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Exploring Southern California's Wetlands

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L.A. River / All photos by Sandi Hemmerlein
L.A. River / All photos by Sandi Hemmerlein

Can we dispel, once and for all, the myth that Los Angeles is a desert?

Sure, it's surrounded by desert -- the Mojave to the north, the Colorado to the east -- but Los Angeles itself isn't technically a desert. It's a semi-arid subtropical climate. Even in a four-year drought, in Southern California, we do have some water. And we have wetlands.

Whether in the form of a slough or a lagoon or a marsh, we have plenty of riparian ecologies -- and the San Gabriel, Santa Ana, and Los Angeles Rivers have given us many fascinating estuaries to explore, creating a whole Southern California watershed.

Here are some of the more intriguing areas where our dry landscape becomes wet -- even if it's not immediately obvious upon first glance.

Ballona Wetlands
This place is bigger than you'd expect -- 600 acres -- but it used to be much bigger. For centuries, the Tongva peoples thrived in the marshland that took up a great part of the Santa Monica Bay, but much of the wetlands were destroyed in favor of the creation of Marina del Rey, a man-made community that was constructed by filling in the wetlands and building on top of them.

In order to restore the habitat undisturbed, much of it is closed to the public. But you can still access its diverse areas through special tours, which are held regularly by a variety of organizations. The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority holds occasional open houses and tours, starting at the Ecological Reserve entrance along Fiji Way. They maintain a trail and bike path along Ballona Creek, which starts at the Expo Line at National Boulevard and runs along the north side of the creek to the beach bike path in Playa del Rey. You can visit the Salt Marsh with Los Angeles Audubon the first Saturday of every month. The volunteer-run Friends of Ballona Wetlands conducts tours of the Freshwater Marsh area every second and fourth Saturday, but this is one area you can actually visit on your own by taking a self-guided tour along the public interpretive trail at the corner of Lincoln and Jefferson.

The Los Angeles River
The L.A. River is probably our most abundant wetland resource -- and the most misunderstood. Despite all those blue and white signs marking its placement, so many Angelenos (and visitors to L.A.) still have no idea that we even have a river. And those who think that the L.A. River is just a concrete flood control channel should visit its two main soft-bottom areas: Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge and Glendale Narrows. There's a reason why these are the two areas of the river that have been opened for summertime recreation -- they are wild. And if the bird life and sea creatures that have collected there are any indication, these wetland areas are thriving. Sure, you might see a discarded shopping cart or two, but it's much better than it was before. You can even go fishing there -- if you dare. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, experience this wetland habitat in your vessel of choice -- kayak, raft, or canoe. You can also take guided kayak tours with LA River Kayak Safari, L.A. River Expeditions, or the LA Conservation Corps' "Paddle the LA River" program.


Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve
These wetlands, located in northern Orange County in Huntington Beach, are accessible in a surprisingly urban area. Open to the public, it abuts a housing development that was built on top of a sacred Indian burial ground. At one point it used to be full of oil derricks -- which the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach paid to clean up in order to restore the habitat.

This wetland experiences tides of saltwater coming in from and going out to the Pacific Ocean, but it also has freshwater areas that are fed by rainfall -- attracting terns, yellow-footed egrets, and great blue herons. Since this area used to be part of the Coastal Defense System, you can spot some relics of its military history along its file miles of trails, and explore more of these wetlands at the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge to the north on the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach base. The Seal Beach refuge is accessible only by guided tours on the last Saturday of each month at 8:30 a.m., and reservations are required.


Los Cerritos Wetlands
North of Seal Beach and east of Long Beach is the little-known Los Cerritos Wetlands -- which currently take up about 500 acres on both sides of the San Gabriel River. But the conservation area is growing -- the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust is facilitating the purchase of additional acreage, and they're working to reconnect and restore the estuary, which has been heavily industrialized. Opportunities to explore the wetlands include group kayak trips, guided nature walks, and something they call a "Turtle Trek" -- a kind of sea safari that seeks rare glimpses of the endangered green sea turtle that inhabits the warm waters of the San Gabriel River. Sightings are rare and brief, but patient observers sitting along the banks of this urban river are rewarded with an occasional head or two popping up out of the water, and then diving back down.

Prado Wetlands
There's a patch of wetlands in Corona just behind the Prado Dam, at the base of the Santa Ana River in Riverside County, which was actually built and run by the Orange County Water District. In 1992, they created the largest manmade wetlands in Southern California by converting a series of duck-hunting ponds into an ecosystem that treats wastewater that's already treated three times by a nearby plant. This is nature's most natural filtration system -- with a few pumps and pipes added -- and it has created a great habitat for various types of wildlife, including a number of birds.

Barn owl chicks fledge in their boxes while other birds build nests in the native mule fat and willow trees. It's become a precious area for conservation of threatened species, so it's not open to the public, but on one of the OCWD's spring bird walks, you might spot box owls, Great Blue Herons, and even endangered species like the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher and the Bell's Vireo. Their conservation efforts include protecting the Santa Ana Sucker Fish, a now-threatened species of fish that once thrived in the Santa Ana River watershed. A visit to the Prado Wetlands is a bit of civil engineering, a bit of birding, and a bit of hydrology mixed with botany. Beware the giant stinging nettle plant, which you do NOT want to touch.

Malibu Lagoon
Malibu Lagoon

There are actually many wetlands areas in Southern California, and not just in the coastal region. Sure, you can start there -- say, at Malibu Lagoon -- but move inland and you'll find places like the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge in Imperial County, and the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve near Joshua Tree National Park. Surprises abound, making your visit even more rewarding.

So, are you ready to get wet? Most of these areas afford you to the opportunity to get in the water -- even if it's just to squish your toes in the muddy river bottom.

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