Efforts to stop lagoon makeover heat up

Activists, who were once part of the lagoon restoration task force, say that planned construction will be environmentally devastating. State Parks says that if it’s not done, worse problems could happen.

By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times

Local activists, united under the umbrella of Wetlands Defense Fund (WDF), have stepped up their efforts to curtail a restoration plan at Malibu Lagoon, which they believe will be environmentally devastating to area wildlife and a major nuisance to businesses, residents, surfers and tourists.

The grassroots group is attempting to build awareness for their cause with a new Web site, an upcoming rally and information booths at the local farmers’ market in an effort to amplify their outrage to the California Coastal Commission, which approved the lagoon restoration plan.

Last Wednesday, the WDF, spearheaded by Marcia Hanscom, Susan Tellem and Ann Salisbury Doneen, activated SaveMalibuLagoon.com. This week, the group announced that it would lead a protest and march from the Malibu Pier to the lagoon this Saturday at 1 p.m.

There is a newfound urgency to the movement, as the Coastal Commission will meet on Oct. 13 at 9 a.m. in Oceanside, where it will consider a permit for the project. Construction would take place from June 2011 through October 2011.

“We want people to attend the hearing [in Oceanside],” Hanscom said. “We want people to communicate with their local officials. If you read the staff report from the Coastal Commission, it sounds like a different project that it is.

What’s at stake from heavy-handed construction work, the WDF said, are the indigenous species, from various herons and egrets to California ground squirrels and tidewater goby.

“This is a magnificent spot,” Doneen said. “We cannot let engineers and contractors destroy it.”

However, those involved with the Malibu Lagoon Restoration and Enhancement Plan, a project headed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation with the State Coastal Conservancy, say that leaving the lagoon alone will prove more devastating.

“[The plan] will restore natural resources,” Al Pepito, California State Parks’ superintendent for the Malibu sector, said. “It’s better off for the lagoon, it’s better off for the ecology, it will bring more biodiversity to the area.”

Project leader Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor of Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, agrees.

“I’ve been working on this since 1992,” Abramson said. “There’s been some $5 million spent on studies, a whole Malibu Lagoon Task Force with 85 different stakeholders … It’s been a hugely inclusive … well researched process.”

When the lagoon was created years ago to replace a baseball field, Abramson explained, “they bisected the lagoon … causing restrictions of ocean water going in and out of the lagoon. Because of the limited tidal activity, there is dirt and sediment accumulation that, if we leave it alone, there will be no habitat in the future.

“We need much better tidal influence and finer sediment when it goes out of the ocean. There are horrible instances of dissolved oxygen at the bottom of the lagoon. When you get low levels of low oxygen, we get large-scale fish die-offs.”

To rectify this, Abramson said that the three channels must be reshaped into a U-shaped channel that [would] improve the tidal influence and the tidal scour [the jetsam flow of bad water] to better circulate water in and out of the lagoon and offer a diversity of salt marsh vegetation.”

The topography, above sea level, is another problem, he said, and it needs to be lowered in order “to [flush out] muck and bacteria, and create a sandier sub-strain that is preferred by the invertebrates, crustaceans, tidewater goby [and other species].”

Despite Abramson’s comments, Hanscom said she was surveying the lagoon on Friday with environmental attorney James Birkelund.

“We are preparing a legal case because we believe it’s against the Coastal Act,” Hanscom said.

Among the construction’s side effects, she added, would be the elimination of pedestrian bridges and public access to the beach.

“Locals can look forward to the noise and pollution of the eight bulldozers all summer long next year … during tourist season. So the businesses are not going to be very happy.”

Abramson countered the inconvenience of construction with the destructive forces of the existing bridges.

“Those bridges, from an environmental standpoint, are horrible [as they block winds allowing waves to mix around the lagoon],” he said. “[A new bridge will] get wind build up pushing northeast … From a purely environmental perspective, that’s [critical].”

Abramson said he is not sure why WDF members, once part of the Malibu Lagoon Restoration Task Force, have bolted: “They’re kind of united with the Malibu Colony, which doesn’t want the traffic in the back [even though there will be a privacy wall that will protect against flooding and fire], but that’s state park property and that’s an existing road. We’re taking great steps to accommodate them.”

Marcia Hanscom and several other opponents attended Monday night’s council meeting and spoke under public comment about the project.

Mayor Pro Tem John Sibert, who is a scientist, said he would like to see the Coastal Commission delay the item so the city can “take a hard look at it.” He said the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission recently came out in support of the project.

“I’m not sure what the right answer is,” Sibert said, “but these are people that dealt with it in the past because I sit on the governing board of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, and I would be surprised if they were taking positions that were irrational. But I’d like to know more.”

Councilmember Laura Rosenthal said she was trying to learn more information.

“It’s unusual for us to see this kind of separation among the environmental groups.”

Citing a $2-million dewatering machine in place, Abramson said that “enormous time and energy” has been invested to complete the restoration in the best manner.

“Remember, I’m a hardcore left-leaning environmentalist,” he said, chuckling. “If there was anything I thought was wrong with this project, I wouldn’t be involved.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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