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It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and a group of us met at the shade trees by the Del Rey Lagoon, a tranquil watering hole for ducks and other waterfowl. We were about to embark on a nature walk through the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Preserve south of Marina del Rey.

Robert Roy van de Hoek, biologist and expert on the ecosystem of the Ballona Valley was our guide for this walk. He started by greeting the 30 or so participants and handing out postcards that defined the word “estuary.”

“The term ‘wetlands’ is a new term that has only been used for the last 40 or 50 years,” he told us. “Before that, it was ‘salt marsh,’ or estuary.” Simply put, an estuary is a semi-enclosed body of water with a connection to the ocean and often with connections to rivers.

We walked north along the lagoon and spotted a cement wall at its north end, with a gate that is closed during low tides and opened when the tide begins to rise. At this point, in mid-afternoon, it was closed and marine birds, ducks and gulls, were swimming contentedly.

According to van de Hoek, the Los Angeles City Parks Department would prefer to keep the gate closed as much as possible during storm season in order to keep debris out of the lagoon. Unfortunately, keeping the gate closed also keeps marine life from moving naturally in and out of the lagoon, with the result that some marine creatures die, causing a different kind of environmental problem.

We continued along the bank of the Ballona Channel. At several points we saw culverts connecting the channel to rivulets that run through the wetlands. This is where fresh water and sea water mix. Nestled in the algae at the water’s edge are scores of mussels, on which waterfowl feed. Van de Hoek pointed out some of the local feathered life, including a surf scoter (a sea duck) and a willet sandpiper.

Further up, we stopped to look through binoculars and van de Hoek’s telescope at some birds settled in a grassy area. There were blue-gray herons, egrets and an owl, which was somewhat difficult to spot – it took this reporter two tries at the telescope to make out a black and white lump in the midst of the grass.

Moving on, we were allowed to enter the actual wetlands and walked single-file through a tiny lane until we came to a platform left over from the time when a trolley came through this area. Here we could see several rivulets merging and, in addition to a heron who seemed to be bowing to us, we could make out something splashing in the brown, brackish water, possibly a turtle.

What we also saw was a lot of garbage settling around the culverts where they drained into the rivulets and the creek. When someone asked where the garbage came from, van de Hoek said “From West Hollywood, West LA, Culver City – from everywhere. This is the watershed. All garbage ends in the wetlands.”

Estuaries are biologically cradles of life, but the pollution made by humans is inevitably carried into them via storm drains. Organizations such as the various Baykeepers are working to get cities to clean up their act. Unfortunately, noted van de Hoek, laws governing pollution are enforced at state and federal levels, and cities are only slowly complying with them. In the meantime, it might be advisable to remember that when one throws a cigarette butt or paper cup into the gutter, it may end up in the Ballona Estuary.

The Ballona Nature Walk happens once a month, sponsored by Wetlands Action Network. It’s a delightful way to spend an afternoon and it’s educational in more than one way. For information about the next Ballona Nature Walk, call 310.821.9045.

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