Ballona Creek
Río de La Ballona
Concrete-paved banks of Ballona Creek channel, with palm trees silhouetted at sunrise
Ballona Creek at sunrise
Ballona watershed.png
Ballona watershed
Location
CountryUnited States
StateCalifornia
RegionLos Angeles County
CitiesLos Angeles, Culver City
Physical characteristics
Source 
 • locationLos Angeles, California
 • coordinates34°02′39″N 118°21′12″W / 34.04417°N 118.35333°W / 34.04417; -118.35333[1]
 • elevation110 ft (34 m)
Mouth 
 • location
Playa del Rey - Venice, Los Angeles
 • coordinates
33°57′37″N 118°27′33″W / 33.96028°N 118.45917°W / 33.96028; -118.45917Coordinates: 33°57′37″N 118°27′33″W / 33.96028°N 118.45917°W / 33.96028; -118.45917[1]
 • elevation
0 ft (0 m)[1]
Basin features
Tributaries 
 • leftCentinela Creek (south)
 • rightSepulveda Creek (north)

Ballona Creek (pronunciation: “Bah-yo-nuh”[2] or “Buy-yo-nah”[3]) is an 8.5-mile (13.7 km)[1] channelized stream in southwestern Los Angeles County, California, United States, that was once a “year-round river lined with sycamores and willows.”[4] Ballona Creek and neighboring Ballona Wetlands remain a prime bird-watching spot for waterfowl, shorebirds, warblers, and birds of prey.

The urban watercourse begins in the Mid-City neighborhood of Los Angeles, flows through Culver City and Del Rey, and passes the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Preserve, the sailboat harbor Marina del Rey, and the small beachside community of Playa del Rey before draining into Santa Monica Bay.[5]

The Ballona Creek drainage basin carries water from the Santa Monica Mountains on the north, from the Baldwin Hills to the south, and as far as the Harbor Freeway (I-110) to the east.

In 1982, film critic Richard von Busack, a native of Culver City, described his hometown as a “grim industrial suburb…bisected by Ballona Creek, a cement drainage ditch indistinguishable in size and content from the Love Canal.”[6]

Watershed and course

The Ballona Creek watershed totals about 130 square miles (340 square kilometers). Before most of Los Angeles’ watercourses were buried underground, Ballona Creek drained the whole of the west Los Angeles region and fed directly from a chain of cienegas and lakes that stretched from the Hollywood Hills to the Baldwin Hills.[4]

The major tributaries to the Ballona Creek and estuary include Centinela Creek channel, Sepulveda Creek channel and Benedict Canyon channel; most of the creek's natural minor tributaries have been destroyed by development or paved over and flow into Ballona Creek as a network of underground storm drains.

Ballona Creek watershed climate can be characterized as Mediterranean with average annual rainfall of about 409 millimeters (16 inches).[7] Land use in the watershed consists of 64 percent residential, 17 percent open space, eight percent commercial, and four percent industrial.[5]

The flow rate in the creek varies considerably, from a trickle flow of about 14 cubic feet (0.40 cubic metres) per second during dry weather to 71,400 cu ft (2,020 m3) per second (see cubic meters per second) during a 50-year storm event.[5]

Natural channels remain at some of the headwaters of Ballona Creek tributaries, while the lower portion of the stream is encased in concrete channels "either rectangular" in the east or "trapezoidal" toward the west; to the west of Centinela Avenue the bottom of the creek is unpaved and subject to tidal influence.[7][8]

Tributaries

Major tributaries of Ballona include:

Many of these run wholly or partially underground in storm drains that empty into the creek.

Benedict Canyon Creek Channel enters Ballona Creek
Benedict Canyon Creek Channel enters Ballona Creek

Additional watershed elements

According to a report from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, other contributing elements of the contemporary watershed, besides the major tributaries, are Baldwin Hills Park, Del Rey Lagoon Park, Ballona Lagoon Marine Preserve, Grand Canal, the Venice Canals, Ballona Northeast (Area C—State lands), Bluff Creek and Ballona Wetlands, Marina del Rey (including Marina Del Rey Wetland Park), Oxford Flood Control Basin, and another 15 or so minor tributaries in the Santa Monica Mountains.[9]

Ballona Wetlands and Del Rey Lagoon are connected to the Ballona estuary through tide gates.

