Lagoon project permit extended, locals still in doubt

Crews will now have two more months to complete the Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project. Officials say the project fell behind schedule after a series of winter storms and other obstacles. 

In a move that raised many local eyebrows, the California Coastal Commission extended a permit on State Parks’ controversial Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project by more than two months. Officials said the project fell behind mainly because of winter storms. 

Project contractor Ford E.C. Inc. now has until March 15 to complete reshaping and structural work to improve water flow and quality. 

The project to reshape the Malibu Lagoon got underway in June, despite legal challenges and protests from the City of Malibu and local opponents, who argued the planning was flawed and the project would do more harm than good. 

Recent storms made terrain muddy and difficult to access with construction equipment, officials said. Along with rain, Angeles district superintendent Craig Sap cited delays in walkway and retaining wall construction, migrating bird nests at the site and slow plant growth among the reasons for needing more time on the project. 

“Although the [mentioned] issues could have easily been overcome and we likely could still have met the Dec. 31 permit deadline, rain events caused the biggest delays,” Sap said. 

The Coastal Commission agreed. 

“This extension of time is necessary to enable completion of all project activities and is not anticipated to result in any new impacts to sensitive species,” Coastal Commission staff wrote in its Dec. 21 approval of the permit extension. 

Longtime critics of the project believe otherwise. 

“I just think it’s a joke,” said local activist and longtime project opponent Andy Lyon. “How long have they been saying ‘We’re ahead of schedule?’” 

The delay seemed curious to Lyon and other opponents after Sap assured the Malibu City Council on Dec. 10 of the project’s outlook and said State Parks was on track to finish by the end of December. Sap also told The Malibu Times in October and November that the project would be done on time, if not before the deadline. 

Lyon alleges that, based on his observations, the project has turned the lagoon into a “mess” and disrupted natural water flow. 

Mark Abramson, senior watershed advisor for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, disputed Lyon’s argument, touting the project’s progress. 

“[The lagoon] works like a champ as far as we can tell,” Abramson said. “It’s working exactly as designed. I had reeds and ducks swimming on [a low-lying walkway] when the tide was at seven feet. You could actually see it surging back and forth with the waves, which is exactly what we had hoped for.” 

Wendi Werner, another project opponent and activist, has raised suspicion over how much taxpayer money went into the project and believes the State Controller’s office should conduct an audit. 

“I told people early on that this was an open-ended permit and the project manager could drag this project out for as long as they needed,” Werner said. “We don’t know how much it is and we’re the taxpayers paying for this.” 

Officials have said the project has a budget of approximately $7 million and the contractor is given a set amount to complete the work. The permit extension should not add on to the project cost, Abramson said. 

With two more months to work on the lagoon, Abramson and Sap are nonetheless pressuring the contractor to finish up as soon as January. Abramson anticipates the lagoon being open to the public as early as February, while Sap estimated an opening sometime in March.