Ballona Wetlands, the last major tidal marsh in Los Angeles Southern California, has been the center of a furious recent debate pitting environmental groups against the Annenberg Foundation and state agencies, who want to construct a huge building there.

Now, a mysterious underground drain system, installed by developer Playa Capital 20 feet beneath restricted, fragile public land, is a new battleground. Ballona Wetlands naturalist Jonathan Coffin discovered manhole-like “risers” built for overflows, which in turn led him to a huge underground drain created beneath the ecosystem — a place where man's handling of tides, rain and the water table is a delicate scientific question. Somehow, Playa Capital has been quietly draining pond water off public land and into Ballona Creek for years. The baffled Coastal Commission tells L.A. Weekly it is investigating.

One of the two secret drain openings discovered by photographer Jonathan Coffin; Credit: Grassroots Coalition

One of the two secret drain openings discovered by photographer Jonathan Coffin; Credit: Grassroots Coalition

The drainage outlet Coffin came upon while photographing is physical proof of an underground drainage system never approved by the state, which has been silently draining water from the freshwater marsh at Jefferson Boulevard and Lincoln Boulevard — and into Ballona Creek about 1,000 feet away.

Environmentalists are appalled, saying that the hidden drain line, probably big enough for humans to crawl through, is an outrageous private move to dewater the wetlands, undetected for years, and almost certainly violating numerous federal and state laws.

Jack Ainsworth, senior deputy director of the state Coastal Commission, said in a June meeting, “We have opened a violation against Playa Capital with regard to one particular drain that's in the middle of wetlands that's having adverse impact.”

For environmentalists, Playa Capital's big, secret drain answers a long-troubling mystery about the wetlands' health.

Conservationist John Davis says that in the years “before the drainage system was installed, the wetlands were filled with water.” But, he says, “after it was installed” over time, the same section of wetlands “was no longer filled with water.” (See side-by-side comparison photos below:)

How the developers' secret drainage system wiped out Ballona's life-giving water.; Credit: Jonathan Coffin

How the developers' secret drainage system wiped out Ballona's life-giving water.; Credit: Jonathan Coffin

Said Davis, “It's like a huge bathtub drain.”

The drain is “under investigation” and at the stage of “gathering facts,” according to Andrew Willis, an enforcement analyst from the Coastal Commission.

The damage caused by Playa Capital is unknown at this time. But clearly, wildlife from birds and mammals to insects and tiny plants suffer when pond water is drained from a habitat. In addition, draining the surface water prevents the unseen groundwater from being recharged.

A timeline recently created by conservationist John Davis shows that Playa Vista developer McGuire Thomas Partners, which got permission to build the freshwater marsh as part of the restoration of the rare wetlands, also sought a project aimed at “elimination of saltwater intrusion” — a controversial draining plan never approved by the Coastal Commission.

Great egret at Ballona Wetlands; Credit: Jonathan Coffin

Great egret at Ballona Wetlands; Credit: Jonathan Coffin

Environmentalists were outraged by the developers' outmoded idea of trying to cut off the wetlands from the natural saltwater of the Pacific Ocean, an historic and healthy part of the wetlands' rich habitat, and not something man could or should stamp out.

A June 12 letter to Playa Capital from the Coastal Commission, obtained by Patricia McPherson of the Grassroots Coalition via the California Public Records Act, stated:

“There is not any indication of plans for the debris risers [overflow outlets] or the drain lines, nor do we have any records regarding the authorization for their construction.”

In this polite letter, the state regulator offers to “resolve this situation amicably,” giving these basic options to mega-rich developer Playa Capital:

–removal of unpermitted development, restoration of any damaged resources, and mitigate for such damages,

–or obtain a coastal development permit authorizing the development after-the-fact with any necessary mitigation,

–or some combination of the two mechanisms.

This brings to mind the “after-the-fact permit” granted by the Coastal Commission to billionaire Jerry Perenchio, who sneakily built an illegal golf course behind an 8-foot rock wall in downtown Malibu, unbeknown to almost everyone.

Environmentalists standing on a high hill looked down upon Malibu Lagoon one day and spotted the nearby hidden golfing facility — a chemical-laden, massive lawn that many now believe was leeching thousands of gallons of lawn products into Malibu Lagoon for years.

Furious people sent in 2,000 signatures from around the globe to prevent the fantastically rich Perenchio from obtaining an “after-the-fact” permit from the Coastal Commission.

But the commission relented after Perenchio agreed to halt his massive runoff of pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals into the lagoon, erect a wastewater treatment facility — and bequeath the land as open space upon the death of him and his wife.

Now, another wildly wealthy group out for itself may have used the old “ask forgiveness later” approach. Only time will tell.

Environmentalists say the state of California should conduct a hydrology study of the wetlands and look into what has happened.

In 2003, apparently shortly after the secret drain went in, the state acquired the 640 surviving acres of Ballona Wetlands from developer Playa Capital, which took over from a previous developer. The Department of Fish and Wildlife owns the land where the drain was installed.

Jordan Traverso of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) wrote in an email, “This issue only recently came to our attention. … We're working closely with the Coastal Commission to look into this situation. The drainages were constructed prior to CDFW owning the land. We understand the Playa Vista developer says that the drainages were required by the city for flood control.”

That's a fascinating statement by Fish and Wildlife.

As the department should know, city governments have no say over flood control in California or its wetlands. Flood control is the purview of the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency.

Davis says some responsibility lies with Fish and Wildlife for buying land with an illegal drain installed upon it, and never doing anything about it or the tremendous damage it may have caused.

“If you own a house and put in an illegal drainage system in your backyard, when you sold the house, whoever you sold the house to should also be responsible,” he explains.

McPherson, president of Grassroots Coalition, a nonprofit environmental group, says the drainage system is “active destruction” to the wetlands. She says the Fish and Wildlife is not innocent in this matter and should have alerted the public.

“The state is not being transparent. Onions are peeling back here. The illegal drainage system is only one layer of the problem,” McPherson says.

LA Weekly