Environmentalists divided over Malibu Lagoon's future

Conservationists disagree over a $7-million lagoon restoration project in Malibu.
Conservationists disagree over a $7-million lagoon restoration project in Malibu.
Cecile Gregoriades

Hidden along the Pacific Coast Highway lies Malibu Lagoon. The state beach and estuary is good place to spot birds like the snowy egret or the black crowned night heron. It's also the access point for world famous Surfrider Beach. California coastal commissioners will consider a restoration plan for the lagoon today - one whose necessity has divided environmental groups.

At one time, the estuary between the Pacific Coast Highway and Surfrider Beach was filled with sediment belonging to CalTrans - leftovers from projects and roadways throughout L.A. Later in the '70s it featured a couple baseball fields.

Then in the early '80s, some naturalists tried to create and restore a natural system in that spot. “but unfortunately the science was not at where it is nowadays and that restoration has failed,” Sarah Sikich says. She's a staff scientist with Heal the Bay. “We are seeing dissolved oxygen levels at such low levels in the lagoon that it makes it difficult for fish to survive."

Environmental organizations including Santa Monica Baykeeper, the Malibu Surfing Association and Heal The Bay call attention to what they describe as stagnant waterways in Malibu lagoon. They argue the waterways must be dredged and rebuilt in order to improve the flowing stream and meet water quality standards.

Now the Coastal Commission will vote on such a restoration plan: one that would consist of draining the lagoon in order to re-contour it, removing 1,000 dump-truck loads of sediment and replanting its banks with native plants.

Not all environmental groups back the plan. “This place is a sanctuary for people who live in urban areas surrounding us but it’s also a sanctuary for the birds. It is a very important stopover for birds migrating north or south,” says Marcia Hanscom, director of the Wetlands Defense Fund. She fears the plan will kill and displace the plants and the thriving wildlife.

“There are close to 200 types of plants here now, 20 species of fish, 200 species of birds over the course of a year”, adds Robert van de Hoek, a wildlife and marine biologist who is also fighting the plan.

The restoration project, in the works over a decade, would eliminate the three wooden bridges connecting the parking lot along Pacific Coast Highway to Surfrider Beach.

“We want to do an interpretive path along the edges of the lagoon so people aren’t going through it but still have the opportunity to go around it and enjoy the wildlife”, explains Sarah Sikich. She's a staff scientist with Heal the Bay. She argues those bridges make it harder for the water to circulate in the lagoon.

Hanscom and other critics of the plan wish the overhaul wouldn’t be so radical - or that state officials would consider a less-drastic compromise plan. But proponents say there isn’t an alternative and that in the long term, it will fix a degraded, oxygen-poor lagoon. They argue that the state beach has sediment that exceeds pollution standards and water that the state has considered impaired for nearly 20 years.

The plan the California Coastal Commission will consider would cost around 7 million dollars. The commission meets in Oceanside, in northern San Diego County.

KPCC's Molly Peterson contributed to this report.