There are two big ecological restoration projects in the works for the LA Area. The bigger of the two is the restoration of the LA River. Currently the “river” is little more than a concrete culvert through the city, but LA has secured the support of the Army Corps of Engineers for a $1.3 billion plan to restore eleven miles of the river to a more natural state. While there will be some benefits for nature, this project seems mainly to be about about the recreational and economic benefits of revitalizing an eleven-mile long corridor within LA. That’s not a bad thing – I’m visiting San Antonio twice a month right now, and the San Antonio River Walk shows clearly how a river can improve the quality of life in an area. I suspect that environmentalists won’t be satisfied with the eventual plans that emerge in LA, but the reality is that a small river running through a massive city will never again return to a truly natural state, and the best one can hope for is a waterway that provides some benefits for nature while offering significant quality of life improvements for humans.
The second restoration project is the Ballona Wetlands. At the end of this year the Environmental Impact Report will be released, offering options for restoring the remaining 600 undeveloped acres, or about 1% of the historic wetlands area. This project will be far less expensive than the LA River restoration, and while it will offer far fewer economic benefits it will offer some notable environmental benefits. Wetlands are tremendously important to migratory birds who use them as stopover points, fish that use them as spawning grounds, numerous creatures that use them as a food source, and the surrounding area that benefits from their ability to filter pollutants and lessen flood severity. With so many wetlands already lost to development, restoring even a small one has an outsized effect. Perhaps more importantly, residents of LA have little exposure to nature and thus little chance to learn to appreciate its benefits, so creating a destination for school fieldtrips and weekend visits will expose future generations to an environment that they might not have otherwise realized was important to protect.
Both restoration projects still face numerous hurdles, and have already had setbacks. An effort by the Annenberg Foundation to build a $50 million visitor center in the Ballona wetlands was killed by environmentalists who opposed any development at all on the site. While restoring every available acre might be a noble goal, the reality is that 99% of the historic wetland is already gone, and the remaining wetlands probably have more educational value than environmental value. Similarly, draft restoration plans for Ballona have been opposed for not going far enough in returning the area to its original state AND for going too far, thus disrupting the wildlife that is currently present; ongoing arguments could conceivably halt any attempts at restoration and leave the area in a degraded state. While plans for the LA River are still in the very early stages, the involvement of architect Frank Gehry has already been called “the epitome of wrong-ended planning“, and further conflicts will no doubt threaten to derail the project moving forward.
With luck all parties will realize that compromise is necessary, that “perfect” is the enemy of “good”, and in another 5-10 years LA will have a vibrant river corridor that offers habitat for wildlife and revitalized neighborhoods and recreational areas for humans. Additionally, if all parties can find agreement then restoration of Ballona will move forward to create a healthy wetland that can be used to educate future generations about the value of nature while providing food and shelter for species that currently struggle to survive due to the severe loss of their coastal wetland habitat.