The Ballona watershed is estimated to have roughly 35 percent impervious surface, which affects rainwater infiltration and groundwater recharge.[7]

There were at least 41 natural springs mapped in the Río de La Ballona watershed before development.[7] A waterway called Walnut Creek once arose near what is now the L.A. Coliseum at Exposition but it was destroyed by the 1930s flood-control engineering.[10]

A 2011 study determined that as little as two percent of Ballona’s water may now come from underground springs, meaning that 98 percent of the creek's flow consists of various forms of runoff throughout the watershed.[7]

Crossings

From northern source to southern mouth (year built in parentheses):[11]

Three bridges over Ballona Creek: Expo Line Bikeway (formerly National Blvd. north) to the left, E Line track overhead, and long-derelict Pacific Electric Santa Monica Air Line route to the right; with bypassing jogger on Ballona Creek Bike Path below.
Three bridges over Ballona Creek: Expo Line Bikeway (formerly National Blvd. north) to the left, E Line track overhead, and long-derelict Pacific Electric Santa Monica Air Line route to the right; with bypassing jogger on Ballona Creek Bike Path below.

Several of these crossings existed as “small wooden bridges” of unknown age before they were replaced in the 1930s by WPA infrastructure projects.[21][22] An “old wooden bridge” was in place on Overland before 1928.[23] A 1900 railway map appears to show Ballona Creek crossings at Inglewood, Higuera, and La Cienega and a crossing between Alla and Alsace stations .[24]

Ecology and conservation

Pollution

The urbanization of the watershed, and associated with it the pollution of urban runoff and stormwater, has degraded the water quality in Ballona Creek and its estuary. Ballona Creek is listed by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board impaired for fecal coliform, heavy metals, and pesticides.[25]

"Since Ballona drains [about] 126 square miles of surface area and thousands of street gutters, freeway runoffs, and industrial overflows, its highly toxic waters constitute the most serious source of pollution for Santa Monica Bay. A new city sewer line in the 1980s alleviated some, but not all, of the problem."[26]

Dry weather urban runoff and storm water, both conveyed by storm drains, are the primary sources of pollution in the riverine coastal estuary.

Grocery-store carts and trash litter [Ballona Creek], joined by flotillas of foam-plastic cups after rainstorms.[27]

— Jane Engle, Los Angeles Times

Another observer described the general state of the creek in 2021:[28]

What little water there is flows heavy with trash and the rainbow glints of motor oil…Graffiti lines every overpass. Water, flowing from god-knows-where above, leaks yellow-green across the street. Mountains of collected dross mark an impromptu home… This place has a sort of decaying beauty, like the moody ruins of a romanticist oil painting. As the miles roll by nature slowly returns. Brush lines the creek, and I catch a pelican diving into the water mid-flight.

The litter flows into the creek require constant cleanup by the County Department of Public Works and volunteer teams organized by Ballona Creek Renaissance, et al. Just for example, 50 bags of litter, including diapers, syringes and a car bumper, were removed from Ballona Creek on Coastal Cleanup Day in 1988.[29] Two abandoned live kittens and 67,000 pounds (30,000 kg) of less-precious dumped garbage were removed in 2002.[30]

Nets and booms strung across the end of the creek attempt to catch as much litter as possible before it enters Santa Monica Bay.

Above-ground “headwaters” of Ballona tributary Centinela Creek, near La Cienega Boulevard (click and zoom to see shopping cart)
Above-ground “headwaters” of Ballona tributary Centinela Creek, near La Cienega Boulevard (click and zoom to see shopping cart)

The Ocean Cleanup

To help reduce the flow of litter into the Pacific Ocean, The Ocean Cleanup organization deployed an Interceptor Original, one of their solar-powered, automated systems, near the mouth of the creek in October 2022. This is the first Interceptor Original installed in the United States, and the second of the third-generation Interceptor Original to be deployed globally. Until the system was put into place, it was docked with the United States Coast Guard in Long Beach, California. [31][32]

Habitat

The creek and wetlands are recognized as an “Important Birding Area” by the Audubon Society.[33] As far as the creek specifically, the best birding opportunities are usually west of Lincoln Boulevard.[34]

Urban coyotes[35] and a small population of venomous southern Pacific rattlesnakes[36] live alongside the creek; exercise due caution to protect both the wildlife and visiting humans.

