How come parts of Ballona were not developed like Marina del Rey and Venice? The wetlands were once the property of Howard Hughes, where he kept his famous plane, the Spruce Goose.  He had a small airport here with a landing strip just east of Lincoln, and kept the rest undeveloped. what is a wetland? »
Early History

When the early earth was forming, natural occurrences like volcanoes and rainfalls helped create what we now know as Playa del Rey.  Wind and sand formed sand dunes and behind these dunes, marshy waters flourished near modern-day Santa Monica Bay.

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Ancient humans were attracted to these rich fertile areas that provided an abundance of renewable food supply.  The first inhabitants of Ballona arrived around 8-10 thousand years ago, and were eventually replaced by people from the Mohave Desert who called themselves the Tongva.

In the many centuries since the Tongva inhabited the Ballona Wetlands much has changed.  The ever-growing Los Angeles metropolis makes it increasingly harder for the plants and animals that rely on Ballona to survive . Within the last two hundred years, a miniscule amount of time on the geological time scale, the wetlands were changed forever.  The first major change came from agriculture, later industry, followed by a boom in population.

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Around 1820, a mestizo rancher named Augustine Machado chose Ballona Wetlands to graze his cattle.  After claiming fourteen-thousand acres thanks to a land grant provided by the Mexican government, Machado took ownership of the area that today stretches from Culver City to Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica.  Machado called the land “Rancho La Ballona.” While the Machados became wealthy, Ballona suffered its first major blow due to the conflicting needs between the natural landscape and the grazing livestock.

After Machado lost his claim to the land , the first signs of industry started appearing in and around Ballona.  While these businesses thrived, the tides and weather inevitably proved much too strong for the owners, eventually washing away any profitable establishment in the area .

Ballona and the 20th Century

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In the 1920’s, the invention of the car made the beach more accessible than ever, inspiring hopeful builders to set their sights on the high grounds.  They named their new development Palisades del Rey.  When oil was discovered shortly thereafter, the tourism and new, major motion picture industries took a back seat to the promise of black-gold.  As had occurred in the past, Ballona was yet again subjected to harsh, unsustainable conditions that left the wetlands disfigured and grossly polluted.

The time of the aviation age brought about heightened interest in development.  During this time The Army Corps of Engineers invested much of their efforts into flood-control. They dredged and cemented the banks and bottoms and installed flap gates to drain freshwater run-off.  This new system made way for more establishments during the 1930’s-1960’s that would further disturb Ballona’s natural landscape.

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The single most devastating blow, however, came in the 1960’s with the construction of Marina del Rey.  Over 900 acres of wetlands were destroyed for its construction, since the Coastal Commission did not exist back then to ensure protection of the wetlands.

Recent Struggles and Successes

Still, the wetlands would nevertheless regain some of their strength.  As the tide gates began to rust, and salt water made its way back in, new wildlife reappeared. The promise of replenished wetlands met with resistance yet again, when Howard Hughes, who had purchased the property before WWII, died in 1976.  After leaving the property to his heirs, plans were quickly drawn up to develop the area including Ballona.  What they called The Summa Corporation Playa del Vista plan would consume all but 72 of the 1,187 wetland acres.

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In response to this proposed development, the Friends of Ballona Wetlands formed a grassroots movement to try and stop further damage to the precious wetlands.  The Friends filed a lawsuit after the Suma plan was approved, claiming that the development of the wetlands inconsistent with the California Coastal Act, but from 1984-1989, Suma refused to compromise.  Good news eventually came when Suma sold Playa Vista to Maguire Thomas Partners who negotiated with Ballona in 1990, giving up a significant portion of the 1,187 acres, and paying for much of its restoration.

New activist sects sprang up in the 1990’s to dispute different elements around Ballona.  Many had a stake in the area: from animal-right activists who advocated for the invasive red-fox to those who opposed any kind of construction in or around the Playa Vista area.

Ballona Today

At the turn of the 21st century, The Ballona Wetlands Foundation, a science-based organization, began a series of yearly symposiums. These meetings coincided with a world-wide movement of interest in wetlands preservation.  In 2003, the state purchased 192 acres and accepted Playa Vista’s donation of 291 acres.  This new acquisition totaled the protected area to around 600 acres of precious wetlands.  The state’s purchase initiated talks of formal, comprehensive restoration plan by the Coastal Conservancy for the newly-protected wetlands.  In 2004 construction on the new tidegate was completed. The new tidegate replaced an older tidegate, installed in 1996, that had limited tidal action and severely deteriorated salt marsh.   The new tidegate assists in flood control and improves water flow into the wetlands, allowing sea life to enter the wetlands more naturally while increasing tidal flushing.



The Tongva were Uto-Aztecan speaking peoples who came from the Mohave Desert about 3-5 thousand years ago.  Their village was near what we know today as the Los Angeles River.  In this fertile area seeds, nuts, and fruits grew, and while acorns were a staple in their diet, these ancient peoples also hunted small game.  During this time, fish, shell fish, and water fowl were plentiful.  The Tongva traveled to nearby islands in intricately fabricated canoes.  Where they once lived in is now only a fragment of what it used to be. After the Spanish arrived, The Tongva were exposed to diseases such as Small Pox and Measles, leaving few survivors.  Those Tongva who survived were moved to the San Gabriel Mission and re-named the Gabrielinos by the Spaniards.


