Malibu Lagoon reopens to the public

The controversial State Parks project to restore and enhance the Malibu Lagoon finished up last Friday, when it was reopened to the public after nine months of construction. The official ribboncutting ceremony for the lagoon is planned for May 3.

The project was originally estimated to take four months, but ended up stretching over twice that. The latest two-month extension to March 15, issued by the California Coastal Commission, was due to winter storms.

Construction workers took the fencing down on Friday, and “the public has been in there,” Craig Sap, State Parks Los Angeles district superintendent, said in a phone interview. Sap said construction is completed except for a few finishing touches, and thatmost of the park is open, including the path to Surfrider Beach, the parking lot (except for a few closed-off areas), the viewing platforms and a day-use area along the access road adjacent to the Malibu Colony.

Most of the recently revegetated and reseeded areas are currently off limits to the public until the plants become established. Each plant is marked with a plastic flag, with thousands of flags dotting the muddy landscape. Most of the seedlings are just inches tall, planted about a foot apart with temporary above-ground sprinkler systems.

The water circulation in the newly contoured and reshaped lagoon is “working better than in anyone’s wildest dreams,” Sap said. “The circulation and the wind effects are going all the way to the back channels, we’re not getting any build-up of silt, and oxygen levels are normal.”

Others were not as enthusiastic. Wendi Werner, a local activist long opposed to the project, visited the park. Based on visual observation, Werner claims the lagoon is “not flowing correctly. You can already see sediment build-up. It looks murky and stagnant.” She also said State Parks owes the City of Malibu a hydrology study now that the project has altered the creek’s floodplain.

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Malibu City Manager Jim Thorsen acknowledged that the city had yet to receive a study on the effect of the project on the floodplain from State Parks.

Sap said that wildlife has been quick to re-establish itself in the new lagoon. “We’re seeing the fish coming in and starting to spawn, and waterbirds are hunting the fish,” Sap observed. “We’re also seeing the birds come out in wonderful numbers.” He said members of the Audubon Society visited recently and “were able to spot dozens of species within the first 30 minutes.”

The state’s lagoon restoration project involved draining 12 acres of wetland adjacent to the mouth of Malibu Creek, then scooping out tons of sediment. The banks were then recontoured and reshaped, and new native vegetation planted in an effort to correct a 1983 project that attempted to restore the wetland. The one-time natural estuary had been filled in with dirt during the construction of PCH decades ago, and was later used for baseball diamonds.

The lagoon restoration was highly controversial. Those in favor of the restoration relied on scientific studies indicating that the design used in the 1983 redo was poor, resulting in a lack of water circulation, oxygen depletion and sediment build-up that would not continue to sustain life.

The project was strongly opposed by the Wetlands Defense Fund and others, who contended the proposed dredging operations would destroy a functioning ecosystem.

“It’ll never be the wild and natural place it was before,” Werner said. “Now it looks like an urban park, full of concrete and steel. It’s going to take a long time for the plants to come back.”

Some surf groups initially opposed the project on the basis that the construction could change the surf break at Surfrider Beach. However, Skylar Peak, City Councilmember and surfer, said in a phone interview that it turned out the lagoon restoration did not affect the surf break. Peak said he had not heard anything negative from the surfing community.

Other items still to be completed include a shade structure for the bird viewing platform, which Sap said would be important for school groups and other tours to get out of the sun and have lunch.

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