Left to its own devices, nature was more disruptive to the endangered species of Ormond Beach than a developer who pumped water from the area's pristine lagoons: storm runoff has now ruptured a sandbar and drained the wetlands.
The sudden breach surprised representatives of the Baldwin Co., who had spent about $40,000 siphoning water from their Ormond property, and environmentalists, who had argued that the sensitive habitat be left alone.
Ironically, officials from the Ventura County Flood Control District were laying a pipe to drain water from the area last Friday when they noticed it was already escaping into the sea. The breach was caused, they said, by last week's heavy rains.
"Rainwater caused the lagoon to fill up . . .," said John Correa, an engineer for the flood control district. "High tide and the water level in the lagoon caused the sandbar to break. The lagoon drained down in a big hurry."
Without human intervention, the sandbar would break every two or three years, according to state officials. The sandbar will take about six months to rebuild itself.
In recent years, the district had bulldozed the sandbar each spring to cut an outlet for the lagoon, which captures water from Oxnard storm drains and Port Hueneme's Bubbling Springs Creek.
But the district stopped the practice this year after environmentalists noted the presence of the endangered least tern, tidewater goby fish and other fragile wildlife.
Those species were undoubtedly harmed by the breach, environmentalists said, although they could not quantify the damage.
Some also said that last week's break would not have occurred if Baldwin had not tampered with the wetlands in the first place.
"If Baldwin had not pumped all that water . . . it would not have breached," said Jean Harris of the Ormond Beach Observers. "It wasn't just nature that did it."
Alan Sanders of the Sierra Club said that nothing that happens at Ormond Beach can be considered natural anymore because there has been so much human contact in the area.
"There has been so much tampering with the ecological system down there," Sanders said. "A lot of the activity lately, like the Baldwin Co. pumping the wetlands, is related to this."
Louis Malone, president of the Baldwin Co.'s Ventura and Los Angeles County division, angrily dismissed those charges.
"I think that's totally preposterous," he said. "That's a cheap shot."
Carrie Phillips, a coastal biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the rupture is part of the normal ebb and flow of a wetlands area. There seemed to be no reason to suspect it was caused by human contact, she said.
"As far as we know, the pressure got too high and blew (the sandbar) out," Phillips said. "It was a very productive area that was being used by a lot of sensitive species."
Two weeks ago, the California Coastal Commission ordered the Irvine-based Baldwin Co. to stop pumping the wetlands without a permit or face fines of up to $6,000 a day. The company eventually did, but not before workers had pumped enough water to dry out the 40 acres of flooded Baldwin land.
Baldwin has proposed building about 5,000 dwellings, a shopping center and a hotel on 1,200 acres in the Ormond Beach area.