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Wetland Is for the Birds -- and People and the Ocean

February 05, 2006|Steve Hymon and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

South Los Angeles seems like the last place you'd expect to find wetlands.

Especially in an industrial corridor of junkyards, scrap-metal shops and fast-food restaurants.

But on Saturday, city leaders officially opened a half-acre artificial wetland carved out of an existing park. The hope is that the new water feature will provide inner-city residents with more of a taste of the outdoors while also cleaning storm runoff before it taints the Los Angeles River and then flows into the ocean.

A green heron has been spotted several times, as well as kestrels, ducks, egrets and a few hawks. As the plants around the wetland continue to grow, there's hope that more avian species will arrive.

"It's serenity for me," said Adele Ayers, 56, as she walked with her 2-year-old grandson Darius. "We walk in the early mornings and it's so pretty, there's dew on the plants -- I love this."

Adrian Lopez, 9, said the wetland environment "makes me feel good inside, a little warm inside my heart."

"It's beautiful," he said. "We need these trees to give us air, clean, fresh air."

Los Angeles Councilwoman Jan Perry, who had pushed for creation of the wetland, said she was proud that the city was bringing a "wetland to an urban area where no one -- I'm telling you, nobody -- expected it."

The wetland is in Augustus F. Hawkins Nature Park at Compton and Slauson avenues, which until the late 1990s was a pipe storage depot for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The city converted the land to a park with the help of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

Now, after considerable work, the park is an 8 1/2 -acre leafy oasis of lawns, rolling hills, sycamores, willows and clusters of native vegetation planted to mimic ecosystems from around the state. It is also surrounded by a high iron fence and closed at night.

The wetland was created over the past year by scooping dirt out of a low-lying area of the park, installing a plastic liner and then filling it with water and aerators to oxygenate the water. Plants typically found in wetlands were added and, in time, should transform the area..

"There's a debate over whether you can create an ecosystem here, and I think that you pretty much can," said Jeff Catalano, the director of environmental policy for Councilwoman Perry. "I think in two or three seasons with all the plants growing, you won't even recognize the place."

Perry, whose district covers much of South L.A., envisioned the $240,000 project and hopes to prove to residents that nature is not something only to be experienced elsewhere.

"This is a jolting, visual way to change the way people see their own communities," Perry said. "I want them to see their own community as a place that has the capacity to be natural, to be spiritual, as well as a place to enjoy your family members in a peaceful setting."

South Los Angeles already attracts some interesting birds. The southern reaches of the Los Angeles River have long drawn a wide variety of shorebirds in the summer and fall each year, and Earvin Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook is considered a good place for bird-watching.

"Any little patch [of open space], birds will show up -- they find it because they're so desperate," said Garry George, the executive director of the Los Angeles Audubon Society.

Kimball Garrett, an ornithologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, agreed.

"In a way, the more urban and paved over an area is, the more of a concentrating effect the green areas have."

The new wetland is an experiment and is part of a broader effort by Los Angeles to clean up its namesake river.

In 1998, several environmental groups sued the city, arguing that it was doing little to prevent trash and polluted storm water from running into the ocean via the Los Angeles River and other creeks.

The city subsequently negotiated a settlement and is now under a federal consent decree to get much of the gunk out of its waterways. The problem is rain.

"If there is one thing that connects all the cities in Los Angeles County, it's the storm drain system," said David Nahai, chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The drains are effective at moving storm water to sea. But that runoff picks up motor oil, traces of heavy metals, fecal matter from animals and other pollutants and for the most part isn't treated before emptying into the ocean.

About 34,000 storm drains collect runoff, which is carried to the river by about 1,500 pipes within city limits. The city is relying on several strategies to address the problems, including fixing its leaky sewer system and installing screens in storm drains to catch garbage.

Another strategy -- at this point, an experimental one -- is to create artificial wetlands that mimic the function of the real thing.

In South L.A., the new wetland is connected to the storm drain system. The wetland will collect storm water and, it's hoped, help clean it -- the plants absorb pollutants -- before it flows into nearby Compton Creek, a tributary of the L.A. River.

Another wetland is planned for Atwater Village, along the L.A. River, and floating islands of plants were recently placed in the lake in Echo Park.

"We need to make sure we have two or three of these wetlands and collect data to see how effective they are," said Shahram Kharaghani, storm water program manager for the city.

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