According to a 2003 assessment, "Less than one percent of the plant cover observed along the Ballona Creek could be classified as native species."[37]

Vegetation grows creekside between Centinela and McConnell Avenues[38]
Vegetation grows creekside between Centinela and McConnell Avenues[38]

Bottlenose dolphins, harbor seals and California sea lions are occasionally spotted downstream.[39][40] In 1953, a 350-pound (160 kg) sea lion made it 3.5 miles (5.6 km) upstream before it got bogged down; the lost pinniped was lassoed by rescuers and returned to the Pacific.[41]

History

Ballona watershed, 1900
Ballona watershed, 1900

An alternative historic Spanish-language place name for the creek reported in the GNIS is Sanjón de Agua con Alisos, which roughly translates to “water ditch with sycamores.”[42] (Aliso is the North American Spanish language word for Platanus racemosa, or Western sycamore, a landmark water-loving, river-bank tree species native to the area.[43] Watercourses or irrigation channels called zanja, zanjón or sanjon are noted throughout southern California and the American Southwest generally.)[44]

A reported Tongva-language (Takic subgroup of Uto-Aztecan) placename for the Ballona estuary and wetlands was Pwinukipar, meaning “it is filled with water.”[45]

Originally, Ballona Creek was a picturesque natural waterway fed by runoff. The creek collected the water from cienegas and the rains. Its banks were lined with sycamores, willows, tules, and other trees. This natural bounty attracted the earliest known human inhabitants of the region, the Gabrielino-Tongva Indians, the indigenous people of the Los Angeles region.[46] For at least 3,000 years, the pre-Contact Tongva lived in the area encompassing the Ballona Creek floodplain and the Westchester Bluffs.[47][48] These indigenous peoples left a large burial ground near the region along the southwest corner of the Ballona Wetlands.[48] The records of the San Gabriel Mission record recruitment of Tongva from a group of settlements named Washna (also referred to in some historical and scholarly sources as Saa’angna) near the mouth of Ballona Creek. Before the Spanish conquest, Washna was probably the most important Native American center for trade between the mainland and Catalina Island.[48]

The Spanish Portolá expedition camped at the headwaters of Ballona on August 3, 1769.[49]

At the time of Spanish settlement, Ballona Creek was a distributary of the Los Angeles River. However, the flood of 1825 changed the course of the Los Angeles River, and Ballona Creek became a distinct waterway.

Creek and bluffs visible in original diseño for the rancho
Creek and bluffs visible in original diseño for the rancho

Around 1820, a mestizo rancher named Augustine Machado claimed a 14,000-acre (57 km2) Mexican land grant that stretched from modern-day Culver City to Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. Ballona Creek and Lagoon are named for the Ballona or Paseo de las Carretas (“wagon pass”) land grant, dated November 27, 1839. The Machado and Talamantes families, co-grantees of the rancho, heralded from Baiona in northern Spain.[50][51]

Further information: Rancho la Ballona and Rancho Rincón de los Bueyes

In the 1840s, Francisco Higuera’s adobe “was close enough to La Ballona Creek for Francisco’s nine children to swim in the clear waters of the stream with its fine sandy bottom.”[4]

On the Fourth of July 1862, soldiers from Camp Latham and their guests “visited the Willows, a beautiful grove on the right bank of Ballona Creek, for a promenade to enchanting music.”[52]

In 1886, a California state report described Ballona and Centinela creeks:

Out from the central springs of the upper belt—on ranchos La Brea and Rodeo de las Aguas—Ballona gathers its upper perennial waters, leads them south against the base of the Centinela hills. Here, reinforced by a little stream from the east, draining the springs of the ranchos La Cienega and Paso de la Tejera, it turns west and southwest, parallel with the hill’s footing, into the Ballona flats and the sea five to six miles away.[53]

Circa 1890, the renowned Machado ranch stables were located "a few hundred feet across the Ballona bridge on Overland Avenue."[21]

Duck hunting on the Ballona lowlands, 1890
Duck hunting on the Ballona lowlands, 1890

A 1912 advertisement for homes in the “Washington Park subdivision” along the creek said, “Ballona Creek is a swift-running little stream, fed by springs, and carrying plenty of water all the year. It divides in Washington Park, making a picturesque little island.”[54] In addition to other festivities organized by real-estate brokers to drum sales in the new development, “A free luncheon with hot coffee was served on Ballona Island, the wooded island in Ballona Creek.”[55]

