Topanga Lagoon Restoration Project Could Overhaul 23 Acres of Lower Topanga

State Parks Angeles District Superintendent Craig Sap answers questions at the first public input meeting on the Topanga Lagoon Restoration Project.

It turns out the project being planned by the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains is more than just restoring the lagoon of lower Topanga Creek where it empties into the ocean—the entire area at the intersection of PCH and Topanga Canyon Road needs a complete revamp. 

At the first public planning meeting for the Topanga Lagoon Restoration Project held last Saturday, officials announced a whole host of projects that need to be considered in addition to enlarging the lagoon: “Projected sea level rise will mean having to move the lifeguard building and the helipad farther inland.” “There needs to be a plan for the former Topanga Ranch Motel cottages.” “How much should the lagoon be enlarged?” “Obviously, Caltrans will have to replace the bridge.” “Traffic patterns, turnarounds and parking should be updated at PCH and Topanga Canyon.” “There needs to be a plan for either keeping, relocating or removing some or all of the local businesses as a result of lagoon enlargement.” And the list went on, indicating a very complicated planning process over the next few years, with the planning phase being funded by the California State Coastal Conservancy. 

“This is a rare opportunity,” Rosi Dagit, senior conservation biologist for the project, said. “This is one of the only places in 60 miles of coastline where we can build in resiliency to sea level rise.” In addition, she pointed out problems with water quality in the area. “Topanga (Beach) gets an ‘F’ from Heal the Bay all the time in wet weather from dog and bird feces, and direct deposits from humans. We now have an opportunity to fix that water quality.”

All of the businesses and restrooms at Topanga/PCH are on septic systems, even though a city sewer line is only a mile up PCH. The Reel Inn’s owner said the restaurant pumps two or three times a week.

State Parks Angeles District Superintendent Craig Sap pointed out that the existing businesses provide “an important economic engine to the area” as well as visitor services. California State Parks receives rent from those businesses and a percentage from the Rosenthal Wine Bar. 

In 2001, California State Parks acquired the 1,625 acres of land in Lower Topanga, which borders the city of Malibu’s eastern edge. The acquisition included a half-dozen old businesses, like Wylie’s Bait Shop, as well as the full-time residents of the Topanga Ranch Motel. The state evicted those tenants in a move that caused a great deal of local controversy—and court cases—at the time. The last holdouts were forced out in March 2006 and the cottages have been sitting empty since then.

In 2002 (18 years ago), the initial Topanga Creek Watershed and Lagoon Restoration Feasibility Study was finished, detailing a multi phase program that would restore riparian and lagoon habitats and improve fish passage in Topanga Creek and Lagoon. 

Additional planning funding came through just last year. State Parks and the resource conservation district want to restore Topanga Lagoon without impacting the surf break—perhaps stemming from ongoing complaints over the 2012 rebuild of the Malibu Lagoon. In addition, it is their stated goal to engage the community, provide a natural gateway into Topanga State Park and offer affordable overnight lodging and concessions.

In the near term, the groups plan to conduct several local workshops through 2021, as well as obtain Topanga Motel Condition Assessment and Caltrans Bridge Project Study final reports. The outcomes of the public workshops will result in three restoration alternatives, including the possibility for no project. 

The impetus for restoring Topanga Lagoon in the first place was to try to bring back the nearly extinct Southern California steelhead trout. Topanga Creek is the only stream in the Santa Monica Mountains with a reproducing population. However, biologists say even conditions there aren’t optimal for the migrating fish—the creek is so narrow under the PCH bridge, it’s difficult for adult steelhead to return from the ocean or for the young to get out. “The remnant lagoon is currently less than two acres and is bordered by 35-foot-tall banks of fill,” a report stated.

Biologists say the lagoon restoration project is also needed to protect grunion runs, habitat needed by the tidewater goby and birds, and more wetlands. 

The project area is approximately 23 acres, with as much as 15 acres going toward an enlarged and expanded lagoon—the exact size has yet to be calculated based on a number of factors. The remains of a Native American village have also been documented on the site and will be considered.