Malibu Lagoon: Is it Working?

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Excessive algae growth and apparent stagnation in the recently restored Malibu Lagoon has sparked questions about the effectiveness of the restoration. 

Six months after California State Parks completed a water recirculation project and ceremoniously reopened the Malibu Lagoon, questions remain over whether the project has served its purpose thus far, both above and below the surface. 

To the casual observer, the lagoon has appeared stagnant over the summer, caked with algae and mostly dependent on light winds to help water circulate. Improved circulation was a major goal for the designers of the project. 

Despite the apparent stagnation, officials say the project is succeeding. 

“We know we’re getting much better tidal winds coming in and tidal flushing going out. You can see the changing of the water. You can see the flux of water going in,” said Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, an environmental nonprofit that helped spearhead the project. 

But summer winds have not been very strong, according to online weather reports, typically averaging 5-7 MPH in Malibu on any given day between April and today. Santa Ana winds typically pick up in October. 

“Three-quarters of the day you have no wind here, and when you do, it’s not enough influence to help the lagoon move,” said Jefferson Wagner, a former Malibu mayor who has studied the Malibu Creek Watershed and followed the lagoon project closely since it was completed. 

State Parks environmental scientist Suzanne Goode said the re-shaped lagoon has seen an increase in circulation due to flow from Malibu Creek, which she said has been moving all summer and feeding into the lagoon. 

“The creek is flowing,” Goode said. 

But that flow is not from a natural source, a Las Virgenes Municipal Water District representative said. 

On the contrary, spokesman Jeff Reinhardt said, the creek has been so dry that Las Virgenes Municipal Water District has been releasing 800,000 gallons of treated, recycled water into the creek four miles upstream from the lagoon every day since June 18, per a requirement imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service in cases when the watershed becomes dry during the summer and life along the creek lacks hydration. 

“The purpose of that discharge is to provide habitat for the threatened species that are downstream in the creek, specifically the steelhead trout,” Reinhardt said. “It has been so dry that the flow has barely been reaching those habitat pools. A lot of it has been soaked up by vegetation alongside the banks of the creek.” 

Las Virgenes’ federal discharge permit specifies that water must not reach the lagoon, Reinhardt said, and the district has its scientists tracking the water flow to make sure of it. 

“We seek to release water at a gradual rate that helps sustain the habitat pools, but not so much that the recycled water reaches the lagoon,” he said. 

Algae problem persisted before project, officials say 

Another noticeable curiosity of the lagoon is the heavy algae growth persistent within the lagoon and in the creek portion that feeds into the body of water. Critics argue the algae inundation is a harmful result of the State Parks project, while officials say the lagoon had an equally high volume of algae before the project. 

Algal growths commonly occur when a body of water experiences a change in levels of oxygen and other nutrients such as nitrogen. 

John Izbicki, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey who spent time studying bacteria in the lagoon before the project began, said too much algae indicates an less-than-healthy water system. 

“That’s not a healthy situation or natural situation for lagoons,” Izbicki said. Izbicki attributed the excessive algae to high levels of nutrient concentrate present in groundwater secreted into the lagoon, most likely from the lands below the Serra Retreat neighborhood and Malibu’s Civic Center. 

“It’ll grow rapidly and generally become a nuisance,” he said. “As dead algae releases nutrients into the water, those nutrients can be recycled, continuing the algal growth.” 

Officials who planned the project said the restoration did not intend to curb algal growth. 

“You have algal blooms all throughout the [Malibu] Creek too,” Abramson said. “[The project] wasn’t supposed to help with that. It was about water flow.” 

But the actual levels of nutrients present in the lagoon remain a mystery, as Abramson’s Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation is the only agency conducting the testing for State Parks at the lagoon and only makes the results public once a year. 

“We just don’t have the resources to test it ourselves,” Goode said. “And the Foundation, since it’s a nonprofit, does it at a much lower cost.” 

Abramson refused to release testing results of nutrient levels in the lagoon to The Malibu Times, saying they would only be available when the foundation releases its annual data report next “August or September.”