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State May Buy Wetlands at McGrath Beach

Nature: Acquisition would add 221 acres to park, increasing its size by two-thirds and protecting habitat of endangered waterfowl.


OXNARD — A state agency is negotiating the purchase of 221 acres of rare coastal dunes and wetlands near McGrath State Beach, an acquisition that would increase the size of the park by two-thirds and help protect an array of threatened or endangered species.

Already considered one of the best bird-watching areas in California, the 312-acre McGrath park would expand to include land on three sides of McGrath Lake, a freshwater basin frequented by migrating ducks and endangered waterfowl such as the California least tern and the western snowy plover.

The purchase would also set the stage for a cleanup of McGrath Lake, designated a "toxic hot spot" by state water quality experts, who say concentrations of the now-banned pesticides DDT and chlordane are higher there than anywhere else along the California coast.

State officials say the purchase of the McGrath Lake area and its cleanup, if approved over the next 12 to 18 months, could stand as a model for how to restore a polluted coastal lake, while helping to save the state's diminishing stock of wetlands and sand dunes.

"I think it's a wonderful demonstration project," said Steve Treanor, division chief for the state parks department in Southern California. "I've been so encouraged by the response of the property owners who say they want to find a solution here."

Still, more study must be done to fully analyze pollution in the area and come up with a plan to staunch the flow of farmland irrigation waters that now run into the lake, Treanor said.

Acquisition of three parcels--including an active oil field that spilled 84,000 gallons of crude petroleum into McGrath Lake in 1993--is listed as a high priority for this year by the California Coastal Conservancy's wetlands recovery project.

"We've done the appraisals and we're in discussions with the property owners," said Peter Brand, the conservancy's point man in Ventura County. "It seems like an obvious consolidation of the state beach into public hands rather than being interrupted by private holdings."

The conservancy's hope is to combine the existing state park, which includes two miles of beach south of the Santa Clara River mouth, with the adjoining McGrath Lake area and a nearby set of rare inland sand dunes, Brand said. Most of the lake is already part of the park.

Under a previous agreement, the conservancy is buying 30 acres of sand dunes around the Mandalay power plant at the south end of the state beach. Now it hopes to buy the 90 acres around the lake and 131 acres of dunes and farmland across Harbor Boulevard from the power plant.

"Some of these dunes are rare, even more rare than coastal wetlands, and we've lost 95% of those," Treanor said. The Ventura marsh milkvetch, once thought to be extinct, and the silvery legless lizard have been found on a parcel adjacent to the dunes.

Another 150 oceanfront acres, owned by the state but managed by Ventura County, just south of the power plant might also one day become part of a larger state park, Brand said.

"These parcels are all part of a bigger picture that seems to be fitting together," he said.

But there is no deal so far, he said. There is not yet enough money--the conservancy uses a price estimate of $3 million for the 221 acres owned by several branches of the pioneer McGrath family. That estimate is only a working number, he said.

"We've still got some tough negotiating to do," Brand said.

Property owners have not agreed to sell all three parcels, he said, and the state Department of Parks and Recreation has not yet agreed to manage the larger park.

Among the prickly issues is the landowners' role in the cleanup of pesticides, which apparently drained off nearby farmland, Treanor said. Also, the state would not want to be legally liable in the future if flooding resulting from a new drainage system damaged crops.

About $1 million for the purchase could come from the coastal conservancy's wetlands restoration fund, state documents say. And Treanor said that a $1.3-million restoration fund set up after the massive Christmas 1993 oil spill might be used to cleanse the lake and to create a new basin where toxic irrigation overflows could collect.

Treanor said the lake's problem is not related to the 1993 oil spill, and that a costly cleanup by leaseholder Berry Petroleum was very effective. Even if the state buys the oil field, Berry would continue to pump petroleum there for at least a decade, Treanor said.

Dave O. White, whose Somis brokerage firm represents the McGrath families, said negotiations to sell their properties are progressing.

"They first looked at this in 1997, but it has been in the last six months that they had funding to do their [property] appraisals," he said. "Before that it was talks and dreams. Now they're negotiating whether it's a good appraisal and the conditions of the transfer. A price has not been established."

Separately, White is also involved with Brand in establishing the recently announced Santa Clara River Parkway, which would take a 12-mile stretch from the mouth of the river to the mountains out of private hands and restore it as a wildlife and nature preserve. On the banks of the river would be hiking paths.

"What has really hit me about all this," White said, "is that we could have a 12-mile nature trail all the way down to the ocean, with a freshwater lake and all those dunes. It's quite an ecosystem."

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