Malibu Lagoon restoration project underway

Phase I of the project, which includes a redesigned parking lot to capture, treat and infiltrate almost 4 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, is expected to be completed next month.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Phase I of the Malibu Lagoon Habitat Enhancement project, a project planned by Heal the Bay and the California Department of Parks and Recreation through a California State Coastal Conservancy grant, is almost complete, with Phase II expected to be finished sometime next year. The City of Malibu Planning Commission approved the project last summer for a Coastal Development Permit.

“Our plan is to get rid of nonnative plantings and stagnant ‘dead zones’ in the lagoon and create a greater natural balance through native species and better tidal flushing,” Heal the Bay Executive Director Mark Gold said. “We’re in Phase 1 of a two-phase project. As soon as the environmental review is complete, we can start on the physical restoration of the lagoon. Probably by 2009.”

Malibu Lagoon empties into the ocean at Surfrider Beach, recreational home to about 1.5 million residents and visitors every year. Currently, the lagoon is a shallow embayment marked with brackish standing water, fed by urbanized creek flow from the Santa Monica Mountains.

Winter rains frequently breach the lagoon embankments, spilling fertilizer nutrients and other pollutants into the bay, contributing to Surfrider’s consistent listing as one of the most polluted beaches in California, according to Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card.

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During the 1950s and ’60s, Malibu Lagoon, situated where the Malibu Creek watershed flows into the Pacific, was used as a dumpsite for fill material by Caltrans. By the late ’70s, the area was so full that baseball fields were constructed steps from the beach. (The fields have since been moved to Bluffs Park.)

“I played there myself when I was a kid,” said. “But when you think of local beaches now, restoration of the lagoon is critical from the standpoint of enhancing animal habitat as well as improving water quality.”

The first step in the restoration process is a redesigned parking lot, now set to slope storm water away from the lagoon to drain toward Pacific Coast Highway, with permeable pavement and vegetated swales (open channels) designed to filter and “percolate” runoff with levels of crushed shale. When completed, the parking lot will be able to capture, treat and infiltrate almost 4 inches of rain in a 24-hour period.

Water circulation will be promoted by reconfiguring the west side of the lagoon to promote maximum tidal circulation and, eventually, the east side will be re-graded to restore salt marsh hydrology and create nesting islands for the endangered least terns and snowy plovers, the small sea birds that chase retreating waves on quick feet to capture exposed crustaceans.

Mark Abramson, the Watershed Program director with Santa Monica Baykeeper, is gratified to see the project come to fruition.

“I’ve been with this for 10 years now,” he said. “Phase one gets us off the ground and eventually, surrounding lands will be donated to keep the lagoon area free from development. In the future, I can see the whole project hooking up with Legacy Park as part of this wetlands restoration.”

Abramson said Phase I is complete with the opening of the newly designed parking lot set for next month.

“We’ve reduced the parking lot footprint by almost an acre,” he said. “And we’re building a special overlook area at the edge of the parking lot that can be used for science classes studying fish and birds.”

Heal the Bay played an administrative role in the planning of the project and once it was approved the state contracted the Resources Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains to get it through the permitting and planning process. The grant of about $1 million to complete Phase I was realized by California State Water Resources Quality Control Board.

Abramson is enthusiastic about the entire project design, saying, “It shows you what can be done with a little bit of creativity. This plan works, it’s cost-effective and we protect this vital habitat.”

According to Heal the Bay, California has lost approximately 95 percent of its wetlands ecosystem. Healthy wetland systems, or riparian zones, are generally acknowledged by scientists to be extraordinarily important to coastal ecosystem survival.

“We might not be able to fully define the importance of every single organism within an ecosystem like wetlands or rainforests,” Cathleen Garcia, advocate for the environmental education institute Earthwatch, said. “But once you start to lose the diversity of such a system, once you lose just one of those organisms, the rest of the system will follow like dominoes falling.”

Gold said improved conditions along the Malibu Creek watershed should ameliorate fresh water flowing into the bay.

“Tapia is not discharging into the creek from April to October anymore and there won’t be any further development in Ahmanson Ranch, since it’s now designated open space,” he said. “Legacy Park should help with water treatment eventually, but Malibu Creek is a complex chess game. It will be a long time before the watershed is fully protected.”

Abramson touted another feature of the project: “Surfers will be happy. We’ve added a shower in the parking lot. The water will be caught by the bioswales and used to water plantings in the summer.”

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