More controversy over lagoon project

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Supporters air video to dispel criticisms, activists disagree.

By Knowles Adkisson / The Malibu Times

The two sides of the Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project sparred again last Thursday after the airing of a video by supporters of the project intended to rebut criticisms from opponents. The video aired at a meeting of the Malibu Creek Watershed Council, an organization that works to protect and preserve the health of the Malibu Creek Watershed.

“We felt it was time to get the word out because of too much false information that’s been circulated,” said Suzanne Goode, who chairs the Malibu Lagoon Task Force that produced the restoration plan. “So we would just like to set the record straight.”

The project’s opponents believe that a lagoon recovery slated to begin in June is destructive and that the wetlands preserve can repair itself over time. They have filed a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission to stop it. Supporters include local environmental groups such as Heal the Bay, which say the idea that the lagoon can repair itself over time ignores science, and that the marshland must be rehabilitated before the lagoon becomes irreparable, choked by water flow blockage and years of upstream pollution and depletion of oxygen.

Supporters wanted most of all to dispel the notion they had not given enough public notification during the planning process of the restoration plan. Before playing the video, Goode talked about how the planning process had begun in 1991, and suggested that many of the project’s opponents did not live in Malibu at that time.

“There may be some people that just came to Malibu in the last year or two, or perhaps are very young in their twenties, [who] don’t recall that we went through this exhaustive process,” Goode said in the video. “At some point, when you’re planning a project and you have all the input from the stakeholders, you have to move on and get the project planned.”

Marcia Hanscom, chair of the Wetlands Defense Fund, which filed the lawsuit to stop the project, and an outspoken critic of the plan, took the podium after the video and said her group had been shut out of the planning process.

“I never saw [the project] until this last summer, many of us were just stunned at really the overkill of it,” Hanscom said.

Hanscom is a longtime Malibu resident.

Malibu City Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich, speaking as a private citizen, asked Hanscom why she did not appeal the project after the Malibu Planning Commission approved it. Planning Commission decisions can be appealed within 30 days to the city council.

“If I had known about it I would have,” Hanscom said.

Both sides agree the lagoon is polluted. The original Malibu Lagoon was completely filled in by Caltrans during the 1970s and replaced by ball fields. In 1983, the Watershed Restoration Project tried to recreate the wetlands, but supporters of the current project say that faulty design of the 1983 project needs to be corrected for the lagoon to heal. Opponents disagree, believing that upstream pollution is the primary problem.

Mark Osokow, a board member of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, told Goode that the society was opposed to the project. Osokow said he had spoken with Richard Ambrose, a UCLA scientist who performed a study on the lagoon, whom he said characterized the goals of the project as “experimental.”

“Well, I would suggest that before you proceed with the experiment, you proceed with the upper watershed issues first. And if that doesn’t resolve the problem, then look at the Malibu lagoon restoration issues and then you may be able to go ahead with that restoration project,” Osokow said.

Goode said if the western channels of the lagoon were totally natural she would agree, but they weren’t.

“To the extent that you do anything to help system that is not natural to start with, yes, there is going to be a certain level of experimentation to that, if you want to call it that, but we are fully convinced with our design that it is going to improve the situation that we have,” Goode said.

Activist Athena Shlien took the podium, pounding her fist as she accused the planners of the project of being undemocratic and motivated by profit. The project is estimated to cost $7 million.

“I am spending everyday of the rest of my life to get to the bottom and follow the money. Because I believe that this is all about money.”

In the video, Goode said, “The scientists who gave us our permits get paid by their agencies, they get no extra money. That would be illegal.”