The Lost Wetlands of Los Angeles

What did the L.A. Basin look like before there was a Los Angeles? A common misconception—one that resonates with genuine concerns about the city's aridity and reliance on imported water—is that the city's natural state is desert. But early accounts of the landscape painted a different picture, depicting a patchwork of grassy prairie, wetland, scrub, oak woodland, and dense willow thickets where freeways, office towers, and houses stand today.

Recently, a team of scientists, geographers, and other researchers released a report for the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project that reconstructs the historical landscape of the Ballona Creek watershed—a 130-square-mile swath of land home to more than 1.2 million people that includes much of western Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Inglewood, South Los Angeles, and the Baldwin Hills. Piecing together clues gleaned from survey reports, photographs, maps, and other archival documents, the researchers created a detailed map of the region's historical ecology, identifying lost habitats and the flora and fauna that once lived there.

What the researchers found might surprise most Angelenos: the watershed was home to more than 14,000 acres of wetlands, ranging from freshwater ponds to alkali flats, from willow thickets to meadows, and home to a diversity of migratory and residents birds. Elsewhere, seasonal streams coursed through the Ballona Valley, fed by springs in the Hollywood Hills and in the flatter lands below. Two perennial streams, Ballona and Centinela Creeks, flowed toward the Santa Monica Bay.

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