Tomorrow marks a milestone day for environmental rehabilitation in Malibu, Surfrider Beach and Santa Monica Bay. The much-needed restoration of oxygen-starved Malibu Lagoon faces one more regulatory obstacle Wednesday — California Coastal Commission approval. Because the project has gone through an extensive public involvement and CEQA process, including a legally unchallenged EIR approved in 2006, one would have hoped that the effort to remove polluted sediments and rebuild the lagoon would remain free of controversy.
The plan remains one of the five highest priorities in the Bay Restoration Plan assembled by the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. The Malibu Lagoon restoration effort, which has been led by Heal the Bay scientists under the auspices of State Parks and the Coastal Conservancy, took more than two years to develop.
Some of the foremost wetland scientists in California participated in assembling the plan, including UCLA’s Rich Ambrose, Humboldt State’s Bob Gearhart, UCSB’s Andy Brooks, L.A. County Natural History Museum’s Kimball Garrett, USF’s John Callaway and the Southern California Coastal Waters Research Project’s Marth Sutula.
But welcome to Malibu, where every issue is destined for controversy.
In this case, a small group of wetland activists and Malibu Colony residents are trying to upend the years-in-the-making project. They argue that the heavy machinery needed to re-contour the lagoon and create much-needed circulation will create more harm than good.
Judging from the NIMBY rhetoric in Malibu newspapers and the phone calls and e-mails I’ve received, restoring a highly degraded wetland is even more contentious than the highly charged debate over banning septic systems in parts of Malibu. And the surprising focus of many of the concerns is water quality, even though one of priorities for the wetland restoration is to improve water quality.
The lagoon is in a sad state. The average dissolved oxygen has been about 3 milligrams per liter for the last three years. For perspective, a healthy coastal lagoon should have dissolved oxygen levels in the 8 mg/l range and consistent levels below 5 mg/l violate water quality standards and make it extremely challenging for aquatic life to survive.
Ecological work completed by Professor Ambrose and others has shown that the lagoon has very low biodiversity for fish and benthic invertebrates. Also, the nutrient and fecal bacteria levels are through the roof. Indeed, the lagoon has been designated a state-listed impaired water with a Total Maximum Daily Load for nutrients and bacteria. The lagoon has extremely poor water circulation and high nutrient inputs and the end result is a eutrophied, near-stagnant body of water.
The restoration project is the baby of Mark Abramson, a former Heal the Bay, S.M. Baykeeper and current S.M. Bay Restoration Commission restoration specialist. Perhaps Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist Ken Weiss described Abramson best: “Nothing seems to intimidate this espresso-guzzling, Marlboro-smoking, Altoid-popping eco-cop in cargo shorts. Not the poison oak or stinging nettles that block his path to the creek. Not slogging through tainted water.”
Abramson grew up in the Malibu Creek watershed and this restoration marks the culmination of his life’s work. For Mark, the Malibu Creek watershed and Malibu Lagoon must be restored, nurtured and protected. Trust me, he will not stop until the lagoon returns to normal function, Rindge Dam is removed and the southern steelhead trout swims to Cold Creek and Malibu Creek State Park.
To somehow think that State Parks, the Coastal Conservancy, S.M. Bay Restoration Commission and Heal the Bay would lead a supposedly environmentally devastating project is nonsensical. What would be the motivation? To think Abramson would do such a thing is just downright offensive.
When State Parks took out the Malibu Little League baseball fields on the Malibu Lagoon site in 1983, they didn’t do a very good job of wetland creation. Poor water quality, silted in channels and limited biodiversity soon followed.
The Malibu Lagoon restoration project is adaptive management, improving lagoon function through modifications to enhance circulation and reduce sedimentation. There will be some short-term pain for the wetland as heavy machinery is used for dredge and fill. But there will be long-term water quality and ecological gain.
Project opponents note there will be massive grading in the lagoon. And it will happen; it’s much needed. The often stagnant, algal mat-covered lagoon needs improved water circulation. Eliminating dead-end channels and widening and deepening the main wetland channel are essential to improve water circulation.
Try to find a large scale, coastal wetland project in Southern California that didn’t require the use of heavy machinery. Bolsa Chica, Carpinteria and numerous other successful wetland restorations in San Diego County all successfully used heavy machinery.
If there had been a way to restore the lagoon by hand during the four-to-five month summer window for work, Abramson and the wetland scientists would have provided recommendations. Remember, Abramson is the same guy that led the immensely successful Texas Crossing (concrete road bridge) removal in Malibu Creek State Park without the use of heavy equipment — except for one day to remove substanial culverts.
Some opponents have brought up concerns about the fish in the lagoon. Heal the Bay, State Parks and the S.M. Mountains Resource Conservation District reintroduced the endangered tidewater gobies to the lagoon in the early 1990s.
Heal the Bay has led numerous restoration efforts to enhance steelhead habitat and we’ve participated in ongoing steelhead habitat assessments, including snorkel surveys. Does that sound like folks that would put endangered species in jeopardy? Of course not.
And more important, the state and federal wildlife resource agencies have approved the necessary permits for the restoration project. So they must be reasonably satisfied that critical biological resources will be protected.
Perhaps the most hurtful accusation by restoration project opponents is that the plan would condone the supposed dumping of toxic herbicides and pesticides in the lagoon. No toxics are being applied. The Bay Commission and Heal the Bay would never let it happen. Never. Ever.
Now the fate of Malibu Lagoon is up to the Coastal Commission. Will the panel allow the status quo of ongoing degradation and ecological impairment to continue? Or will members give the lagoon a chance by approving a restoration project that will enhance life-sustaining oxygen in its brackish waters, improve water circulation, and reduce the smothering of invertebrate dense wetland channels with nutrient laden sediments?
For the sake of the Malibu Creek watershed, the lagoon, Surfrider Beach and the Bay, the time for restoration is long overdue.