Wetlands: A ‘Last-Stand’ Defense : Environmentalists, Developers Eye San Diego County Lagoons

Times Staff Writer

They called it Capt. Nemo’s Secret Harbor, and Bill Dean remembers it well.

“The idea was to turn Batiquitos Lagoon into a massive water-theme amusement park,” said Dean, who lives about a mile south of the Carlsbad lagoon.

The plan, put forth by a Beverly Hills entrepreneur in 1975, envisioned turning the still, brackish bays of Batiquitos into a sort of aquatic Disneyland. In addition to a hotel, convention center, several restaurants and a sprawling residential community, plans included a roller coaster and a ride that featured submarines chugging around several miniature harbors.


“Needless to say, we were definitely not amused by the proposed amusement park,” Dean recalled recently. Although the proposal won the informal endorsement of planning officials, community protest eventually killed it.

Capt. Nemo may be history, but the battle over the lagoons in northern San Diego County rages on.

While the state Coastal Act and other laws prohibit the outright destruction of California’s wetlands, the six lagoons that lie like a strand of pearls along the coast from Oceanside to southern Del Mar remain threatened, caught in a seemingly endless tug-of-war between equally determined environmentalists and developers.

In the eyes of state resource management officials, northern San Diego County represents the final battleground for coastal wetland issues in Southern California. At one time, Newport Bay, Mission Bay, Marina del Rey and the harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach were all wetlands. But development has eaten away at these and other Southland estuaries, eliminating them or greatly reducing their size.

So with six relatively undisturbed coastal lagoons--sometimes described as “museum pieces"--in their backyard, residents of northern San Diego County have a chance to make a last stand for the wetlands, state officials say.

The effort will not be easy. Erosion from decades of upstream development has dumped tons of silt into the lagoons, smothering much of the plant and animal life in their briny waters and tidal mud flats, while vastly accelerating their geological demise.

Texas oil billionaires W. Herbert Hunt and Nelson Bunker Hunt, meanwhile, are among numerous property owners with ambitious plans for the shores of the lagoons--hotels, universities, residential communities and other developments likely to take their toll on the fragile areas.

Legal Safeguards Vulnerable

At the same time, state officials and local activists say the Coastal Act and other laws designed to protect the lagoons and govern development near their shores appear increasingly vulnerable to attack.

“There’s no question that this is a very, very critical era for North County’s lagoons,” said Alyse Jacobson, manager of the state Coastal Conservancy’s Resource Enhancement Program. “There are a lot of major development proposals out there that could spell the doom of those lagoons.”

Although their rather unmajestic vegetation, muddy shores and murky waters may not be a thing of beauty to the average beholder, lagoons and other wetlands are highly productive ecosystems teeming with life, biologists say.

Their rich tidal soup is not only brimming with the seeds of an intricate coastal food chain, but acts also as a spawning ground and nursery for many commercially important species of fish--salmon, striped bass and halibut among them.

California’s wetlands also are used by as many as 10 million birds each year, including federally listed endangered species and migratory ducks that rest and feed at the lagoons on their annual journey to and from from nesting grounds in Alaska and Canada. In addition, biologists say, the wetlands are still poorly understood pieces of a complex global ecological puzzle.

To some, the lagoons have still another value--as lush pockets of nature that give a geographical identity to the coastal communities and provide visual relief along an increasingly populated freeway corridor.

“They’re . . . an important part of our heritage--a sort of subtle reminder of what an area undisturbed by man was like,” Dean said.

Wetlands have not always been so revered. Those who settled this country viewed the once-abundant resource as a sort of intertidal no-man’s land--a smelly, mosquito-infested swamp that had to be drained, paved or dredged to be of any real use.

Until the environmental movement gained popularity in the mid-1960s, few protested their destruction or conversion into marinas and waterfront residential communities.

Nationally, more than half the 215 million acres of coastal and inland wetlands that existed at the time of the country’s settlement have been destroyed. Between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s alone, 9 million acres of wetlands were either drained for crop production or modified for urban development.

In California, the rate of loss has been even higher. More than 90% of the state’s coastal and inland wetland acreage--estimated at between 3 million and 5 million acres--has been destroyed, according to a 1984 report prepared for a state Assembly subcommittee on natural resources. Along the 1,100-mile coast, only one-fourth of the 300,000 acres that once were wetlands remain.

The greatest losses have occurred in Los Angeles and Orange counties, where seven major coastal wetlands once totaled 17,300 acres. Newport Bay and the harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach have displaced major wetlands, and what remains of the Ballona wetlands, carved up 20 years ago to make room for Marina del Rey, is owned by Summa Corp., which plans to build a $1-billion community of 20,000 people on the site.

Few Had Interest

“Back in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, when growth in Los Angeles was booming, nobody stopped to wonder if there was anything valuable about wetlands, which were referred to as ugly wastelands that would make lovely marinas,” Jacobson said.

Because of the Coastal Act and other legislative shields, the north San Diego County lagoons and other wetlands no longer are in danger of being converted into parking lots, but they remain vulnerable to siltation from upstream development.

