A Wave of Praise for Malibu Lagoon Plans

Times Staff Writer

Critics of the way the Department of Parks and Recreation has been managing Malibu Lagoon finally have something to cheer about.

After years of complaints that the lagoon was contaminated and causing infections in people who had contact with its water, the department has agreed to post it as unsafe for swimming.

In addition, responding to surfers who complained that a lagoon outlet was ruining the waves at Surfrider Beach, state parks officials have moved the outlet away from the prime surfing zone--at least for the time being.

The parks department also agreed to post signs designating Surfrider Beach as part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach, a concession to surfers who feared that the area's major attraction was being overlooked.

The changes were outlined in a Jan. 15 report responding to public comments made at a meeting with parks officials organized by state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) last October in Malibu.

Dominated by surfers and environmentalists, the meeting was called because "it appeared to us that nothing was happening" to remedy the problems, said Sarah Dixon of the Malibu Township Council.

Since then, the parks department has "moved forward" and shown it is not "totally tied into concrete," said deputy regional director Kirk Wallace.

The state-owned lagoon was completed two years ago as part of a $1.4-million project to turn the area into a wildlife refuge and park. It is located on a 76-acre site south of Pacific Coast Highway and Serra Road, between the exclusive Malibu Colony and Surfrider Beach, considered one of the best surfing beaches in the world.

Considered by naturalists as one of the most important ecological sites in Southern California, it attracts about 850,000 visitors a year.

Few of those visitors, however, have been aware of the headaches the restored lake was causing.

Problems began to surface in the summer of 1983, a few months after the department began experimenting with the location of a breaching channel that would carry lagoon water out to sea.

The lagoon is replenished with water from Malibu Creek, which runs down from the Santa Monica Mountains to the ocean. If the department does not control the water level in the lagoon, it may cause flooding of the septic tanks next door in Malibu Colony.

Therefore, to regulate the water level, in the spring of 1983 the department bulldozed open a channel that carried the water east, toward Malibu Pier.

However, when the water surged out of the lagoon, it went directly into the prime surfing zone called First Point, near the end of Malibu Pier. Gradually, the current left deep trenches in the normally smooth reef just below the surf, creating a condition that local surfers said wrecked the shape of the waves.

Many surfers also noticed that they frequently became sick after contact with the lagoon water that was flushed into the ocean. They and other beach-goers reported that children occasionally waded in the lagoon.

So surfers beseeched parks officials to halt the experiment. Most of the 150 surfers and environmentalists who attended the October meeting said they wanted the opening on the west end of the lagoon, far away from the pier.

Finally, last December the parks department responded by breaching the lagoon where the surfers wanted the outlet.

That location, said Tom Pratte of the Manhattan Beach-based Western Surfing Assn., is "better not only for water quality but also for wave quality." Although happy that the parks department has recognized the importance of preserving surfing conditions, the local surfing community is afraid that the breaching channel may be moved again.

Since December, the channel has drifted back toward the east end. Wallace, the regional parks official, said that when it closes, the department will reopen it on the west.

But Wallace could not promise where the permanent location for the breaching channel will be. The Jan. 15 report called for further study to determine the impact on swimming, surfing and natural resources.

Pratte said he hopes that the department will decide to maintain the channel on the west side of the lagoon.

He said he was glad that special signs identifying Surfrider Beach would be posted because "surfing was not getting enough recognition in the planning" of Malibu Lagoon State Beach.

The surfing association is working with the parks department and county Department of Beaches and Harbors to conduct a survey of the reef that will determine the extent of the damage. The survey is needed, Pratte said, before any work can be done to restore the reef and bring back the waves that made the beach famous.

Norm Groom, chief sanitarian for the mountain and rural program of the county health department, said that recent tests of water quality in the lagoon showed that the level of coliform bacteria was well within the accepted limit of no more than 1,000 organisms per 100 milliliters (less than half a cup). Nonetheless, he said the county is concerned about pollution reports from Malibu residents and would like to see the parks department breach the lagoon only at night, when few swimmers and surfers are out.

The parks department report stated that nocturnal breaching was too expensive. But it recommended that lagoon flushing should occur "when visitor use is lowest."

The report proposed that the parks department coordinate with county health services to check bacterial populations in the ocean before and after breaching. It also suggested developing a method of warning beach users when breaching will be done.

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