Tale of the Alkali Rye

Close-up of Alkali Rye by Jonathan Coffin, first-used by First Nation People for food
Blue-green Alkali Rye grasses are lush this summer as they spread through Ballona Creek’s estuary. Sweeping fresh color over damaged wetlands, they restore splendor to a landscape brought back to life by a community’s love.

The Alkali Rye is my favorite grass and its beauty seems even greater when I recall how – just five years ago -- Westside Global Awareness School children helped bring it back.


In 1939 severe rains caused the Los Angeles River to overrun its boundaries, killing many people and sweeping away farms, homes, and livestock.  To prevent this from happening again officials decided to control the Los Angeles River, which also had provided the main source of freshwater to "Las Cienegas," the West Side marshes that had formed where the L.A. River merged with three other streams.

To prevent additional potentially dangerous flooding, the Army Corps of Engineers channelized the river, diverting water from all the creeks and tributaries on the East Side of Chavez Ravine toward San Pedro.

The streams between Dodger Stadium and UCLA (including waters draining from Chavez Ravine's western flanks) became Ballona Creek, which still fed into Santa Monica Bay.  Ballona Creek also was channelized to minimize flood damage.

Since then, elbows and marshlands remained moist. But, without the river passing through, they were fed mostly by seasonal rains. Unfortunately, as the city grew up around Ballona Creek, its freshwater flows became polluted by millions of urban dwellers.

Other human-generated insults have caused Ballona's native wildlife to disappear or to be weakened and diminished.

And yet, despite so much disruption, a diverse coastal habitat still manages to survive.   Ballona Institute has been working to re-establish and strengthen some of the species that once were much more abundant. Ironically, the earthen levees that once channelized Ballona Creek now offer one such opportunity.

During the environmentally conscious first decade of this millennium, area residents wanted their neighborhood's native plants and animals to flourish.  Botanists identified historic plants unique to Ballona’s estuary.  But the Alkali Rye was nearly missed.

It was discovered as developers prepared to widen Culver Blvd. and a neglected patch of it was seen on a site known as “Area C” east of Lincoln Boulevard. As part of a legal settlement, a rescue operation began.  Finally, in 2004, everyone commemorated the transfer of about 70 acres of land east of Lincoln Blvd. from the Controller’s office to the Dept. of Fish & Game.

State Controller Steve Westly, then-State Assemblymember George Nakano and former Resources Secretary Mary Nichols planted this long-forgotten grass in a ceremony commemorating the deed being transferred after a lengthy, successful, citizen-led "Free Area C" campaign.

Alkali Rye, this beautiful blue-green grass, was also one of the first species to be planted on the earthen levee of Ballona Creek.  A restoration of true community engagement, the creek-edge project included planting native plants indigenous to the area to the specific geography of what was once part of the historical Ballona Lagoon.  

Botanists identified the correct plants, permits were granted, and on an early spring morning five years ago – in April, 2005 – the Westside’s Global Awareness children arrived by bus and stepped out ready to work. In honor of Earth Day and alongside L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe, students lovingly placed those plants in the ground. (These days, Westside Global Awareness School -- formerly known as the Westside Leadership School – is emphasizing environmental protection in its core curriculum. ) 

Today Alkali Rye, also called “Creeping Wild Rye,” is indeed "creeping" along the levee, which is a sign of a successful restoration.   This entire area is a main attraction for wild birds from all over the Northern and Southern American continents.   Audubon California refers to the entire Ballona Valley as an “Important Bird Area.” 

Located along the Pacific Flyway, Ballona Valley’s Alkali Rye is but one species that provides seeds for birds and homes for countless animals that have become part of the wild birds’ circle of life. Birds stop in from remote areas such as the Arctic, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Washington, Canada looking for fish, crabs, shrimp or insects. Or from Guatemala and Mexico, also in search of fish, or maybe fruits and seeds.

Some like the climate, shelter and food well enough that they set up house and nest, ensuring their species will survive for at least one more generation. Some stay year-round. Others, fly in from the south as spring and summer guests only.

While northerners come for the winter.    And some just visit Ballona as a rest-stop on their migrations along the Pacific Flyway.

Now my favorite grass is moving closer to the water’s edge, and jumping the fence, away from the children’s Ballona Butterfly Sanctuary, a breeding ground that hundreds of volunteers helped protect from dogs and people who accidentally trample, unaware how important plants are to the area’s overall ecology. 

The first community repairs to the butterfly sanctuary occurred on Martin Luther King Day, one day before Barack Obama was first inaugurated as President of the United States.   Other work days have involved children from Santa Monica’s PS#1 school and adults and children from Agape International Spiritual Center’s Earth Spirit service group, who came to repair fences and remove weeds and trash.
While most butterfly-loving plants like the Sea Lite and Seaside Heliotrope have been growing slowly and comfortably within the sanctuary, the Alkali Rye has taken off.  
The knee-high Alkali Rye not only is moving north to the creek, but also moving eastward, along the southern bank of the Ballona Creek estuary, sprouting up between the rocks that fortify the earthen levee. 
These signs of life are encouraging — for us, and also for nature in our urban midst.  

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Note: One species now flourishing in Ballona is the Tree Swallow, a graceful bird with fluorescent metallic indigo feathers.
The Tree Swallows found sky-blue nest boxes set out on posts or suspended from trees by volunteers who had originally intended them for the Western Bluebirds - which are about the same size as a Tree Swallow. Nest box hole sizes were designed to replicate Woodpecker holes bored into the soft wood of millions of Willows once growing along Los Angeles creeks. The Tree Swallows found them perfect, as well.
Observers can see the Tree Swallows there today. When chicks are inside, their parents are close by, guarding the nest box and flying in with food.