Lagoon bridges face the axe

Top: A rendering of the Malibu Lagoon depicts what it will look like after the existing western channels have been reshaped. Above: The Malibu Lagoon in its current state. The designers of the California State Parks project to reshape it say the removal of four wooden bridges currently bisecting the lagoon is necessary to improve water flow.

The designers of the project to reshape the Malibu Lagoon say the removal of four wooden bridges is necessary to improve water flow, but opponents say a unique opportunity to view wildlife up close will be lost.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

When bulldozers rumble into Malibu Lagoon for its much-debated restoration project on June 1 next year, four wooden bridges popular among wildlife enthusiasts will be among the first casualties. The bridges offer prime wildlife viewing to the many bird lovers who visit the park, and connect a dirt path that doubles as the most direct route for surfers heading to ride the waves to Surfrider Beach.

But the designers of the project say the bridges must go because they hinder water circulation and are incompatible with the future shape of the lagoon.

“You can’t really reconfigure the channels and leave those bridges in,” said Suzanne Goode, an ecologist for California State Parks.

The bridges have straddled the western arm of the lagoon since 1983, when three channels were dug to resemble the original Malibu Lagoon after it was completely filled in by Caltrans during the 1970s and replaced by ball fields. Three of the bridges connect a dirt path running across the lagoon islands from the Malibu Lagoon State Beach parking lot to popular Surfrider Beach. A fourth bridge adjacent to the parking lot leads in the opposite direction to the edge of the lagoon.

Goode says the bridges cause accumulation of sediment underneath them and create what she calls “pinch points.” When the lagoon is open to the ocean, Goode says the pinch points slow down circulation, preventing the tides from reaching the back part of the lagoon and scouring out excess sediment.

The restoration project will lower the islands to reduce wind resistance and reshape the lagoon so that it faces up stream from the ocean. The hope is that the tides and wind will generate enough water circulation to regularly scour out excess sediment.

But some opponents of the project dispute the idea that the bridges create pinch points, while others question why the bridges have to be removed permanently.

“Places like this, where people can get very close to nature without disturbing it, are rare, and that should be protected and enhanced, not removed,” Laura Garrett, Conservation Chair for the Pasadena Audubon Society, wrote in a letter to the California Coastal Commission last year. “Rather than removing them, why not redesign them so that they do not impede the flow of water?”

Goode says the Malibu Lagoon Task Force discussed replacing the bridges with a free-standing causeway spanning the length of the lagoon at a series of meetings in 2000, but decided against it due to lack of funds. The causeway would have required pilings to be sunk down into the wetlands and would have cost an estimated $1 to $2 million, she said.

“We were beginning to look at large sums of money and thinking, you know, maybe we should just do the initial project first, and then later on, years from now, if someone decides they want to have another pathway that sort of goes over the lagoon, or the elevated bridge, that they could consider that at that time,” Goode said, “but it was just getting to be too complicated and too expensive as it was.”

Instead, an existing access trail running around the lagoon will be expanded and equipped with a bird viewing platform on the western bank of the lagoon. The trail is currently used by lifeguards to access the lifeguard tower at the beach. Goode says the expanded trail will be 145 feet longer than the existing path with the bridges.

But activist Marcia Hanscom, a staunch opponent of the project, said those additions would not make up for the unique path through the lagoon that is often used by visiting classrooms of schoolchildren for nature observation.

“These bridges offer the most important outdoor classroom opportunity we have in Malibu,” Hanscom said. “If they remove them and that traffic that goes through the heart of the lagoon, it really takes away an incredible teaching opportunity that allows you to get up close to the wildlife without hurting them. It’s just an unparalleled opportunity for that sort of outdoor education.”

Goode argues visitors will still be able to view wildlife, just from the edge instead of the middle of the lagoon.

“If you were designing a sensitive wetland habitat these days, you would never put a trail through the middle of it,” Goode said. “That’s just not what you do when you design a sensitive reserve. You keep people outside and let nature have reign on the inside.”