Ambitious effort seeks to restore wetlands
HUNTINGTON BEACH (AP) – It’s been more than a century since the ocean flowed into historic saltwater marshes here – but on Thursday, the sea came roaring back.
Environmentalists who worked for 30 years to restore the massive Bolsa Chica tidal wetlands cheered and sipped champagne in the early morning light as bulldozers peeled away the last of an earthen dam that has choked the fragile ecosystem of its lifeblood for decades.
Salt water poured through a manmade inlet and into the restored tidal basin, which was once part of one of the state’s second-largest oil field.
The event capped a two-year project that cost more than $100 million and shunted a portion of the scenic Pacific Coast Highway onto an overpass. The project attracted international attention and is at the forefront of an evolving science, said Shirley Dettloff, longtime member of Amigos de Bolsa Chica and a former member of the California Coastal Commission.
“Not many wetlands have been restored in the world, especially in an oil field,” said Dettloff, who’s been fighting for the wetlands for since the 1970s. “Even we locals sometimes forget that this was the second-largest functioning oil field in the state of California.”
The 387-acre basin was filled by the incoming tide by noon after bulldozers knocked down the last of the 400-foot-long sand barrier just after 5:30 a.m. The area had been separated from the ocean for 107 years.
The eight state and federal agencies involved in the project said it was the largest and most ambitious restoration of coastal wetlands in the history of California, where 95 percent of saltwater marshes have succumbed to development.
“It’s been like a steeplechase. It’s a very long, challenging physical event with obstacles, and we’re crossing the finish line now,” said Jack Fancher, construction project manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The degraded wetlands are currently home to 200 species of birds, including six that are on state or federal lists of endangered or threatened species, said Marc Stirdivant, executive director of Bolsa Chica Land Trust.
The new basin will be filled and drained twice a day by the tidal ebb-and-flow, restoring a natural rhythm that should replenish the marshes and could attract more species, he said.
Fancher said biologists will introduce two types of plants to the wetlands – eel grass and cord grass – to provide nesting habitat for some of the endangered birds. He said other invasive species such as ice plant should gradually lose ground.
“It’s a moment of enjoyment, looking at it,” Fancher said as he peered down at the roiling, sandy water.
The area was connected to the ocean until 1899, when members of a duck-hunting club cut it off, diking ponds to make it easier to stalk their prey.
At one time, as many as 4,884 homes were proposed on 1,100 acres of the wetlands. The plan was scaled back to 3,300 homes by 1996. A year later, the state paid $25 million for 880 acres, and that parcel was added to 300 acres given to the state for wetlands preservation in 1973.
Now, homebuilding is confined to an upper mesa area of Bolsa Chica, with a 356-home development underway.
The restoration was funded in part by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to make up for marine habitat destroyed during expansion. The rest of the funding came from voter-approved bonds.
The flooding of another 200-acre portion of the wetlands’ original footprint is on hold for at least 30 days because oil company Aera Energy LLC believes the work could create an oil spill.
An additional 250 acres are still being pumped for oil, but could be added to the project in the future.