City Council puts Malibu Lagoon project on agenda

Foes of the lagoon restoration project lobbied the council last week to address the issue.

By Paul Sisolak / Special to The Malibu Times

Buoyed by a successful appeal of local officials to formally discuss the matter, opponents of the Malibu Lagoon restoration are hoping they can put a stop to the long-standing project after the City Council deliberates the issue next month.

Following the council’s most recent meeting on Feb. 28 at which restoration protestors spoke during public comment, the Malibu city manager’s office confirmed this week that the lagoon debate has been agendized for the April 11 council meeting.

During that meeting, the council will examine phase two of the upcoming project, a dredging of the lagoon. The project, approved by the California Coastal Commission, is backed by groups like Heal the Bay, which maintain that the lagoon’s waterways are lacking oxygen, backed up from years of pollution.

Opponents assert that the lagoon has the ability to repair itself in time, and that the State Parks-led restoration, slated to begin in June, is invasive and could kill native wetlands and wildlife.

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What remains to be seen is what side, if any, the council takes next month on the issue, which environmentalists and restoration foes say is long overdue from the city.

“We were heartened to some degree because even though the city council won’t be considering the opponents’ viewpoint as early as we like, the fact that they are willing to listen … we would like them to at least support our viewpoint,” Malibu resident Ann Doneen said.

Doneen, and others affiliated with the local arm of the Wetlands Defense Fund (WDF), pleaded to council members at last week’s meeting to consider the issue as part of their “Stop the Bulldozers” campaign that recently brought a couple hundred supporters to a lagoon awareness party last month. They were mostly critical of the council, believing its members have not addressed the restoration at all within the last year. During that time, the Coastal Commission green lighted the project and was subsequently hit with a lawsuit from the WDF and two other advocacy groups, claiming that the approval violated certain codes of the State Coastal Act.

“Citizens of the city are beginning to understand the scope of this project, and they are not happy,” said Wendy Werner at last week’s meeting. “This is a massive project and I’m upset that you have not represented us, your constituents, appropriately.”

But council members defended their actions, stating that they never dropped the ball on the lagoon issue.

“We have already done some action to request that it be postponed,” said Council member Pamela Conley Ulich.

Mayor Pro Tem Laura Zahn Rosenthal said the council could not offer any definitive assessments of the project before addressing it next month.

“I don’t know the answer. I’m not an expert,” she said. “That’s maybe why people feel that we didn’t know what was going on. I think it is something important for the city to talk about.”

Mayor John Sibert agreed and stated that he hopes an agendized discussion of the restoration is rooted in science and not personal bias.

“I think it’s important that it comes back before us with staff taking a good, hard look at this,” Sibert said. “We need to look at the science, and science is not pro or anti anything. As soon as it becomes pro or anti anything, it’s no longer science.”

He continued, “We’re obscuring the difference between anecdotes and evidence. We get assertions but we don’t get evidence.”

One small scientific facet of the project came to light this week with the release of three antique maps of the lagoon dating from 1877, 1903 and 1932. The maps, discovered by Anthony Shafer, a local cartographer and member of the city’s environmental review board, said the maps offered an evolution of the lagoon during the last century and beyond.

“What the maps show is that the lagoon has, over time, changed, and depending on what the uses were, obviously I think the 1877 map and the 1902 map are closer to reality than today,” Shafer said. “There are a lot of issues locked up in these old maps.”

Based on Shafer’s study of the maps, he said the lagoon was defined with more grassland in the earliest 19th century version of the map. Over the years, the lagoon’s body of water has grown significantly; Shafer believes the lagoon is 40 percent bigger now than it was 100 years ago. How that ties in to the lagoon’s recent troubles with upstream pollution and wildlife endangerment is up for scientific debate.

For backers of the Stop the Bulldozers camp, they hope upcoming events can give them enough pull to put the brakes on the restoration before the project commences.

WDF Director Marcia Hanscom said the organization would be seeking an injunction against the Coastal Commission to delay the project during a preliminary hearing in San Francisco in May.

On Friday, March 18, at 7:30 p.m., a fundraising event for the WDF’s legal fees will take place at Duke’s Malibu. The goal: to garner at least $50,000. The group is also appealing to Gov. Jerry Brown for his support.

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