Long before the coast of California was a playground, it was a workplace. Freighters, factories, oil refineries, tuna canneries and all manner of industry flourished here; some still do.
But some don’t. And fixing what they left behind, restoring the land, making it ready for recreation or animal habitat or some other public use, is the biggest challenge that federal and state agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the California Coastal Commission face year in and year out. Using a variety of legal tools, these agencies are making a lot of progress in planning infrastructure, reclaiming wetlands, rebuilding harbors and restoring habitat.
And it works: Our coast has never been in better shape.
But much of that progress is threatened by a recent appeals court decision that may remove one of the most effective tools to repair, preserve and enhance the coast. A tool beach-goers, surfers, environmentalists and others who care about the coast should hope their lawmakers re-instate just as quickly as they can .
The tool is called mitigation. It means, in effect, if a local government or property owner needs to extend a road or bridge along the coast — disturbing a piece of coast land the planners call an “environmentally sensitive habitat area” — then the local government or landowner must preserve or restore another piece of similar property. Typically, this means restoring 3 or 4 times the amount of coastal land that is disturbed.
In Southern California, those who drive on Interstate 5 can see several examples of this kind of mitigation. In San Diego, the Port of Los Angeles agreed to spend tens of millions of dollars to restore Bataquitos Lagoon near Carlsbad in exchange for permission to expand their port facilities. Before, this lagoon was severely degraded and without tidal action, resulting in a shallow, smelly, stagnant mud flat that often dried up in summer, resulting in a major kill-off of fish and other aquatic animals.
Today, with the wetlands enhanced with dredging, and better tidal action restoring the natural cleansing mechanism and bringing sand to beaches as well, the lagoon serves once again as a natural spawning area for fish, and new nesting ground for least terns and other rare birds. Humans have benefited too with new trails and cleaner beaches.
In another example, a Los Angeles utility company is restoring the San Dieguito Lagoon near Del Mar, as mitigation for problems near its power plants. The results are the same: Degraded wetlands are being enhanced and habitat on dry land is being restored. All over California, damaged wetlands are being returned to their natural condition with private money, all because of a policy that allows public and private interests to work together to solve environmental problems.
It’s a real success story, one that could never have existed had not public agencies been allowed to work with private landowners in such a creative and innovative fashion. It should be noted that much of the privately owned coastal land that people want to develop is not pristine wilderness but is often already degraded, as was the case with the Port of Los Angeles. So not only did the port have to improve the land it wanted to use for more facilities, it also restored wetlands that, without port money, would have stayed stagnant and unhealthy for years.
But all this might soon be a thing of the past because of what an appeals court has ruled concerning a place in Orange County called Bolsa Chica. There, the landowner wanted to build a road and some homes near a stand of eucalyptus trees — which had been designated as sensitive habitat. Noting that this stand of eucalyptus trees was dying, the landowners offered to grow another stand of trees, larger, healthier, and native to the region, to replace these in this dwindling grove.
The Coastal Commission, following more than 20 years of precedent, practice and legislative intent, gave its consent. As did local government agencies. But soon after the issue was in court, with an appeals court ruling that the Coastal Commission was not allowed to follow this precedent because the trees were part of an environmentally sensitive habitat area that despite its degraded condition and proposed mitigation measures, should not be touched.
This was news, not only to those of us who consider eucalyptus trees a non-native nuisance that kills other plants around it, it was also news to the millions of people and dozens of communities throughout the state who are enjoying — or waiting for — the benefits of this kind of mitigation.
In South San Diego, those who live near the Mexican border have been waiting to have their wetlands and beaches restored after years of abuse at the hands of sewage spills from Mexico.
But now the court of appeals has drawn a line in the sand, saying property owners and cities and anyone who desires to build infrastructure or use their property may not touch certain kinds of land, even if that land is in terrible shape, even if the landowner replaces the habitat three or four times over. Even if proper permits are granted.
That’s bad news for anyone who thinks wetlands are important. That is not what the voters intended when we voted for the California Coastal Act. Neither is it what the legislature wanted when it implemented that law. And that is what our legislators should restore, at their earliest possible opportunity, if we are to continue to restore the beaches and the wetlands and coast of California.
Brian P. Devine