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Ventura River Area Gets a 2nd Chance : Environment: Ambitious $754,000 cleanup plan calls for clearing site of harmful invasive vegetation, renewing trails and diverting flood-control channels.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They choke willows, creep into salt marsh and slowly drain the riverbed of the lifeblood it provides to roving coyotes, mule deer and sea birds.

Over the past several decades, invasive plants such as castor bean, ice plant and giant reeds have slowly crowded out the native plants that for centuries have supported the animal life in the Ventura River area.

“The invasives are a major problem,” said Lawrence E. Hunt, a biologist who has studied the area for years.

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While the non-native plants have eaten into much of the scrub land around the river, a team of state agents, wildlife volunteers and city officials has formed to revegetate the estuary with native plants.

Implementation of the $754,000 project comes more than a year after the Ventura City Council adopted the Ventura River Estuary Enhancement Plan, a thick blueprint for reversing years of abuse wrought by development, floods and lack of oversight.

The California Coastal Conservancy funded most of the cost with a $400,000 allocation approved last year. The state chipped in $150,000 and the city agreed to pay $196,000, half of which came from a state habitat-conservation grant. Another $8,000 in private donations was collected.

“All you can see are freeways, railroads and gas pipelines, so it’s been really caught up by infrastructure,” Brenda Buxton, the Coastal Conservancy project manager, said of the estuary.

“But it still provides a habitat for a lot of endangered species.”

The ambitious restoration calls for diverting flood-control channels to protect the estuary, enhancing trails and removing tons of habitat-threatening plants that suck up water and crowd out beneficial plants.

“We’re really trying to preserve some unique elements that are Ventura,” said Mayor Tom Buford, who voted to spend $33,000 in each of the next two years maintaining the estuary vegetation and trails.

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“Sometimes it takes a lot of time and some money, but what we’ll see is something that’s been here a long time really come to life.”

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On Monday, representatives from Ventura, the California Coastal Conservancy and the state Department of Parks and Recreation will meet at Ventura City Hall to review a proposal sent out last month.

Sealed bids submitted for the restoration work will be opened and the contract awarded July 18. Work is expected to begin by the end of July or early August.

The proposal stipulates that the land-clearing firm hired to clean out the giant reeds, bull thistle and other non-native plants work closely with a network of volunteers that city officials have courted for weeks.

Next month, members of the Friends of the Ventura River will join contractors, California Conservation Corps workers and volunteers in scouring 110 acres between the river mouth and Emma Wood State Beach, hacking off bamboo-like reeds and spraying acres of ice plant with herbicides.

“The estuary is considered an ecological treasure that supports a dynamic and diverse wildlife species,” said Jerry Revard, the city parks supervisor.

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“There are many species that are federally endangered, and encroaching development and years of neglect have left the area vulnerable to a lot of environmental problems,” he said.

Once most of the invasive reeds and ice plant are carted off or destroyed, crews will begin replanting willows, salt marsh and other native plants.

Cuttings taken from the native plants will be nurtured in the back yards of a dozen or more volunteers, who later will help replant them in the cleared-away dunes and brushland.

It is a project that is expected to take months to complete and years of monitoring to be successful. But without the effort, biologists warn, the river ecosystem will continue to erode.

“The benefits fall into two categories: natural flora and fauna will be enhanced, and recreational and educational programs will be set up,” said Mark Capelli, executive director of Friends of the Ventura River and a lecturer on coastal management at UC Santa Barbara.

When the revegetation is completed--sometime before nesting season begins next spring--organizers are planning to rehabilitate most of the trails that wind through Seaside Wilderness Park, the so-called “Hobo Jungle” just north of the river mouth.

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Interpretive signs and panels detailing to visitors the intricacies of the habitat will be erected, and volunteer docents will be available on weekends and holidays to answer questions.

“It’s going to be a unique community asset when it’s all finished,” Capelli said.

Walking the length of the 110-acre project area last week, state parks district Supt. Steve Treanor pointed to the giant reeds--called arundo donax-- as the worst enemy of the estuary’s native brush.

“It’s a wall,” he said, climbing through one overgrowth that has served as a campsite for homeless people. “It’s just an impenetrable wall.

“If I was a bird, I wouldn’t want to be in there. But that would be a great place,” Treanor said, pointing to nearby willows.

Wind, rain and floods constantly pushing the invading plants downstream are not the only threats to the native plant life that sustains the bobcats, skunks and foxes making their homes along the Ventura River.

For years, scores of transients and out-of-luck drifters have hunkered down in the dubious comfort of the giant reeds surrounding the river, leaving trash and human waste to further harm the habitat.

“This was their toilet,” Treanor said, uncovering a latrine left behind at one camp. “That will be a problem.”

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After the January floods killed one man and prompted the evacuation of 12 others, the City Council outlawed camping in the Ventura River bottom, which is dry most of the year. But vagabonds still creep into the area after dark.

Treanor said his rangers have rousted at least a dozen transients from makeshift campsites in the last month.

“People like to live here because it provides cover,” he said. “It has a certain charm if you’re camping. But if you’re living here, that’s another stage.”

While city and state officials herald the revegetation effort as a major step in reviving the riverbed, others say more work needs to be done to manage the entire Ventura River watershed, the area drained by the waterway.

“You have to look at the whole and how the parts are affected by the whole,” said Art Marshall, a longtime Ventura resident and president of the Ventura Audubon Society.

“This will help, but other measures later will also help keep the river scenic,” said Marshall, who plans to volunteer as a docent when the initial revegetation work is completed. “The whole river has to be managed wisely.”

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Botanist David L. Magney agrees. He said the estuary enhancement plan is a good start, but that biologists must look at the big picture.

“We need to control the giant reed starting at the top of the watershed and working our way down,” said Magney, who helped write the estuary management plan.

“It is a short-term fix that will have value,” Magney said. “But in the long run, we’ve got to control it at the watershed.”

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About two miles upstream from the river mouth, another restoration effort is under way.

Officials at Southern Pacific Milling, which for years mined rocks and gravel along the riverbed, are revegetating 23 acres under a state mandate. Hunt, the biological consultant, is overseeing that project.

“It’s critical,” Hunt said. “If you can get the native plants established and provide a kind of canopy, then the non-natives can’t compete.

“Hopefully, through time and the multiyear monitoring efforts, that will reduce the amount of area that’s covered by these invasives.”

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Capelli and other biologists are now trying to prepare a valley-wide management plan that would detail protections to the entire 16 miles of the Ventura River.

But like many projects on government wish lists, funding is a question.

“The unfortunate thing is the amount of effort that would be required to do something like that,” said Revard, the city parks supervisor.

“Managing invasive plant materials throughout the watershed would be a nice project if it could be done,” he said. “But it would be a pretty massive investment.”

That could mean more trouble for the endangered California least terns, snowy plovers and brown pelicans often spotted above the Ventura River watershed.

“They don’t go anywhere, that’s the problem,” Capelli said of the hundreds of species threatened by dwindling food sources. “When the habitat diminishes, the populations reflect that and just shrink.

“They simply disappear.”

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