Formed about 25,000 years ago when melting glaciers raised the sea level and water spilled into coastal valleys, lagoons are geologically destined to fill up with silt and become meadowlands during their life span. But that natural process has been hastened by man, whose development activities in the watershed have substantially increased the load of sediment being swept downstream and dumped in the lagoons.

Under natural conditions, the tide would purge a lagoon of the silt. But construction of the railroad, the coast highway and Interstate 5 has effectively strangled the lagoons--blocking or narrowing their mouths and eliminating or reducing their exchange with the ocean.

Natural Processes

Human impact has so thoroughly upset the natural processes at the lagoons that restoration and long-term management are imperative if they are to survive as healthy systems capable of sustaining bird and marine life, biologists say.

Restoration, however, is a new and delicate science, and biologists involved in the efforts admit that they are simply feeling their way along--learning more about what works and what does not with every project they complete.

Complicating restoration are conflicts over objectives. Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad is a useful example.

The Hunt brothers of Dallas, best known for their reputed attempt to corner the world silver market, plan to build a golf course, hotel and residential community on 1,385 acres they own north of Batiquitos. Eager to enhance the lagoon’s aesthetic qualities, the Hunts propose an “improvement” program that uses a pumping system to keep a constant water level in Batiquitos.

But environmentalists and state Department of Fish and Game officials say the plan may not “improve” the lagoon at all and may instead alter the shallow-water environment favored by a wide variety of shore birds.

Environmental Struggle

While environmentalists struggle to protect the lagoons from the effects of development and lobby for wetland restoration projects, others are attempting to dismantle those coastal resource protections that already exist.

Exceptions to the Coastal Act are frequently permitted, with the level of enforcement of the act in constant flux, depending on the actions of the Coastal Commission. There are repeated legislative attempts to weaken the act, and Gov. George Deukmejian, whose 1982 budget cut the commission’s staff nearly in half, has stated publicly that he sees no need for a permanent coastal panel.

But the lagoons have dedicated guardians--local residents who have formed lobbying groups and who vow to preserve at least a hint of wilderness amid the steadily expanding urban sprawl north of San Diego.

Deliver a Message

Their tactics and motivations vary, but the lagoons’ local allies generally deliver the same message: “What we’re trying to say is, ‘Look, there’s a ton of land where you can put up those tacky houses, so why ruin these few precious areas?’ ” said Anne Omsted, executive director of the Los Penasquitos Lagoon Foundation.

Further, state officials and environmentalists say that they are convinced that the general public supports the preservation of coastal wetlands, citing passage last June of Proposition 19, also known as the Wetlands Bond Act, by 64% of California’s voters. The act was an $85-million general obligation bond for acquisition and restoration of inland and coastal fish and wildlife habitats.

The Lagoons 1 BUENA VISTA Size: 350 acres of marshland ranging in depth from a few inches to 6 feet.

Ownership: Most of the lagoon is part of an ecological reserve owned by the state. A small area east of Interstate 5 is privately owned, including 27 acres owned by Hughes Investments.

Plans: Hughes Investments plans a shopping center and commercial building.

2 AGUA HEDIONDA Size: 388 acres of mud flats and deep water.

Ownership: San Diego Gas & Electric owns 262 acres, including Encina Power Plant site. Irvine-based Cal Communities Inc. owns land.

Plans: A 1,600-unit residential and commercial development on 433 acres by Cal Communities Inc. The plan goes before the Coastal Commission in April.

3 BATIQUITOS Size: 526 acres of shallow wetlands.

Ownership: Hunt Properties Inc. owns 325 acres; Sammis Properties owns 166 acres; remainder state-owned.

Plans: Hunt Properties proposes Pacific Rim Country Club, a resort with 5,400 dwellings. Sammis Properties plans a 166-acre project with 611 homes, a college campus, a hotel and recreational complex.

4 SAN ELIJO Size: 900 acres of mud flats, marshland and open water, to 4 feet deep.

Ownership: Most is ecological reserve, owned and managed by San Diego County and the state. Bay west of train tracks privately owned.

Plans: Mira Costa College plans campus on northeast shore. County has OKd 38-unit project on southwest shore, with 6.1 acres for a reserve. Lawsuit has been filed.

5 SAN DIEGUITO Size: More than 400 acres that range from shallow marshland to tidal channels up to 6 feet deep.

Ownership: State of California and City of Del Mar.

Plans: Del Mar Fairgrounds wants to use the land north of the lagoon and next to the park for parking, while a developer plans a hotel northeast of the lagoon.

6 LOS PENASQUITOS Size: 385 acres of salt flats, marshland and tidal channels.

Ownership: Torrey Pines State Reserve takes 150 acres around lagoon; SDG&E; owns 240 acres, and hills on northeast are privately owned.

Plans: SDG&E; bought land in 1966 for a nuclear power plant, but a zoning change blocked it. SDG&E; seeks to build a 100-acre industrial park north of Sorrento Valley.