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Ballona Freshwater Marsh | Safety Update #3

April 7, 2022

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

You can tell by the title that this is a continuing problem. The two prior updates are 11 Feb 2021 and 29 Jan 2021. Nothing good has happened since then.

There was a recent flurry of emails on our local county bird hot line LACoBirds. The pertinent ones are below, names changed to protect the annoyed.

Least Bittern (C. Tosdevin Feb. 8, 2020 at_BFWM)

Initial comment, Birder One, 4 Apr 2022, 3:22pm:

Those of you who visit (bird) Ballona Freshwater Marsh already know that the line of broken down RVs along Jefferson has gotten longer than ever. Today I drove by there and not only was there no parking anywhere for birders or casual (nonbirder) observers/tourists, but now tall plastic orange netting has been installed at the [gate] entrance [to the marsh] on Jefferson. I realize that birders aren’t supposed to enter that gate. I also realize that Loyola Marymount students and local residents routinely hike or jog [by passing through the gate] on the same dirt path where birders have gotten (trespassing) tickets. 

At this point you cannot even bird the area while trying to do so legally (because you cannot park on Jefferson and stare in from the street), and if you parked somewhere else and walked over to the marsh you could encounter people who have mental health or substance abuse issues and aggressive dogs off leash (I have repeatedly experienced this).

Also, the unhoused citizens who live there on Jefferson spill a lot of solid and liquid waste onto the dirt walkway and yes, you can see trash inside the preserve from them. This is an environmental issue with plastics and organic liquids including radiator fluid entering the water and soil of a nature preserve. 

There are no porta-potties anywhere. Where are the 200 to 300 people here going to the bathroom? I seriously doubt that the toilets in their RVs work. The City and County and the State have all neglected their obligations. 

What are local Audubon chapters doing about this???

Birder two, 4 Apr 2022, 5:08pm:

This issue is very important to me. I am willing and able to help. We need to do something. This was my patch and quite frankly I have been intimidated away.

Greater Yellowlegs (Ray Juncosa BFWM 11/3/18)

Birder three, 4 Apr 2022, 7:24pm:

I’ll take a crack at responding, and maybe others can chime in.

When I was first hired as a subcontractor to monitor the Ballona Freshwater Marsh (“BFM”) 20 years ago, it was obviously well prior to the explosion in outdoor encampments and RV camps across California. There was a brief debate as to who would manage BFM, and I felt at the time it was be a really bad idea to have Playa Vista manage the site, with the State of CA managing a contiguous Ecological Reserve over a split-rail fence. Why not just put it all under the State, managed as a whole, for nature? I was clearly outvoted (not that I actually ever had a say).

To sort out who can do anything about it, one needs to unpack what’s actually going on, if it’s actually illegal, who is responsible for enforcement, etc. Sure, local Audubon chapters can write op-eds or contact their local officials (as can you, or I), but ultimately, enforcement of encampments appears to be mediated by the city council district in which an encampment has formed. You may have read that Mike Bonin, who controls the area, came up with zero encampments recommended for remediation, even as other council members submitted hundreds of sites in their own districts. (No need to hash out that issue on this forum, just search it up.) But it explains why there’s no enforcement of the parking/living situation, the logic being that the RV residents are “home”, and that city can’t “evict” “residents” from “homes”.

As for the management of the site, I believe the BFM itself is managed by Playa Vista’s Ballona Wetlands Conservancy (set up years ago to manage BFM), but they really have no control over who parks their RV where – all they can do is constantly repair fences, clean up feces and needles, etc., which they have for years, as the problem gets worse and worse.

I recently wrote the director of local conservation group at Ballona urging them to pen an editorial in the L.A. Times about how the situation was truly intolerable, how precious wetland function and nature habitats were just getting degraded day after day, etc. I received what can only be described as a brush-off, told that help was coming. This was last fall, soon after four homeless men were shot there. Haven’t gotten around to writing it, but should.

[Birder One], I don’t know what the solution is at this point, I wish I did. Bonin isn’t running for re-election, so perhaps the new council member for the district will value nature. The pandemic restrictions are clearing. The L.A. Co. Sheriff recently announced more clean-ups of encampments where the city hasn’t been interested. 

I’ll add that it is not safe to bird (my opinion), particularly to bird alone, and parking is best done across the street on Playa Vista property. I do think, however, that with community will and commitment by the city, it can recover – look at Harbor Park now vs. 20 years ago. BFM is truly a gem of a birding/bird site in the region, one of the best freshwater marsh habitats along the coast, home to many rare and declining species, and an unparalleled location to get people into birding. Though others have apparently done so, I won’t give up on it.

Birder One, 4 Apr 2022, 10:19pm:

We need to generate a list of an ad hoc committee of people (including me) who are angry about this. 

I’m going to answer everybody else’s emails tomorrow after I get 8 hours of sleep.

I am heartened by [Birder Three]’s optimism and his example of the restoration of Harbor Park.

Miniature Flying Dragon (Ray Juncosa BFWM 11/3/18)

Birder Four, 6 Apr 2022, 3:16pm:

Obviously the situation at the Freshwater Marsh is far from ideal for the health of the ecological reserve, for accessibility by nature watchers, and for the RV residents themselves. I agree with [Birder Three]’s comments that things will get better as pandemic policies are slowly eased back. I also agree that it was unwise to leave the Freshwater Marsh out of the ecological reserve and will note that that policy could still be revised.

While I don’t want to disregard anyone’s perceptions about this situation, I do want to say that I ride my bike past the RVs quite often and just this morning stopped to photograph various water fowl in the seasonal wetland areas just south of Jefferson. I have also walked the portion of the FWM path that runs parallel to Lincoln and not had any issues. Each person will have their own comfort level at this area.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that the bird watching community has been largely uninvolved in discussing the current and long-term management policies for the complex and very important greater Ballona Wetlands ecosystem. There are unused parking lots in the reserve that should not be there, extensive weeds that could be managed with basic stewardship, expensive habitat projects with no success criteria that aren’t yielding expected results, plans to bury one of the most iconic views of the wetlands (that is also existing nesting habitat for Belding’s Savannah Sparrow) under a new berm, plans to surround the salt pan with another engineered berm that would only extend the life of that critical habitat by a mere 10 years, little league baseball fields in the ecological reserve where elementary students are not allowed entry for ecological study or stewardship, etc. I would respectfully suggest that we have an obligation as a nature-focused community to worry more about long term impacts to wildlife habitats than on impacts to our personal bird watching experiences. I am happy to discuss the Ballona Wetlands with anyone who is interested off-line.

Ballona Fresh Water Marsh west end. Source: Friends of Ballona

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