The Malibu Lagoon. (Photo courtesy Google Images.)
The Malibu Lagoon. (Photo courtesy Google Images)

MALIBU, Calif. — The Malibu Lagoon, where dredging became one of the most contentious wetlands disputes in Southern California, has reopened after a multimillion-dollar project that reshaped the brackish waterway and stripped the weedy shoreline.

A ribbon-cutting is scheduled on May 3 for the 13-acre lagoon, located on one of California’s most popular and scenic coastal stretches. It reopened to the public last month after nine months of reconstruction.

Fought by locals who loved the wild marshland scenery, the restoration reshaped and widened the lagoon. Old bridges were removed and replaced with walkways and public spaces, while many nonnative plants were pulled out and replaced by some 68,000 others, most native to the area and some collected from nearby wetlands.

On a recent day, thousands of little blue and red flags marked the locations of seedlings.

The lagoon is located where Malibu Creek meets the Pacific Ocean at famed Surfrider Beach. Now part of a state park, the wetlands were used as a dump by the state transportation department until the 1970s when it was converted into baseball fields.

An effort to restore the wetlands in 1983 dredged out the lagoon and created three channels but also resulted in stagnant water. With little oxygen in the water for fish, green scum and dead zones thrived in the channels, scientists said.

Major conservation groups, including Sierra Club and Audubon Society chapters, backed the restoration, but others sued to stop the project, contending it would destroy sensitive wildlife habitat. The battle lasted for years but the project finally broke ground last year.

In the kind of dichotomy that has attended other wetlands projects, supporters and opponents disagreed on whether the reconstruction means salvation or tragedy.

The lack of oxygen in the lagoon had caused crabs and worms to slowly die out, erasing a food source for birds, said Suzanne Goode, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

“It was not a very healthy ecosystem,” she said.

Since 1983, the number of native fish species in the lagoon dropped from around a dozen to five, she said.

“You never saw any wading birds poking around in the mud because there was nothing there” to eat, she said.

Marcia Hanscom, executive director of the Wetlands Defense Fund, countered that the lagoon was a thriving environment that was home to several endangered species, and the sediment buildup was a natural phenomenon.

The organization had sued to block the restoration project.

“I think that it was a tragedy that didn’t need to happen. I think that it was a government boondoggle,” Hanscom said.

The reconstruction replaced the triple channels with a single branching channel that is wider and deeper. Ten to 12 feet of sediment were removed along with the garbage it concealed, Goode said.

“We dug out huge old equipment tires, sewer pipes, big chunks of asphalt, big chunks of concrete and just trash and debris that had been buried there for decades underneath the mud and the channels,” she said.

The soil in the main work area was so sterile that only a single razor clam was found.

“There was not even so much as an insect or a worm or anything,” she said.

Since the change, wind circulation of the waters has improved, oxygen levels are up in the water and the mud, and barnacles were spotted this winter in the newly sandy bottom, Goode said.

While it is too early to tell for sure, bird and fish populations are holding steady and appear to be diverse, Goode said.

Surveys this year found at least 10 species of ducks, along with ospreys, gulls, snowy egrets, great blue herons and even a coot, Goode said.

However, the wholesale removal of vegetation destroyed acres of native plants used by nesting marsh birds and took away high marsh meadow, Hanscom said.

It could take as long as 30 years for the area to regain its health, she said.

Last spring, “rabbits and … weasels and all kinds of life were there and that’s just not there now. It will take a very long time for nature to recover,” Hanscom said.

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