By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
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.