Ultimately, the ranch land along the creek was put into agricultural use alongside new small towns such as Venice (est. 1905) and Culver City (est. 1917). In 1928, one writer observed, “Gradually Rancho La Ballona began to develop and people began to build. The ranches were subdivided until Rancho la Ballona became a rich valley of beautiful homes with people coming from every State until it reaches the portions of today.”[21]

Photos of a flooded Jefferson Boulevard appeared in the newspaper after a major storm in December 1931; authorities told reporters that Ballona Creek’s peak flow “more than 7000 second feet” went through the channel.[56] Deadly floods in 1934 led officials to temporarily close “small wooden bridges spanning Ballona Creek” to limit potential danger to civilians. The crossings were at Burnside Avenue, Redondo Boulevard, Thurman Avenue and Venice Boulevard.[22]

Much of the above-ground section of the creek was lined with concrete as part of the flood-control project undertaken by the United States Army Corps of Engineers between 1935 and 1939.[57][58][7]

In 1931, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District had proposed permanent improvement of the Ballona Channel and included it in its county-wide flood control program. ¶ Subsequently, under the direction of Engineer C.H. Howell, a plan for La Ballona’s improvement was submitted to the federal government. ¶ Major Theodore Wyman Jr. sent his hundreds of workers to straighten and widen the crooked channel that since prehistoric times had been unable to hold the flood waters of rainy seasons that created lagoons and created vast swamp areas. ¶ They not only straightened, widened and deepened the meandering river, they put it in slope-sided, rock-lined strait-jacket. Also they built three bridges, with the aid of a federal grant of $800,000. ¶ The result has been increased flood protection to a wide area and the reclaiming of swamp land. In addition there has been created an estuary, formed by the flow of ocean tides, extending two miles inland from the channel mouth.[4]

Two laborers, Tony Rizzo, a 44-year-old father of six, and Barney Porres, 24, were killed by a mudslide in the channel in 1937. Two other men were injured. A coroner’s jury found that “lack of proper precautions” by flood-control management team were to blame.[59]

A contract was awarded in 1946 to extend the stone jetties an additional 550 feet (170 m) “to deflect ocean currents to prevent beach erosion.”[60]

The tributaries were channelized in the 1950s.[7] Centinela Creek’s course was set in parallel to the route of Interstate 405 and the then-forthcoming Marina Freeway. The channelization of the creek is part of the larger human reorganization of southern California hydrology, “some of the oldest and most extensive water redistribution projects in the United States.”[7]

When the Baldwin Hills Dam broke 1963, the Ballona Creek Channel carried the flood of water and debris safely to the sea.

1942 Ballona Creek
1942 Ballona Creek

Recreation

Multilingual sign warning of five species of contaminated fish in Ballona Creek
Multilingual sign warning of five species of contaminated fish in Ballona Creek

The Ballona Creek Bike Path, which extends almost 7 mi (11 km) from National Boulevard in Culver City to Marina Del Rey, is a popular fitness track.

More than 30 species of fish are present in the Ballona Del Rey harbor and Ballona estuary.[40] The Ballona Wetlands Land Trust offers a free, full-color, online booklet “A Guide to Fish Found in the Lower Ballona Creek and the Ballona Wetlands.”[61] The Los Angeles Department of Beaches and Harbors permits licensed fishing at the north and south jetties; licenses can be purchased at nearby shops (West Marine, Marina Del Rey Sportfishing or Del Rey Landing).[62][63] The Ballona Creek jetty is “a good spot for kelp bass, sand bass, and mackerel.”[64]

In 1950, an upstream reservoir was being drained by Los Angeles, and “Bass and blue gill, stocked in the reservoir, ran down storm drains and into Ballona Creek.” The Culver City Chamber of Commerce and Hughes Aircraft Rod & Gun Club erected a temporary dam to trap the fish and threw a fishing contest for local kids. (No adults allowed.)[65]

In popular culture

The Little Rascals of Hal Roach’s Our Gang used Ballona Creek as a filming location for shorts like “Fish Hooky” (1933).[66][67]

In the 1997 movie Volcano, Mike Roark (Tommy Lee Jones) destroys a 20-story apartment building in a controlled demolition in order to divert a flowing river of lava into Ballona Creek and thus into the Pacific Ocean.

Gallery

See also

References

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