For years, Texas oil billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt had driven by the shallow, brackish waters of Carlsbad's Batiquitos Lagoon on his way to watch the thoroughbreds run at Del Mar.
Although it lacked the allure of a Texas oil well, the lagoon grew on Hunt. So when he learned in 1980 that a parcel of land on the northeastern shore of Batiquitos was for sale, Hunt jumped at the deal. Before long, planning was under way for the hotel, golf course and more than 5,400 residential units that will make up the Pacific Rim Country Club and Resort. Company officials hope to begin construction early next year.
Environmentalists shudder at the development proposals of men like Nelson Bunker Hunt. In the past, erosion from such projects has combined with coastal railroad and highway construction to wreak ecological havoc on the lagoons and hasten their geological demise.
The wetlands' natural mechanisms have been so thoroughly thrown out of balance by the bulldozer's blade that only restoration and careful management will guarantee their survival, biologists say. Restoration, however, is a new and delicate science, a procedure fraught with controversy over effective techniques and often hampered by disagreement over objectives.
Repairing and looking after a lagoon also costs money--millions more than the most dedicated nonprofit organization can raise. That's why Nelson Bunker Hunt--like a lot of other developers--believes he may be the best darn friend a lagoon could ever have.
"Batiquitos Lagoon is an important asset to our project and we're willing to do and spend just about anything for its benefit," said Hunt, best known for his reputed attempt to corner the world silver market along with his younger brother, W. Herbert Hunt. "We need that lagoon and we appreciate that lagoon. So we're ready to get the ball rolling and improve it in whatever way makes sense."
Donald Sammis, who owns and plans to develop 160 acres overlooking the western bays of Batiquitos, agrees: "What we have here is the potential for a healthy partnership between the public and private sectors. Unlike the government and these citizen groups, we developers have the ability and finances to act quickly and help the lagoon--something that will benefit the entire community."
Sounds promising. But there's a catch: Do the goals of landowners holding the purse strings match the biological needs of the lagoons? Or, is a lagoon that would enhance the marketability of a hotel or residential project necessarily a healthy lagoon?
"It's all got to do with people's motives," said Joan Jackson, a local Sierra Club leader and chairwoman of the Los Penasquitos Lagoon Foundation. "Unfortunately, many developers want their projects to surround pretty little ponds. Therefore, their objectives are aesthetic and may well conflict with what is best for the lagoons ecologically."
Batiquitos is a useful--and timely--example. A shallow-water lagoon that for decades has dried up each summer and filled the air with the ripe smells of decaying nutrients, Batiquitos is the target of several restoration plans and a myriad of management philosophies.
The Hunts own 325 acres of the 526-acre Batiquitos and insist that it have a respectable, visually pleasing water level year round. They want to tap a well to pump salt water into the lagoon's eastern basin--"play Mother Nature in the off-season," as one company official describes it.
Sammis shares the Hunts' goal--to prevent the lagoon from drying up and producing foul odors--but he argues that dredging Batiquitos and maintaining its mouth open to the sea hold the most promise. Sammis predicts an additional windfall from his plan: the mounds of material scooped from the lagoon bottom may be suitable for use on North County's eroding beaches.
The Leucadia County Water District, meanwhile, has proposed dumping treated sewage into the lagoon, and finally, at the urging of the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation, the City of Carlsbad has written a land-use and management plan for the controversial resource.
Some state officials and several bird enthusiasts are skeptical of nearly all the plans, worrying that dramatically altering existing conditions at Batiquitos may eliminate its relatively rare, shallow-water environment--a habitat cherished by a wide variety of shore birds.
"Batiquitos has been drying up seasonally for 100 years, and contrary to what some of these developers will tell you, it is not a dead lagoon," said Earl Lauppe, a veteran wildlife biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, which owns 135 acres of Batiquitos. "If we allow somebody to turn it into a lake, then we're forcing those birds that depend on it to go elsewhere. And there aren't many places left for them to go."