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Wetlands: Lost and Found

In Attempts to Restore Important Saltwater Ecosystems Such as Bolsa Chica, Experts Look for Lessons on Both Sidses of Border

June 29, 1997|JANE SPILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you could step back 100 years to early California, rivers would flow freely into saltwater marshes like the ones that once ran from Newport Bay to where the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles lie today.

The wetland habitat of mud and sand and saltwater, fed by the ebbing and flowing of the tides, would be teeming with waterfowl.

On a spring morning in the bay of San Quintin in Baja California, you might think you had taken that step back in time.

A white blanket of mist covers everything, and the air is alive with the conversation of geese. As the fog lifts, silhouettes of thousands of geese emerge, grazing on the eelgrass beds that stretch across the wide, shallow bay.

Biologists from Alaska studying the geese head out in a small boat that skims over the rippling silver bay. As the swirling fog returns, they lose their way and watch different species of birds to learn where the deep channel runs--black brants are in the shallow water, grebes where the bottom drops off, surf scooters are in deeper water.

The rich habitat is the winter home of about 30,000 black brants, saltwater geese that arrive each fall after a spectacular flight 3,000 miles nonstop from Alaska.

The biologists will hunker down with spotting scopes to read bird bands as the geese gather on sandbars. They are mapping the life histories of the birds whose population is down about a third since the mid-'60s.

When the brants fly north in March and April, they stop to rest and feed, but they mostly skip Southern California--where their habitat has been transformed into ports, marinas, farmland and housing tracts.

The missing wetlands are missing steppingstones in the Pacific Flyway--one of the largest north-south migrations of waterfowl in the world.

The most ambitious attempt to date to put one of those missing steppingstones back into place is the restoration of 880 acres of wetlands at Bolsa Chica, once one of the largest oil-drilling fields in the state.

A number of small wetland restoration projects have been completed in Southern California in the last two decades, funded by a variety of sources. A major vehicle for large-scale restoration has now become port mitigation, which compensates for loss of resources associated with the expansion of ports.

So far, three projects have been paid for by the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles: 28 acres in Upper Newport Bay (one of three restoration projects there between 1983 and 1988); 110 acres in Anaheim Bay at the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge; and, in San Diego County, 360 acres at Batiquitos Lagoon.

The next port mitigation project--and by far the largest in acres and dollars--is Bolsa Chica.

In an agreement announced by the state in February, $91 million has been budgeted for the purchase and restoration of Bolsa Chica wetlands. Oil-field contamination will be cleaned up, with some wells remaining until they play out. The agreement calls for a new tidal inlet, and there will be substantial excavation and improved managed tidal areas. Money is also set aside for future dredging needed to maintain tidal flow.

The blueprints for reviving damaged Southern California wetlands are the unspoiled Baja wetlands. Both are part of the same biogeographical region of salt marshes and contain most of the same plants and animals.

"The Pacific Coast of Baja is a portrait of California's coastal marshes as they were before their wholesale damage and destruction," says Barbara Massey, 73, a biologist and pioneer in the study of endangered bird species--including the least tern and light-footed clapper rail. Massey has become a strong advocate for preservation and restoration of wetlands on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Ironically, even as the Baja wetlands are studied as models for restoration projects, they are facing the same kinds of development pressures that destroyed 75% to 90% of Southern California's coastal wetlands.

Joy Zedler, who heads the Pacific Estuarine Research Laboratory at San Diego State, is studying San Quintin and mapping the lagoon and vegetation.

"San Quintin tells us what the topography of wetlands should be like, how many little tidal creeks there should be and how we should design our Southern California marshes," says Zedler. "San Quintin is the model, what we're trying to produce here are mimics."

Zedler is putting some of what she's learned to use as a member of the Tijuana Estuary Management Authority, which is overseeing an experimental restoration project at the mouth of the Tijuana River on the U.S. side of the border.

In the project, a new curving tidal channel has been dug to increase productivity of a degraded area of marsh.

Great attention is being paid to saving the rich, dark anaerobic mud so it can be distributed over the newly exposed channel dug out of former uplands.

"Well-aged marsh has fine sediments, microbes and probably smells a little bit because it's got decaying organic matter and sulfides in it," says Zedler.

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