Last Saturday, thousands of volunteers gathered for Coastal Cleanup Day, and a couple dozen of them pulled a summer's worth of trash from the Venice Grand Canal.
It was a quiet milestone, although just a few diehards realized it, because only litter and weeds had to be hauled off — not heroin needles, rotting garbage and thickets of overgrown invasive plants choking out the native California flora.
Los Angeles residents can thank a tough bunch of environmentalists, who today, with the support of local families like Laura Alice and her 7-year-old daughter, Ava, have transformed a stagnant, nasty little seawater canal a few blocks inland of the Venice Pier into a living wetland.
Since 2009's Coastal Cleanup Day, volunteers and environmentalists have been busy planting in the canal's rich muck and along its banks, placing 10,000 native marshland and upland plants grown by nurseries in Redondo Beach and Santa Barbara.
"I've always had this rule that you leave a place nicer than you found it," says Alice, whose children's school, Westside Leadership Magnet School, now uses the restored Grand Canal — and its returning birds, snails and salt-marsh daisies — as an outdoor classroom.
It doesn't look like much to a Venice beachgoer — yet — but in time it will. And it's a dramatic victory over the cemented, dredged ditch that Los Angeles City Hall had in mind for the 2,000-foot-long canal in 2001.
At that time, local environmentalists fought a "beautification" plan blessed by City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and the city's Bureau of Engineering and Planning Department, who all agreed that wiping out the Grand Canal's smelly mud and cementing its banks would not impact the environment, and that no environmental-impact review was needed.
Galanter went before the Coastal Commission, demanding that the city be allowed to encase the canal and cover its bottom with rock.
"Shortcutting the environmental review — that didn't sit right," says Douglas Carstens of Chatten-Brown & Carstens, the law firm that represented environmental interests who fought Galanter and City Hall.
"Dredging, diking and filling — that's not a genuine restoration, that's fake and false," says Roy van de Hoek, a key biologist among several environmentalists who joined the fight.
"If you're going to replace something, why not replace it with native habitat that belongs there?" asks Carstens, recalling the battle. "Their proposal was to ... replace it with manufactured habitat."
As van de Hoek explained to anyone who would listen, long before Bayer aspirin, coastal Native Americans who dwelled in Los Angeles knew that chewing willow bark relieved common aches and fevers. They valued those and other plants in the vast wetlands that encompassed much of Venice, Marina del Rey and part of West Los Angeles.
Generations later, in the 1930s — the same decade that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers famously entombed the flood-prone L.A. River and its tributaries in concrete channels — brackish Ballona Creek, too, was encased in concrete, and the seawater crucial to the wetlands was severely reduced, slowly starving the ecosystem.
An ugly legal war won by environmentalists against City Hall saved the remaining 340 acres, including Ballona Wetlands and some of its uplands.
But nearly every lush remnant of the ecosystem that once stretched into Venice and Marina del Rey had long since been destroyed by development.
In 2001, Galanter and some Venice residents saw only an overgrown, fetid dumping ground and nuisance ironically named the Grand Canal. But serious environmentalists saw an essential, surviving ingredient of the old ecosystem.
"Dredging is a catastrophic action that wipes out the wetland soils and all the life that's in there," says van de Hoek. "Wetland soils are the basis for the food chain."
That muck is filled with rich nutrients that feed micro-organisms such as algae when the tide is in. When the tide is out, smaller birds forage from it. Insects including butterflies and bees flock to native plants that grow from it.
In 2002, van de Hoek, an expert for the Wetlands Action Network — along with the Sierra Club, Ballona Wetlands Land Trust and the Coalition to Save the Marina — sued the California Coastal Commission, which had authorized the city's dredging plan.
In 2002, a judge sided with the environmentalists and the dredging — already under way — was halted.
It took another six years of planning to launch the second phase, a painstaking habitat-restoration effort. "In order to be sensitive to the vegetation, the project is very hands-on," says Arturo Pina, area director for City Councilman Bill Rosendahl. "We can't use any heavy machinery."
Thick, invasive plants such as Myoporum trees from New Zealand were removed by hand by scores of volunteers. They have slowly been planting native California cuttings from Ballona Wetlands on a stretch of embankment between West Washington Boulevard and Driftwood Street on the canal's east side.
Coastal Commission permits to proceed with restoration on the west bank between West Washington Boulevard and Hurricane Street are in progress.
The work, though far from complete, is more than symbolic.
In addition to supporting the returning wildlife, the new plants protect surfers and swimmers, explains van de Hoek. "Reeds and cattails soak up metals and bacteria," toxins that might otherwise make their way to the nearby ocean.
Volunteers organized by the Ballona Institute, an affiliate of Wetlands Action Network, have been trained to identify native versus non-native plants. Planning consultants, biologists, nursery costs and supplies were paid in part by about $380,000 from developers of the Latitude 33 condos directly adjacent to the Grand Canal.
Rosendahl is credited by the Ballona Wetlands Institute's Marcia Hanscom, and attorney Carstens, for a turnaround in attitude from City Hall.
Among the most active of the volunteer organizations are students at the Westside Leadership Magnet School on the Marina Peninsula adjacent to the wetlands.
"We're the only school that has that in Los Angeles," says Alice, president of Westside Boost, the school's parent association, referring to the adjacent wetlands. Younger children water the native plants, and science classes for the older kids are taught at the canal.
"It's a great way for the kids to see the bigger picture of what's around them," Alice says. "The goal is to get them to nurture this community and take it back home."
Her hope is that the kids' involvement reverberates across Los Angeles. Eighty percent of the school's students are bused in, some from disadvantaged areas.
But can 4,000 feet of soil, the length of the dual banks and their submerged areas in this fledgling restoration, make a difference?
"We've lost 95 percent of the wetlands of Los Angeles County," says Lewis MacAdams, president of Friends of the Los Angeles River. "Every inch of wetlands that Los Angeles can save is crucial."
He points to the smallest incremental attention to watershed health as reaping major victories: "A steelhead trout was seen in the mouth of the Ballona Creek last spring," he says. "That image is really haunting."
"When the river was channelized starting in 1938," he adds, the trout "all disappeared."
He now is pressing for the restoration of 125 acres of land at Union Pacific's Piggyback Rail Yard along the L.A. River, where it passes the San Antonio Winery downtown.
At Venice Grand Canal, about 20 acres eventually will be restored. "In the field of biogeography," says van de Hoek, "when you increase the area, you exponentially increase the number of species, and the project will have impacts beyond its physical boundaries. ... You can't have a mountain lion living in one acre of chaparral."
But despite the activists' victory, Carstens does not see their smooth relations with Rosendahl as an indicator of change at City Hall.
"These days, the city is moving in the opposite direction — cutting out the public even more," Carstens says.
In fact, he says, the Villaraigosa administration has "proposed nine ordinances that would eliminate or reduce public involvement in proposed projects ... like eliminating a finding that a proposed project does not adversely affect 'the public's welfare.' Why would you eliminate that?"