May marks the 21st anniversary of the EPA’s American Wetlands Month – a time when we celebrate the vital role that wetlands play. But what exactly are wetlands and why are they so important? Wetlands are a vital link between land and water – a low-lying transitional area (or marsh) where water, nutrients and sunlight combine to produce an ecosystem with unique plant and animal life. Here in Los Angeles, we have both natural and man-made wetlands. Ballona Creek and its related wetlands are the oldest and most significant natural wetlands in Southern California. The newest wetland area here in LA is the just-constructed South Los Angeles Wetlands Park. Both of these wetlands provide unique recreational and educational opportunities year-round!
Ballona Creek and its related wetlands is a nine-mile long waterway that begins in Rancho Las Cienegas, flows through Culver City and empties into Santa Monica Bay between Marina del Rey and Playa del Rey. Originally a picturesque natural waterway fed by runoff, Ballona Creek collected water from cienegas (or swamps) and rainfall and had native Sycamore trees, willows and watercress gracing its edge. Indigenous people known as Gabrielinos used Ballona Creek for transportation, food and shelter, utilizing the Tule rush growing along the creek to make huts. Circa 1820 a rancher by the name of Augustine Machado began grazing his cattle on the Ballona wetlands. It is believed that the creek and wetlands are named for the Machado ranch, La Ballona – Paso de las Carretas, although the origin and meaning of Ballona remains a mystery. Ballona Creek provided a source of irrigation water to early farmers who settled in the region and would become a popular location for the shooting of western movies around the turn of the 20th century. Ultimately, its often-destructive floodwaters sealed its fate as a channelized waterway. In the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers concreted Ballona Creek and its tributaries. Today, community organizations, environmental groups and LA Stormwater are working together to improve Ballona Creek and its wetlands, bettering its water quality and the critical habitat necessary for plants, fish and wildlife.
The new kid on the wetlands block is the South Los Angeles Wetlands Park, constructed using voter-approved Proposition O funds and opened this past winter. Located in the heart of South Los Angeles, this expansive and innovative park, which was once the site of a former MTA bus yard, now provides the community with an urban oasis, education center and recreational area. Like its sister wetlands area, the Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park, the South Los Angeles Wetlands Park collects polluted urban runoff, removes trash and pollutants and directs it through the constructed wetlands for treatment. The wetlands park can treat up to 680,000 gallons of stormwater – enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool – every day! The South Los Angeles Wetlands Park also combines numerous elements for passive recreational activities such as walking, cycling, photography and bird watching. Future construction will include a rail museum and community meeting space. For years to come, this park, along with its native trees, shrubs, marsh plants and flora will provide needed habitat for local wildlife.
Now that you know about LA’s unique wetlands, we encourage you to celebrate them this month by getting involved:
Learn more about wetlands. This is a great time to better understand what a wetland is, where wetlands can be found and their importance. EPA’s wetlands fact sheets can get you started!
Explore a wetlands area near you. Friends of Ballona Wetlands conducts monthly tours of the freshwater and saltwater marshes of Ballona Wetlands. The South Los Angeles Wetlands Park and Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park are open to the public daily and provide one-of-a-kind educational opportunities.
Take action to protect and restore wetlands. By joining a local environmental group or participating in a local clean-up, you’ll be doing your part to protect and restore wetlands. LA Stormwater’s calendar includes many opportunities to get involved! You can also visit EPA’s What You Can Do to Protect and Restore Wetlands to learn more.
Wetlands play a critical role in our nation’s ecological, economic and social health and provide significant benefits to our environment – improved water quality, increased water storage and supply and vital habitat for wildlife. Hopefully with your help, LA’s wetlands can be oases of environmental education for generations to come!
Photos courtesy of jmmcgdll and the City of Los Angeles, Department of Public Works.