Bulldozers moved into the Malibu Lagoon Wednesday morning and began moving earth, tearing out trees and building a dike to separate the lagoon’s western channels from Malibu Creek. City of Malibu officials and others said they were surprised the bulldozers began so soon, as officials from California State Parks, the sponsor of the project, had originally indicated the use of bulldozers was weeks away. But State Parks officials now say those plans changed when the lagoon berm breached over the night on Saturday, June 9.
As of Friday, June 8, water levels in the lagoon were high because the berm separating the lagoon from the ocean was closed. Under its project plan, State Parks had one alternative for how to proceed if the berm was closed and if it was open, said Craig Sap, Angeles district superintendent for State Parks.
“We were going on a closed berm scenario,” Sap said.
The agency was also at the time still awaiting clarification from the California Coastal Commission on what construction it could and could not do, said Sap. As of June 8, Sap said State Parks officials thought they needed approval from the California Coastal Commission on a de-watering permit to begin construction in the lagoon.
But over the night on Saturday, June 9, the berm breached, emptying most of the water in the lagoon, much of it highly infected, into the ocean. And on Monday, Sap said State Parks received clarification from the Coastal Commission that the removal of vegetation and the construction of fences to cordon fish and wildlife into the lagoon was permitted. The suddenly reduced water level also offered a chance to trap and remove Tidewater Gobies, an endangered species of fish present in the lagoon. De-watering of the lagoon cannot begin until all the Tidewater Gobies in the lagoon are gone.
“The breach on Sunday morning gave us the opportunity to get in there immediately. We were scrambling to get people on Monday,” Sap said. “We were calling in seasonal lifeguards, anybody, to help us put those sandbags in place to start that process.”
Fences and sandbags began to be moved in on Monday and Tuesday. On Tuesday morning, Sap called Malibu City Manager Jim Thorsen and notified him that work would be beginning, although Thorsen says Sap “wasn’t sure what the order of work [would be].”
Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal returned Wednesday morning from speaking against the project at the Coastal Commission’s meeting in Huntington Beach to find the bulldozers at work.
“It was a surprise. We were all surprised,” Rosenthal said. “I looked at it from the vantage point of the Adamson house, and it’s right there.”
Although the water level in the lagoon has been drastically reduced after the breach, de-watering is still yet to be done. Thorsen said the city has not received any report from State Parks on the de-watering plans.
Approximately 100 opponents of the restoration project, which will use bulldozers to dredge and reshape the lagoon with the goal of improving water flow and water quality, showed up to the Malibu City Council’s regular meeting Monday night. Many expressed outrage that the berm had been breached, which admittedly aided State Parks’ plan to go ahead with the project.
“It would have been more difficult for the bulldozers to get in there obviously, with the water level as it was,” Sap said.
But Sap denied that anyone at State Parks was involved in artificially breaching the lagoon as a way of helping the project forward.
“No. No. It was a complete surprise,” Sap said. “…What you should know, it’s against state law. I mean, no one at State Parks, knowingly, even by proxy, would have somebody do that. Careers can be ruined by such things. The amount of scrutiny on this thing, there’s people watching it. You can see all these [protesters] taking shifts, watching it at night. So if somebody did do it it’s surprising that no one saw them.
Sap said State Parks rangers did an investigation into the breach on Monday, looking for footprints or tire tracks in the sand around the breach, but were unable to find anything.
Lagoon project protester Marcia Hanscom speculated at the Monday night City Council meeting that the Tapia treatment plant upstream from the lagoon had discharged and punctured the berm.
Thorsen said the City of Malibu called the treatment plant and was told no discharges had been done in the last 60 days.
Photo by Julie Ellerton