Marian Allison trudged slowly through the muddy marsh, stopping to pick up a fast food cup and empty potato chip bag and flip them into an oversized garbage sack.
“This is so disgusting,” said Allison, 71. “It stinks out here and it’s gooey. I’m sinking in the mud.”
Allison could have spent the day tending to the garden at her Fullerton home of 37 years.
But she was among dozens who volunteered Saturday to clean up the mess that washed over the Bolsa Chica wetlands during the recent rainstorms.
“I suspected it would be bad, but I didn’t think it was going to be this bad,” said Allison, removing her sunglasses and wiping sweat from her cheek.
The 300-acre, state-owned wetlands looked more like a landfill, trashed by urban runoff carried out by the rains.
“There’s so much junk,” said Laura Bandy, education director of the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that advocates preservation and restoration of the wetlands.
“The rain just compounded a problem that was already bad. It took all the trash from surrounding areas and brought it to us.”
The long, narrow patch of salt marsh along Pacific Coast Highway between Seapoint and Warner avenues in Huntington Beach has long been a controversial site, pitting environmentalists against developers. It is managed by the state Department of Fish and Game, which allows the conservancy to supervise the wetlands.
The wetlands is about 10 feet below sea level and collects runoff from Huntington Harbour, Anaheim Bay, the Pacific and the Wintersburg flood control channel.
The task workers faced Saturday was particularly challenging because this month’s storms forced the cancellation of previously scheduled cleanups, Bandy said.
Volunteers, some from church groups or schools, combed the wetlands, carrying plastic bags in one hand and grippers in the other.
The workers pressed on despite the smell of sewage and rotting trash.
They hauled away debris that included dead skunks, shopping carts and one car door.
“Oh gosh, this is so gross!” said Justin Monteleone, 13, a student at Cerro Villa Middle School in Villa Park. “Look, there’s a bottle filled with urine! A torn-up Christmas tree!”
He fell into the water as he tried to grab a tennis ball and waded through knee-deep muck.
“It’s a giant Dumpster here,” he said.
Bandy said the cleanup was crucial because animals would begin to migrate to the wetlands in March, when the breeding season begins.
“People don’t realize what this place is all about,” Bandy said. “They see mud and weeds and it doesn’t look like Yosemite so they don’t stop by and they don’t treat it right.”