A contested plan to restore pollution-choked Malibu Lagoon by reshaping it with bulldozers won't be getting underway as scheduled on Wednesday after a major setback in court.
San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith issued a stay last week delaying the state Department of Parks and Recreation project until a lawsuit challenging it can be heard. He said the harm that would result from the plan going forward was "severe."
Most environmental groups back the restoration and contend that the stagnant wetland at the outlet of Malibu Creek is ecologically sick and must be drained, dredged and recontoured to meet basic quality standards. But the judge's order means that the $7-million restoration plan will be at a standstill until at least the summer of 2012.
"The project would damage various types and species of flora and fauna, several of which are endangered," Goldsmith wrote in the order. "Birds in the area, some of which are endangered, would be deprived of food sources found in the lagoon. Petitioners have shown to the satisfaction of the Court that many species and their habitat would not recover."
Crews were scheduled to begin draining a 12-acre section of the lagoon on Wednesday, scooping out polluted sediment and replacing nonnative vegetation in an effort to improve water circulation and biodiversity. Workers also would have removed a pathway blamed for choking the flow of water in and out of the lagoon.
The Wetlands Defense Fund, Access for All and the Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network sued the state Coastal Commission to block the project on the grounds that it is too damaging to existing habitat, including aquatic vegetation and fish, and would remove a pathway to popular Surfrider Beach.
State officials were disappointed by the unexpected ruling.
"This is a project that has widespread support from environmentalists and scientists and government agencies," said Suzanne Goode, a senior environmental scientist for California State Parks. "We really had hoped we could get started this year."
Most environmental groups, including Santa Monica Baykeeper and Heal the Bay, stand behind the restoration plan, saying it would go a long way toward fixing the lagoon's degraded water and poor ecological health.
The Coastal Commission unanimously approved the project, which has been more than a decade in the making, in October.
Since then, a battle over the restoration plan has erupted, dividing surfers, Malibu residents and some environmentalists. Opponents have rallied at City Hall chambers and in roadside protests, asserting that the project would destroy habitat and hurt wave action at Surfrider Beach, one of the world's most famous surf spots.
The Surfrider Foundation, which supports the restoration, commissioned a coastal engineering firm to review that claim. The firm concluded that it is unlikely the project will have an adverse effect on surfing.
Opponents hope the delay will result in a scaled-back project. Legal proceedings are taking place in San Francisco because that's where the Coastal Commission is headquartered.
"We can now look towards a less extreme, non-invasive and balanced solution to the habitat, water quality and public access challenges at Malibu Lagoon," said Marcia Hanscom, who heads two of the groups that filed suit. "I'm so pleased that the bulldozers will be taking a break this summer."