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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

A Big Step for Bolsa Chica

November 25, 2001

The approval by the Coastal Commission of a tidal channel to restore the Bolsa Chica wetlands to a natural state is a significant step in the long-running battle over the future of one of the coastal region's most important undeveloped areas.

For decades, this area has been battled over, first with huge development proposals. Gradually, the size of planned housing has been cut back. The latest step involves a $100-million plan to restore the wetlands to a way they were before being cut off by duck hunters who filled an inlet many years ago.

The future of the mesa where housing is planned is still being worked out, but everything at Bolsa Chica moves in small steps. The recent acceptance of the wetlands plan by the commission means the restoration is consistent with the state's Coastal Act. It is the fulfillment of a big part of the original drive to preserve and restore the site.

The future of the wetlands has been a key component in the overall development debate, and a big breakthrough came four years ago when the state bought 800 acres.

This wetlands complex serves as a stopover for migratory birds. The area will benefit by allowing ocean water to come through a 360-foot-wide channel near the Huntington Beach bluffs. It is hard to argue with the merits of transforming 1,200 acres of polluted salt marshes, mudflats, pools and oil rigs into a revived ecosystem.

Now we are coming down to the actual restoration plan, and how it will affect the environment and the lives of those who work and play near the water's edge. The idea of a channel has garnered considerable community support, and a natural tidal flow seems an inevitable component of restoration. Not everybody is happy, a sign of how many interested parties the Bolsa Chica site has attracted through years of controversy. Almost everyone with any interest in the waterfront has come to feel that he has a vested interest.

There would be an inlet cut through the beach, and a traffic bridge. Surfers are worried that the channel restoration will add to pollution at local beaches by increasing harmful runoff.

Unfortunately, nature won't always cooperate, even with those who love it most.

The question is whether this potential pollution from the tidal flow can be minimized. The state was concerned about this very question, and was satisfied from a tidal flow chart for a lagoon restoration near Carlsbad that a potential pollution problem at Bolsa Chica likewise could be minimized.

This water should be observed anyway and a way sought to purify the water or improve circulation as needed. The commission was wise to put in a requirement that the water quality be monitored.

There was good news recently when Caltrans gave up on a demand for a six-lane bridge over the new waterway as a condition for moving ahead with the project. The agency agreed to a four-lane bridge to keep the project on schedule. The bridge had been a point of contention, and it is good to have the problem resolved.

When you consider what could have happened at Bolsa Chica, these remaining environmental issues seem manageable. There could actually have been development in the wetlands area. While controversy continues to rage over what will go on the mesa, it is important to remember that the scale of the current development there is much smaller than before.

Keeping an eye on water quality at the wetlands will be crucial. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other state and federal agencies have done a credible job over five years. This sets the stage for more positive results.

A successful restoration will stand as a major accomplishment for a host of diverse parties at one of the most controversial waterfront areas in the county. Every effort should be made to ensure that the water quality issues are sufficiently addressed in the future.

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