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Restored or ruined? Malibu Lagoon project stirs strong opinions

The $7-million project has been long in the making — two decades and counting. Whether it is or will be successful remains a matter of intense debate and conjecture.

April 29, 2013|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • A surfer makes his way down a groomed path around the newly restored Malibu Lagoon. The $7-million project has been long in the making — two decades and counting. Depending on whom you talk to, the lagoon has been restored — or ruined.
A surfer makes his way down a groomed path around the newly restored Malibu… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

Before the bulldozers arrived last June, Malibu Lagoon was a fully grown habitat for egrets, voles and tidewater gobies, studded with sycamore trees and clusters of tule reeds. Today, the lagoon's islands appear almost barren, covered by a sea of tiny red and blue plastic flags marking young plants just taking root.

Depending on whom you talk to, the lagoon has been restored — or ruined.

On Friday, bureaucrats, biologists and birders will descend on the state beach at the mouth of Malibu Creek for the ribbon cutting to mark what state officials are calling "the long and successful journey toward restoration."

The $7-million project has certainly been long in the making — two decades and counting. Whether it is or will be successful remains a matter of intense debate and conjecture.

Backers of the project said the lagoon was degraded and suffering from chronically low oxygen levels, tainted sediment and water quality so poor that the state began listing the site as "impaired" in 1992.

"You could absolutely not call this a healthy ecosystem in any way, shape or form," said Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation and the project manager.

Opponents contended that, far from being dead or dying, the lagoon was a functioning ecosystem, home to thousands of birds, fish, animals and plants. Why, they asked, did the lagoon have to be destroyed to be saved?

Malibu Lagoon has been through many incarnations, some created by floods and tides and others by human beings. Starting in the 1920s, workers building Pacific Coast Highway and other projects used the western portion of the lagoon as a dumpsite for dirt. In the 1960s, that same portion was home to two Little League ball fields.

In 1983, California State Parks made its first attempt at restoration, removing the fields and creating three tidal channels in the estuary. But the banks were steep and poorly constructed, and the narrow channels converged on one another, slowing the flow of water. Sediment built up, and decaying organic matter was not flushed out. The waterways became polluted and stagnant, and state officials advised that about 13 acres of the 32-acre lagoon area needed to be drained, dredged and rebuilt to meet basic water quality standards.

The plan sparked an unusual rift among environmentalists and surfers. The California Coastal Conservancy, Sierra Club, Santa Monica Baykeeper, the Malibu Surfing Assn., Surfrider Foundation and Heal the Bay lined up in favor. Some wetlands activists, veteran Malibu surfers and Audubon society chapters were opposed. The city of Malibu initially supported the project, but in April 2012, after activists raised questions, the City Council voted to oppose it.

Even proponents acknowledged that dredging and grading would initially take a toll on wildlife. Indeed, on a recent drizzly, overcast morning, coots, terns and pelicans were in evidence but not in nearly the numbers that had existed before. Some birds were paddling amid the roots of downed sycamores that project designers had placed in the water as "snags."

A project opponent bemoaned what she considered the adulteration and, potentially, ruination of what in her view had been a thriving coastal wetland. "This is not a restoration," said Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Wetlands Defense Fund, a nonprofit public benefit corporation. "It's a remodel."

She described concrete picnic tables and carved metal shade structures designed to make shadows look like kelp as "part of this concrete-and-steel, manufactured wetland theme park," Hanscom said. Although she attended many meetings about the restoration as part of a stakeholders task force, in the end, she said, she was surprised by the scope of the project and sued unsuccessfully to halt it.

One scientist said a private developer would have had a much tougher time getting permission to undertake such a "from scratch" project.

"The full level of critique was not given this project," said Travis Longcore, an associate professor of spatial sciences at USC who opposed the plan in a letter to the California Coastal Commission. Among other issues, he said, the state did not adequately study flood hazards and the effects of habitat removal on two sensitive species: the south coast marsh vole and a local subspecies of ornate shrew.

Project officials say that new interpretive features such as a pathway that gets submerged by tides were designed to help families and students learn about the lagoon's ecosystem. Refashioned viewing areas, they say, will provide better opportunities for bird-watching. The reconfigured channels and removal of unnatural fill, Abramson said, will allow for natural flushing of the ecosystem.

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