Public Forum: Find new solutions to lagoon restoration

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Many have worked together to develop remedies so that swimmers and surfers can enjoy Malibu Surfrider Beach without illness from water pollution. Can we pull together and do the same for the fish, shellfish and other invertebrates suffering in Malibu Lagoon? Likewise, can we restore the world famous wave conditions of the 1970s at Surfrider Beach?

Back then there were world famous inter-connecting surfing locations from the third point near Malibu Colony to the second and first points offering rides almost a quarter of a mile long. Now the waves break in fewer locations with less quality. The rides are much shorter, less frequent and concentrate the crowds in more dangerous situations. Creek and lagoon sand sediments have been misdirected to inside the first point break near the pier. This has robbed the second and third points of sand that would normally accentuate the bottom contours that used to shape the waves there. The abnormal creek outlet has also caused damaging erosion near the Adamson House and lifeguard station. We should be able to work expeditiously with the Army Corp of Engineers, State Parks Service, and L.A. County Beaches to restore the original drainage and sediment outlet back above Third Point.

A 1988 landmark report by Jean Dillingham and Sean Manion documented the ecological and water quality woes of the Malibu Lagoon. It has since been studied extensively and we probably know now what makes Malibu Lagoon sometimes become such an unhealthy place for its native fish, flora and invertebrates.

Malibu Lagoon was reconstructed in 1983 by removing fill dumped by Caltrans when they built PCH and later contoured for baseball fields for Malibu Little League. The basic “restoration” design was faulty; it called for overly steep manmade peninsulas and shallow channels oriented east and west from the main creek basin. This has kept water and sediment circulation to a minimum and results in frequent episodes of water stagnation and the rather permanent building up of fine sediments.

The stagnant waters, coupled with more than enough nitrogen, phosphate and other nutrients from the fine sediments and soils of the lagoon and lower creek, together with warm temperatures and sun, combine to make an ideal breeding zone for abundant algae and the like. When the alga overgrows, oxygen levels decrease and pH levels increase along with other toxic chemical changes resulting in the die-off of fish, invertebrates and flora.

Tapia wastewater discharges, and the run-off and seepage of imported water in the watershed flows to the lagoon during our dry seasons, have been harmful. This unwanted water reduces the historic salinity of salt marshes and brackish waters illustrated by a biologist prior to the Tapia plant discharges. Even when the creek bed dries up, subsurface flows seep into the lagoon. The Tapia plant has argued that its continuing discharges support aquatic life in the creek, but it suddenly stops them rather than phase them out prior to prohibition times. This leaves crayfish, frogs and other aquatic animals no time to relocate and they die in suddenly dry creek beds.

The explosive emptying of the lagoon at the wrong seasonal times is another harm. Steelhead trout, tidewater Gobi or shellfish have been flushed out to their premature deaths.

Finally, illegal or untreated toxic chemical spills or seepage have been considered a possible cause for occasional unexplained die-offs in the creek, lagoon and shoreline reefs.

Given these hazards to fish, flora and invertebrates, what can and should be done? Controversy has built lately over a State Parks plan that has taken many years and meetings to develop. This plan by new state biologists and consultants aims to correct the mistakes made in its previous attempts at lagoon restoration. A lawsuit and demonstrations are in process by many well-intentioned people who value the current natural beauty of lagoon wild life and question the plan’s methods, scope and cost. Unfortunately, the beauty of the lagoon sometimes is only skin deep and troubles brew for the biological web of wildlife underneath the surface.

Given that the State Parks plan has been approved by the Coastal Commission and funded as a package set to begin this summer, it is unclear whether there can be negotiations to modify or possibly improve it without jeopardizing the basic beneficial parts of the plan. Studies indicate that the years of unnaturally accumulated fine sediments and their associated nutrients and bacteria should be removed. It seems safer to cordon off and carefully remove these sediments per the state plan rather than resuspend and discharge them into the surf zone.

Also, it appears necessary to open up western side finger-let peninsulas, which promote water stagnation and create a basin open to the creek per the state plan.

Other portions of the plan seem less integral to re-doing the hydrology and sediment deposition in the lagoon such as revamping the parking lot and visitor center which have recently been renovated.

Other measures for improving the lagoon include: Installing aerators to add oxygen in the lagoon; plugging Tapia NPDES permit loopholes to prohibit discharges from at least March through November and mandate an ecologically based phase out prior to the prohibition dates; restricting the service area, size and area of the proposed Malibu Civic Center sewage treatment plant to limit the amount and migration of proposed injected treated waste water.

There is much work to do to improve and safeguard Malibu Creek, Lagoon and Surfrider Beach. Can we use new knowledge and work together to develop and implement the solutions?

Jeff Harris