Marsh Restoration Under Way at Santa Ana River Mouth

Times Staff Writer

The last time bulldozers rumbled through Huntington Beach’s Talbert Marsh, it was to block the tides that made it a productive wetland. Now, the bulldozers are back--this time to give the parched land another chance at life.

Since ocean access was cut off in the 1950s to the former salt marsh at the city’s southern tip, it has become a dusty vacant lot, home to little more than parked cars, stagnant runoff water and windblown trash.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Feb. 11, 1989 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 11, 1989 Orange County Edition Metro Part 2 Page 2 Column 2 Metro Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Because of an editing error, a story in The Times Friday incorrectly identified the location of property bought for wetlands restoration. In fact, the state Coastal Conservancy acquired 17 acres from Caltrans for restoration of the old Talbert Marsh in Huntington Beach.

It was part of a system of marshes that once covered more than 3,000 acres near the mouth of the Santa Ana River. Nearly all of those former wetlands have been lost to development and flood control projects, along with about 80% of the coastal marshlands throughout California.


But in recent months, bulldozers have been reshaping the site and now are poised to remove a concrete levee of the adjacent Talbert flood control channel. That will permit ocean waters once again to circulate through the former wetlands, located on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway between the Santa Ana River and Brookhurst Avenue.

In the next few months, backers of this ambitious restoration plan hope the 24-acre site once again will become a feeding and breeding ground for a variety of wildlife, including three species of endangered birds.

“We’re finally moving the dirt,” said Gary Gorman, who has been guiding the project through years of waiting and miles of red tape as project manager for the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy.

The restoration is breaking new ground as the county’s first such project that will be turned over to a private, nonprofit group to maintain. State officials acquired title to part of the nearby Bolsa Chica wetlands, restored them and now operate the area as a protected state reserve.

The state Coastal Conservancy acquired a 17-acre parcel from Caltrans for the Bolsa Chica project for $110,000.

The state agency has given the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy a $330,000 grant for the Talbert Marsh work. The county has contributed another $405,000 for the work, plus use of another 7 acres within the county flood control channel right of way.

Total cost of the restoration construction work is $488,000, with the balance of the funds going to planning, engineering and future maintenance, project officials said.

Dedication of the restored Talbert Marsh was planned for today but has been postponed due to this week’s rainstorms. Project officials said tidal waters should finally reach the bare dirt mounds and channels on the site when bulldozers begin knocking down the levee next week, weather permitting. Removal of the last of the levee should be completed by mid-March.

Then it becomes a matter of wait-and-see as Gorman and others associated with the project monitor the recovery of the wetlands. If it works, Gorman and other conservancy members hope to do the same for a neighboring parcel of degraded marshlands.

Pickleweed Still Around

Plans call for the re-introduction of cordgrass, a salt marsh plant required for nesting by the endangered light-footed clapper rail. Pickleweed, a hardier plant that is the favorite habitat of the endangered Belding’s savannah sparrow, has survived in isolated patches on the site, and Gorman said he expects the plant to spread on its own.

The endangered California least tern stands to gain the most from the restoration. About 60 of the gull-like birds nest in a fenced area just across Pacific Coast Highway on Huntington State Beach. Gorman and others are hoping that the fish-eating birds will feed in the restored area.

“The main focus of the project is as a foraging area for the least terns, and that it will do,” said Esther Burkett, a state Department of Fish and Game biologist. She based her optimism on a 6-month period in 1979, when sea water was temporarily reintroduced to the marsh and terns readily took to feeding there.

“Based on that, we anticipate that the area will come back very vibrantly,” Gorman said. “We have pretty high hopes for wildlife use.”

But even Gorman acknowledged that restoring wetlands is still largely experimental. Joy Zedler, a biology professor at San Diego State University who has done extensive research on wetlands restoration, said that so far it has proven impossible to fully re-create all the functions of a natural wetland.

There is a difference, she said, between making sure a restored or artificial wetland is functioning properly and “seeing if it’s green.” Wetlands are highly complex systems, she added, it can take years before the success of a restoration effort can be judged.

“There are lots of problems that don’t always show up in the first year of a project,” she said.

In one artificial marsh in San Diego Bay, cordgrass that at first seemed to be well established later started to die out. The culprit: an insect that feeds on cordgrass, which was inadvertently transplanted to the marsh along with the plants. In the absence of the insect, it thrived.

But even with the potential pitfalls, Zedler said restoration projects such as that in Huntington Beach are worth the effort. “Sliding Into Extinction,” a report commissioned in 1987 by the California Nature Conservancy, estimated that 80% of the state’s original 253,000 acres of coastal wetlands have been lost since 1850.

“The less wetlands left, the more it is worth,” Zedler said. “There’s so little left, every square foot has value.” A single square foot of salt marsh can support up to 10 species of plants and dozens of insect species, she said. Insects and other invertebrates are vital to migrating birds, which use coastal wetlands as refueling stops on their long biannual journeys.

“We’re very, very happy with the project,” said Burkett. “We wish we could do it more often, and we wish we could do it with a bigger parcel of land, but it’s a good first step.”

Plans to restore the wetlands germinated in early 1983 when Gorman--a firefighter by trade--and others whose houses back up to the site became upset about rubbish that collected there, and about dust kicked up by cars that parked there in summer.

The land at the time was owned mainly by Caltrans, which just happened to need some mitigation measures for the planned widening of the Pacific Coast Highway bridge over the Santa Ana River. Another party was the county Flood Control District, which planned a realignment of the Talbert Channel because of planned widening of the Santa Ana River.

Everybody Wins

The tale that emerged from what promised to be a tangle of bureaucracies had a happy ending for all parties. Caltrans got its required mitigation, flood control saved an estimated $2 million by using the natural flood control properties of the wetlands instead of cutting an expensive new channel, and the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy--formed in late 1985--gets to manage the restoration and, eventually, maintenance of the site.

In March, the conservancy becomes the legal owner of the property, the result of an eight-party agreement. “Basically, we’ve had good support from all the agencies,” Gorman said. “I guess in bureaucratic circles, it moved very, very quickly.”

Reed Holderman, project manager for the state Coastal Conservancy, said, “I don’t know if we’ve had a project with so many components.”

California least tern ( Sterna albifrons browni )

This gull-like bird builds its nest in the sand and fishes in estuaries. At Talbert Marsh, a fenced nesting site for the terns is near the restored wetlands at Huntington State Beach. Biologists hope the birds will fish in the marsh.

Belding’s savannah sparrow ( Ammodramus sandwichenis beldingi )

Listed as endangered species by the state, this small bird makes its home in pickleweed plants found in coastal salt marshes. At Talbert Marsh, some pickleweed has survived in the degraded marsh, and once tidal action is restored, it is expected to spread. Some Belding’s savannah sparrows are believed to reside in the area already.

Light-footed clapper rail ( Rallus longirostris levipes )

This large, sedentary marsh bird nests in cordgrass, also found in coastal wetlands. At Talbert Marsh, restorers plan to reintroduce cordgrass to the salt marsh in the hopes that the endangered bird someday will nest there. Backers say the marsh could support as many as 12 breeding pairs.