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Coastal Wetlands In Orange County

April 23, 1988|Clipboard researched by Rick VanderKnyff / Los Angeles Times

Coastal wetlands include a number of natural communities that share the unique combination of aquatic, semi-aquatic and terrestrial habitats resulting from periodic inundation by tidal waters, rainfall or runoff.

Most of California's coastal wetlands--including Anaheim Bay, Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport Bay in Orange County--are estuarine salt marshes with associated tidal channels and mudflats, formed where freshwater streams meet the sea. Freshwater marshes, such as the San Joaquin Marsh in Irvine, are less

common along the coast. The San Joaquin Marsh is a remnant--along with Upper Newport Bay--of a vast wetlands that once stretched across the San Diego Creek watershed.

Wetlands provide habitat for a vast array of organisms, including many endangered species. During peak migration periods, hundreds of thousands of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway descend upon these coastal waters in search of refuge and food. Coastal wetlands also export nutrients and organic material to ocean waters, and harbor juveniles of many fish and

other aquatic species. Wetlands buffer the effects of storms, thereby reducing shoreline erosion, and improve water quality by filtering and assimilating many pollutants from sewage outfalls and agricultural runoff.

Coastal wetlands have suffered greatly from human disturbance. The California Nature Conservancy has estimated that statewide, 80% of coastal wetlands have been lost. Most have been filled, dredged or diked and converted to farms, pastures, harbors, cities and garbage dumps.

SEAL BEACH NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Location: Northeast of Pacific Coast Highway, Seal Beach

History: Anaheim Bay was once part of an extensive system of coastal marshes. Farmers began draining the bay's marshlands in the late 1880s; in 1944, the U.S. Navy acquired 5,000 acres of the bay for construction of the Naval Weapons Station. Oil drilling began in 1954. The 911-acre refuge was established in 1972 in reaction to a proposed freeway through the bay's remaining marshland.

Description: Although oil drilling continues, the Anaheim Bay marshland receives ample tidal circulation and supports a diverse salt marsh community. The marsh and adjacent mudflats provide foraging and resting grounds for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl. The endangered California least tern and light-footed clapper rail nest here, although their numbers have declined in recent years largely because of predation from non-native red foxes. Recovery efforts are under way.

Access: The refuge is located within the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station, and there is no public access. Information: (805) 725-2767.

BOLSA CHICA ECOLOGICAL RESERVE

Location: East of Pacific Coast Highway, south of Warner Avenue, Huntington Beach

History: Bolsa Chica, meaning "little pocket" in Spanish, was originally a 2,300-acre estuary before much of it was drained for farming in the 1890s. In 1899, sportsmen built a dam across outer Bolsa Bay to restrict tidal flow into the marsh, and constructed ponds and levees to facilitate duck hunting. When the outer bay's opening silted up, the hunters dug a channel into what is now Huntington Harbour. Oil was found at Bolsa Chica in 1920, and roads, drilling pads and pipelines have since been built throughout the lowland. In 1973, the state established the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve on 557.5 acres, including outer Bolsa Bay. Tidal flow was restored to 140 acres in 1978, and two nesting islands for endangered California least terns were built.

Description: Habitats within Bolsa Chica include open water, intertidal mudflats and a diverse salt marsh community of pickleweed, saltgrass, jaumea and marsh heather. Endangered Belding's savannah sparrows live in the pickleweed; herons, terns and endangered California brown pelicans fish for killifish, sculpin and arrow gobies on the open water while shorebirds forage on the mudflats. Above outer Bolsa Bay is a midden known as the Cogged Stone Site, which has yielded more than 400 carved, disc-shaped stones dated to about 2,500 B.C. Cogged stones, whose purpose is unknown, have been found in only two areas in the Western hemisphere: coastal Southern California and central Chile.

Access: A trail with interpretive signs begins at a parking area on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway between Warner Avenue and Golden West Street, across from the entrance to Bolsa Chica State Beach. A parking lot at Warner Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway provides access to outer Bolsa Bay. Free tours are offered monthly winter through spring by Amigos de Bolsa Chica. Information: (714) 897-7003.

Future: Development planned for Bolsa Chica includes a marina with ocean access, a residential community, parks and an additional 915 acres of restored wetland; local residents and environmental groups are fighting development of the wetlands.

UPPER NEWPORT BAY ECOLOGICAL RESERVE

Location: West of Back Bay Drive, Newport Beach

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