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Bolsa Chica and Mono Lake are evidence that environmental damage can be undone.

July 26, 2008

It sometimes appears that the Earth is so damaged by human activity that there is nothing we can do to repair it. When something as seemingly innocent as switching on the lights or starting the car helps push the global climate off-kilter, what hope is there for redemption?

Californians' apparently unquenchable thirst has dried up lakes and rivers. Owens Lake turned to dust; Mono Lake's level dropped so low that islands once safe for birds to breed on became a peninsula prowled by coyotes. The once-mighty Colorado River reaches the sea, when it does, as a rivulet. Northern California's delta system is close to collapse. Most of our natural coastal estuaries are gone.

It seems, often, that it's too late, that we should begin telling stories to our children and grandchildren of what used to be.

So it's refreshing -- and instructive -- to read about the rebirth of wetlands like those feared lost forever in Huntington Beach. In fact, the Bolsa Chica wetlands are back, as reported last Sunday by Times staff writer Susannah Rosenblatt. A fight over the beach property ended with a scaled-down development less than a tenth the size of the one originally planned. And a dried-out oil field is once again a tidal basin linked to the ocean.

Even wildlife biologists and environmentalists are surprised at the degree to which Bolsa Chica has recovered. It happened through a process of advocacy, conflict, negotiation, settlement, regulation and action. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach paid for much of the restoration as mitigation for expansion. Economic growth continues; the area is more livable for its human inhabitants as well.

About 300 or so miles to the north, Mono Lake too is inching toward recovery. As reported Thursday by Times staff writer Louis Sahagun, a 30-year process of activism, conflict, negotiation, settlement, regulation and action has begun raising the lake level and reviving tributaries. The breeding ground is again surrounded by water, safe from predators.

The visionaries who built Los Angeles and created that unquenchable thirst were not evil. Neither was William Mulholland, the genius who figured out how to tap the Eastern Sierra to supply a growing city. Nor were those who drained coastal wetlands for development before they understood the environmental havoc their actions would cause. But today, when we know the consequences -- and have amassed the understanding and the societal wealth to effect repairs -- it falls to us to act. When those actions succeed on the scale of a lake or a small stretch of coastline, it gives hope that they can succeed for the oceans and the atmosphere. It's an exhortation to Californians -- indeed, all human societies -- to rescue their environment from the brink, and a promise that, having done so, they can still live an abundant life in a healthy world.

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