminder to take a second look at places we might otherwise drive past on the way to look for “nature.”

    Liked by 1 person

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