Efforts to restore Topanga Lagoon bolstered by $4.9 million grant

Topanga Lagoon Resoration graph.

Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains gets funds from Wildlife Conservation Board

It’s been a long time coming — the idea to restore the Topanga Lagoon back to its original state first came up back in 2001 when State Parks acquired the 1,625-acre property that borders Malibu’s far eastern edge. Over 20 years later, the proposed project is finally starting to gain some traction and more funding. 

A $4.9 million grant was awarded on February 16 to the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) by the Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) to purse the lagoon restoration project. RCDSMM is the lead agency on the project, which is being cooperatively planned along with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, State Coastal Conservancy, California Department of Parks and Recreation (State Parks), and Caltrans. 

The grant money will be used to develop the technical studies, environmental review, and outreach necessary to restore the Topanga Lagoon, which is located within the third-largest watershed that drains into the Santa Monica Bay. The lagoon supports three native fish species and over 20 native amphibians, including a population of endangered tidewater goby and Southern California steelhead.

Topanga Creek is the only stream in the Santa Monica Mountains with a reproducing population of steelhead; however, biologists say conditions there aren’t optimal for the migrating fish. The creek is now too narrow under the PCH Bridge, making it 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 states.

The project area is approximately 23 acres, with as much as 15 acres going towards an enlarged and expanded lagoon; the exact size is yet to be calculated based on a number of factors. The project would also improve water quality at Topanga Beach without impacting the surf break.

Some preliminary work has already been carried out on the project — in March 2020, right before the pandemic, a large public planning meeting was held on the project.

It was apparent that the project would have to involve more than just restoring the lagoon of lower Topanga Creek where it empties into the ocean, which had been filled in with dirt decades ago. The entire area around the intersection of PCH and Topanga Canyon Road would need a complete revamp in order to restore the lagoon. 

At that meeting, officials announced a host of projects that would need to be considered in addition to enlarging the lagoon: moving the lifeguard building and helipad farther inland, deciding what to do with the former Topanga Ranch Motel cottages, and likely replacing the PCH bridge over Topanga Creek. 

In addition, officials noted that traffic patterns, turnarounds, and parking needed to be updated at PCH and Topanga Canyon. There also needed to be a plan for either keeping, relocating, or removing some or all of the local businesses there.

“This is a rare opportunity,” said Rosi Dagit, senior conservation biologist with RCDSMM at the time. “This is one of the only places in 60 miles of coastline where we can build in resiliency to sea level rise.” 

In addition, Dagit pointed out problems with water quality in the area. 

“Topanga gets an ‘F’ from Heal the Bay all the time in wet weather from dog and bird feces, and direct deposits from humans,” she said. “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 they have to pump two or three times a week.

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

RCDSMM Project Primary Contact Angelica Kahler emailed The Malibu Times with the latest updates on the lagoon project: 

“We’re planning a public stakeholder update meeting in Summer 2023 and anticipate releasing the draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) by January/February 2024. The public will have the opportunity to review and comment upon the project at that time during a 60-day public review period.

“For the remainder of 2023, the project team is completing multiple field and planning activities; including ongoing snorkel surveys of the tidewater goby and steelhead trout, drafting a habitat management plan, cultural surveys of onsite structures, wastewater analyses, utility surveys, soil nourishment plan, public outreach plan, continue roadway and bridge replacement planning and design; and coordinating with partner agencies on coastal access, parking, emergency response, etc. 

“This work would not be possible without the funding support made possible by Assemblymember Richard Bloom, the WCB grant and ongoing funds from CDFW, the State Coastal Conservancy, and project partners.”