By John Davis
Many secrets surround that area of land just South of Venice called the Ballona Wetlands. The fundamental issues regard land ownership, government jurisdictions, and the story that is put forth for public consumption.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish settlements, many generations of indigenous people made the bountiful land their home. Families were raised, lives were lived, and the ancestors were buried in the earth. A large settlement called Saagna rested atop the West Bluffs. Trails interconnected it to other local population centers.
At this time there were no land deeds recorded. This was the land of the Tongva Nation. Perhaps they felt the same way about the land as, Chief Plenty Coups, of the Crow did: “The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the blood of our ancestors.” The Spanish settlements then brought European notions about granting vast tracts of land to individuals. California was included in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Imagine that, Venice is a Viceroyality.
The Mission San Gabriel Archangel set the Spanish name Gabrieleno on the first-people in Los Angeles. Ranchos were not within the missions, nor were pueblos. The first was San Pedro. Ranchos were concessions of the Crown of Spain. The land was owned by the Crown while permitting certain elites to establish ownership rights. The grantees would operate them, prosper, and share the wealth with the King. The original people provided an untold amount of labor for these ventures, as it was in building missions. Many reports of slave labor arose from this time.
Rancho La Ballona was granted by Spain in 1819, covering an area bordered by Pico Blvd to the North and Playa del Rey to the South. The Easterly reach ended at Culver City and Mar Vista. In 1839, following Mexico’s successful revolution against Spain, Governor Alvarado granted Augustin Machado and Felipe Talamantes rights in the Rancho. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848 between Mexico and the United States to end their war. Terms allowed prior ownership to be honored. But, the land had to be recorded in the United States.
Claims were filed with the Board of California Land Commissioners in 1852. But, the land claims process was manipulated, allowing only a special few access to it. This is how the opportunity for Indigenous Peoples and others who should hold right to title were excluded from the process. The Machado-Talamantes holdings were approved in 1852, foreclosing forever on other legitimate claims to the land. The United States Supreme Court weighed in on this later in Summa v. California.
Since that time the land was divided and subdivided. The United States passed the Rivers and Harbors Act in the late 1800s. It was known as the first environmental law for the Country. The Act was used to construct public works on waters of the United States, consisting of rivers and harbors.
Around this time Venice was being built by its founder, Abbot Kinney. He requested permission to build a marina South of Washington Blvd. The Secretary of War denied his request because neither a river nor a harbor existed to be improved by the Act. After the region was subjected to destructive flooding in the late thirties, much of the LA River and Ballona Creek was channelized by the Army Corp of Engineers under related Flood Control Act. Since that time the storm waters flow swiftly to the sea, protecting property and infrastructure in low-lying areas, like Venice.
In 1954 LA County knocked on the Secretary of the Army’s door asking, as Abbot had done before, to build a small craft harbor. This time the Army agreed. After being authorized under the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1954, U.S. Public Law 780, the Marina was constructed. Congress spelled out what the improvement would be. Only one administration building was authorized, along with some cabanas, with dock and shore works. The County promised to provide 8000 boat slips and to deed all lands easements and rights of way to the United States forever and in perpetuity. But, this is where the next land grab happened.
The General Plan of Improvement approved by the Congress in House of Representatives Document 389 included lands beginning North of Washington St. to West Eighty-Forth Street to the South and East to Lincoln Blvd. The County cheated and only claimed it deeded the U.S. an easement over the main channel.
This is only in the official County records. Howard Hughes objected formally in HD 389, implying that the Air Force needed to extend his quasi-government runway East of Lincoln to the West. The Secretary of the Air Force then rebuffed him in the House Document. But Hughes got the land anyway, and the land was passed through several corporate hands.
The State finally purchased the surface rights to a fraction of the original wetlands, with a private seller keeping any future water rights. The mineral rights did not go to the State either. By State, I mean us. The requirement to deed the lands to the U.S. Government was not met. The Army Corp of Engineers let the County get away with it. But then, the taxpayers still paid to construct the harbor for public purposes anyway, with no deed as U.S. Public Law 780 required. The County then changed the public small craft harbor to a commercial development without first seeking the permission from Congress. The varying Commanders of the USACE Los Angeles Division over time let this happen, knowing full well that only the Congress could make the change, not the local Army Corp Commanders.
The Corp was asked by the Senate Committee of Transportation to review H.D. 389 (MDR) and determine if any changes were warranted to the Congressional approval of the Project in 1993, after changes had already been made. The Corp began the requested process in 2005. It was supposed to be completed in 2008. Three million dollars was provided to complete it. In a letter from the Secretary of the Army to me in 2012, it was stated the process was continuing with no termination in sight. Then, the USACE Los Angeles District terminated the process in late 2012, with nothing to show for the three-million dollars of public investment.
Now, the same Corp trick is being played yet again. It announced it would conduct a different type of project. This one would not answer to Congress. It removed the scope of the first project and replaced it with a completely different plan. Now, District Army Corp Commander, Col. Mark Toy, is aiming another barge load of whale shit at the people. The new plan approves building 20 ft. concrete walls along Fiji Way, Lincoln Blvd, and Jefferson. The plan’s goal is to dig a giant basin to collect pollution from upstream polluters like a toilet, which will be cleaned at public expense.
A new giant public toilet would not be necessary if those point-source polluters upstream were stopped. But the big-money polluters want the public to pay for their cleanup at the end of the pipe, the new project. And the private development, Playa Vista, wants a flood control project to protect its private earnings. The project would require dredging up the Ballona Wetland and running roughshod over every bit of life that remains. There would be years of destruction, noise, air and water pollution. And it would all be for a project that is a failure from the start.
Dr. Shelly Luce, Executive Director and CEO of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, a non-profit private business, deceptively calls this “a wetlands restoration”. So does Dr. Mark Gold, formerly of Heal the Bay. The same thing happened at Malibu Lagoon last summer: a vibrant lagoon was turned into a morass of blood, death, and mud. It too was called a restoration. Gold and Luce are the primary force behind both projects, one failed, and the next doomed to a similar fate, but on a massive scale. Both have their origins in the same non-profit, Heal the Bay. Many insiders have laughingly named it Steal the Bay, with what appears to be good reason.
The good news is there are a lot of caring people and environmental non-profits that oppose this project, steadfastly. Perhaps Chief Seattle said it best: “When the Earth is sick, the animals will begin to disappear; when that happens, The Warriors of the Rainbow will come to save them.”