HANDING IT BACK TO MOTHER NATURE
From: The Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Bureau
Handing It Back to Mother Nature
By Laura Mecoy
Sunday, August 21, 2005
The State's Biggest Wetlands Restoration at Long Last Begins
HUNTINGTON BEACH - Along this city's scenic shoreline, construction crews are driving piles, moving dirt and
clearing the way for Southern California's largest-ever wetlands restoration. On 600 acres of former
marshland, workers are trying to re-create what was taken from Mother Nature in 1899, when the Bolsa Chica
Hunting Club closed the land off from the sea to increase the number of ducks for its members.
The $125 million restoration project under way today is a milestone in a 35-year fight to save Bolsa Chica
Wetlands from development, and it is a harbinger of what's to come for such environmentally valuable lands
around the state. "It's rather amazing all of this is happening," said local activist and former California
Coastal Commissioner Mel Nutter. "When I first started dealing with Bolsa Chica, we were talking about a
marina and residential housing in the area that's being restored." Sam Schuchat, California Coastal
Conservancy executive officer, said the Bolsa Chica restoration is also a forerunner for the rest of the state's
wetlands. After decades of acquisition, most of the state's available wetlands are in public hands, and
officials are developing plans for restoring them, he said. "Bolsa Chica is a harbinger of what the next 10 to
15 years will look like" in wetlands restoration, he said.
But the celebrations over this turning point in the state's wetland recovery efforts are tempered by continued
concerns about housing construction on a mesa near Bolsa Chica and questions about whether engineers and
earth-moving equipment can re-create what was lost here and around the state. "We have destroyed so much
of our wetlands that we don't have that much more to lose," said Marcia Hanscom, Wetlands Action Network,
California leads the nation in the loss of wetlands, having paved over or plowed under nearly 90 percent of
these ecologically important habitats. The Central Valley, where wetlands once covered 4 million acres, now
has just 300,000 acres, according to the California Wetlands Information System. Past federal laws and
policies encouraged wetland destruction because these marshy areas were considered worthless swampland
and breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. Then scientists discovered how important wetlands
were to fish, wildlife and water quality, and laws were rewritten to protect them. In Huntington Beach in the
1970s, longtime resident David Carlberg said most of his neighbors considered Bolsa Chica "that smelly
swamp" and were eager to get rid of it. But when a developer unveiled plans to build 5,700 new homes,
several marinas and hundreds of acres of office buildings on the site, local residents organized "Amigos de
Bolsa Chica" to fight the development.
Thus began an epic battle that raged through the courts and local, state and federal government for some 25
years. "I call it the cycle of pain," said Jack M. Fancher, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Bolsa Chica project
manager. "They would propose development, and that would meet opposition about development in wetlands
regulated by the federal and state government. We did that three or four times." Along the way, some 300
acres along Pacific Coast Highway were restored, leaving an additional 1,000 acres over which to fight.
Fancher said the "cycle of pain" finally ended in 1997, when the developer agreed to sell most of the remaining
wetlands to the state. The state and federal government spent several more years planning the restoration.
Ground was broken on the project in October, and the current phase is supposed to be finished next July. An
additional 250 acres will have to wait for the oil reserves beneath it to be pumped dry before the land is
restored. Fancher said that could take 20 to 30 years.
For local residents and state officials who have devoted years of their lives to the Bolsa Chica battle, the
restoration is a miraculous event. "This is a 35-year success story," said Jim Trout, the State Lands
Commission's project coordinator. He began working on the project in 1970, when the state launched its
successful fight to hold on to 343 acres of tideland that were restored in 1978. He said the current restoration
is being paid for with $79 million that the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles paid in exchange for harbor
infill construction. An additional $30 million comes from voter-approved state bonds, and the rest of the $125
million price tag is being paid with interest from the ports' money and grants from other agencies.
Nearly 40 percent of the cost is tied to the construction of an inlet from the ocean to restore tidal flows to the
landlocked basin for the first time in a century. A bridge will be built over the inlet so traffic can continue to flow
along the Pacific Coast Highway. Work crews will also build three nesting islands for endangered and
threatened birds, and create a "muted tidal" area where mud flats will be exposed at low tide.
While activists are thrilled to see the construction under way, they're still upset about the Coastal Commission's
approval in April of the construction of 349 homes on 105 acres overlooking the wetlands restoration area.
Hanscom, the Wetlands Action Network's executive director, said construction will drive out coyotes and other
creatures that live on these uplands, eliminating natural predators that are an essential part of the ecosystem.
Schuchat, the conservancy's executive officer, said budget constraints limit the government's ability to
purchase all the surrounding wetland properties, despite officials' desire to create more "habitat mosaics with
more wildlife linkages." Hanscom also questioned the creation of an inlet that will require frequent dredging
to remove built-up sand, and she said no one is adequately assessing how best to protect endangered and
Fancher, who is overseeing the project for the federal government, emphatically defended it, saying state and
federal agencies considered a wide range of options before agreeing on the current restoration plan. "The
reason I am so confident is because we have been doing this for quite a while," he said. Eric Stein, chairman
of the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project's scientific advisory panel, also said it's impossible to
restore California wetlands to what they were before humankind intruded. Bolsa Chica, for instance, was
once part of thousands of acres of wetlands stretching along north Orange County's coasts. Today, it's just a
remnant of those wetlands, hemmed in by homes on three sides.
But Hanscom said public officials aren't seeking the best possible wetlands restoration. In particular, she said
the Coastal Conservancy, which oversees much of the restoration in the state, isn't fulfilling its watchdog role.
"It is a disturbing trend," she said. "The Coastal Conservancy ... is like the fox guarding the hen coop. They are
supposed to be regulating things, but they don't seek the highest level of protection." Schuchat said the
conservancy seeks input from other agencies, scientists and the public on all its restoration projects. "I readily
admit it's an imperfect world," he said. "But we are going to see significant, tangible change in these areas
where we are doing restoration. "We are going to see a lot more birds. Fishing is going to get better, and the
beaches will be cleaner. ... Ten to 15 years from now, these places will feel different and look different."
* * * * * *
About the writer:
The Bee's Laura Mecoy can be reached at (310) 546-5860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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