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Long-Awaited Work Set at Bolsa Chica

The $100-million wetlands restoration project is to begin this summer and end in 2007. PCH traffic will be rerouted for a time.

June 27, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Thirty years after the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach were first identified as a valuable resource that should be cleaned and restored, work will finally begin this summer to turn the dirty patchwork of land dotted with oil wells into a lush coastal estuary that connects with the ocean as it did more than 100 years ago.

The first step in the massive project, the second-most expensive wetlands restoration in state history, will be cleanup of the oil fields and removal of rigs, said Jack Fancher, a federal biologist overseeing the restoration.

Fancher, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, unveiled details of the project to the public at a meeting Wednesday in Huntington Beach's main library. Afterward, representatives of the eight state and federal agencies that make up the restoration steering committee answered questions from an overflow audience of residents and environmentalists from Amigos de Bolsa Chica, the Bolsa Chica Land Trust and Bolsa Chica Conservancy.

"If we don't restore the Bolsa, we will have little left on this coastline" in the way of tidal basins, Fancher said, adding, "reconnecting to the ocean tides is the only way to restore it to a full ecosystem."

According to the State Lands Commission, California has lost about 95% of its historical coastal wetlands.

The 1,200-acre Bolsa Chica wetlands have been the focus of a decades-long battle to prevent development of what was left after homes were built on nearly half the wetlands.

Much of the undeveloped area has been a working oil field since World War II and is pockmarked with rigs and wells. The ground is contaminated with oil, heavy metals, PCBs and mercury -- a legacy of decades of drilling.

After the California League of Women Voters wrote a report three decades ago urging the restoration, an effort was launched to acquire the wetlands. The 1,200 acres was purchased by the State Lands Commission in 1997, which cleared the way for planning the restoration.

The work this summer will concentrate on removing the old wells and rigs, Fancher said. Construction of the tidal basin will begin in the fall of 2004. The schedule calls for completion of the work in three years, he said.

At $100 million, the restoration trails only that of the salt ponds in south San Francisco Bay as the most costly in the state. The restoration project is being funded partly by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as part of a wetlands mitigation program.

One segment of the work calls for four lanes of traffic to be rerouted from Pacific Coast Highway near Seapoint Avenue for a short distance while a bridge that will span the inlet is constructed.

When the major work on the restoration is complete, the wetlands will be a thriving habitat for California least terns, Savannah sparrows, elegant terns and the endangered Western snowy plover, as well as birds that will use the wetlands as a stopover in their migration through the Pacific Flyway.

The plan calls for cutting a 360-foot-wide channel across PCH and five acres of beach that lie between the ocean and the wetlands, then building a bridge to reconnect the road this winter after the breeding season.

The wetlands will include 367 acres of a full tidal basin, three nesting areas, a seasonal pond and a flood channel.

Backhoes and bulldozers will excavate 2.7-million cubic yards of soil to form the inlet and a tidal basin. Dredged soil will be turned into levees and nesting islands. Some will replenish sand at Bolsa Chica State Beach and elsewhere.

Invasive ice plant will be replaced with cordgrass, underwater eelgrass beds, beach primrose, rare coastal woolly heads and other marsh flora. One of the last acts, which could happen in 2006, will be to remove a dam and restore tidal flows. The surge of seawater will carry in juvenile halibut, crabs, plus plankton and other microscopic creatures.

"Thirty years is a long time," said Shirley Dettloff, a former mayor and leader of Amigos de Bolsa Chica. "The Amigos always knew that acquiring the land wasn't going to be enough. It had to be restored and restored professionally."

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