Los Angeles has experienced population booms that require massive development.  Urbanization, like housing units built atop the bluffs and agricultural plowing, has destroyed much of the wetlands.  As a result, a mere eight acres of sand dunes remain.  Near Marina del Rey, 15 feet of fill smothers a once thriving area of wetlands. 

The origin of the name “Ballona” is unknown.  Some believe that it could have been the Californio’s Spanish word for bay.  Others think that that inner bay may have once housed whales during breeding migration, and that Ballona might be a misspelling of the Spanish word for whale, ballena. While others, still, believe that the name comes from Ballona Spain, the original home of the Machados.


In the 1840’s, the Mexican war brought California under the jurisdiction of the U.S.  During the gold rush, immigrants from all over the country flocked to California, ignoring many of the Mexican land-rights and claiming it as their. Proving land entitlement became expensive and difficult thanks largely to the changing land and sea.  Squatters soon took over the once thriving Ballona Rancho.  During this time, many of these people hunted native Ballona birds for their stylish plumage.


With the late 19th and early 20th Ballona hosted a slew of new businesses that, thanks to calamitous weather, endured a short though fruitful run. A German named Will Tell built a business at the mouth of Ballona where sportsmen could hunt from his small boats.  His business soon washed away, but interest in the area continued to mount.  In the 1880’s Moy Wix envisioned “Port Ballona” a plan that would link the ocean to a new two-mile Harbor.  The Santa Fe Railway planned to follow; and while a passenger train was successful in transporting Angelinos to Port Ballona in 1887.  Strong tides and winter rains inevitably washed away the wharf, putting an end to the grand project.


With the invention of the Pacific Electric car in at the turn of the 20th century, people came to the beach in throngs.  In Ballona, new hotels sprung up, along with a fishing pier and bridge that spanned the lagoon entrance.  Boat and car racing became popular too.  The famous one-mile “pie pan” race track brought in many spectators to see stars like Barney Oldrum racing at reckless speeds up to 60 MPH!  But the past was destined to repeat itself; heavy seas and rains proved too much for these attractions, and eventually washed them all away.


During the aviation age, Mines Field, which would eventually become LAX settled in behind El Segundo Dunes.  Several years later, right before World War II, millionaire Howard Hughes bought an area encompassing Ballona intended to house an aircraft factory.  He paid a mere five-hundred thousand dollars for the property.  The factory was built east of Lincoln Blvd., leaving the area west of Lincoln Blvd, the current-Ballona wetlands, clear for take-offs.


A riding stable was built next to the marsh, where it remained until the 1980’s.  Here, horses crushed native vegetation.  The signs of their destruction can still be seen at Ballona: in the circular area where they once trampled, nothing grows.  Agriculture, too, continued to thrive, with farmers using cultivating techniques that conflicted with the habitat.  Up until the 1980’s, lima beans and celery grew at Ballona.


After the war, the economy was booming.  Since the creek was channelized, the low-lying areas were no longer in danger of being washed away.  With the expansion into the lowlands, sewage and dump systems went up to manage the city’s waste needs.  Much of the waste, including DDT, oil, and sewage was dumped into the bay.

Marina del Rey, the world’s largest boat basin, consumed a massive area of wetlands for a marina, shopping centers, and high-rise condos.  No federal laws existed at the time to prevent its destruction.  Today fill from the Marina del Rey construction smothers the once thriving, marshy wetlands.


The endangered Least Tern was seen nesting on the salt pans, while the Belding Savannah Sparrow nested in the pickle weed.  Birders reported seeing flocks of egrets, two Blue Herons, and hearing the distinct Meadowlark’s song.  Owls burrowed and perched on the bluffs, while hawks and even a Bald Eagle could be seen flying above Ballona. 


The Suma plan was set to develop the vast majority of the remaining wetlands.  The land Hughes bequeathed to his heirs was worth hundreds of millions, given it’s prime real-estate, coastal location.  A proposed roadway would have bisected the wetlands.


The Friends’ campaign came about during a wave of “green-mindedness.”  Schools were educating children for the first time on the importance of nature and ecosystems, and the Friends invested their time and effort in teaching the public about the value of the precious wetlands.

As a result of their involvement, the Friends would eventually win a seat on the Ballona Wetlands restoration planning committee.  This position gave The Friends the ability to ensure that any proposed Playa Vista development would not adversely affect Ballona wetlands. 


Represented by the Center for Law in Public Interest, the Friends filed a lawsuit against The California Coastal Commission.  City Council Member Pat Russel, who supported the development of Ballona was eventually defeated by urban planner and Friends supporter, Ruth Galanter. 


The Maguire Thomas Partners agreed to spend more than $13 million to restore the salt marsh.  In addition the developers agreed to pay for the restoration of a freshwater marsh, a riparian corridor, dunes, uplands, bluff-side, and a deep-water area.


During this time environmentalists and animal-rights activists butted heads over what to do about non-native and invasive species.  The invasive red foxes, preyed heavily upon native birds of Ballona endangering Ballona’s delicate ecosystem. Friends of Ballona Wetlands insisted that the land-owner trap the foxes, much to the dismay of animal rights advocates, who fought back with threats of physical violence.

Around the same time, Dreams Works Studios expressed interest in building a studio at Playa Vista.  Many new groups opposed any kind of construction in Playa Vista, even though the studio was set for construction at the old Hughes aircraft site, over 1.5 miles from the marsh and high above sea level.  Accusations were flung at both the Friends and Dream Works’s Steven Spielberg, but tempers eventually subsided after the studio plans were scrapped.