Wetlands and the Pacific Meet Again

Times Staff Writer

In the foggy, predawn hours Thursday, bulldozers and giant excavators shoved aside the remaining mounds of beach sand and reunited the Pacific Ocean and the Bolsa Chica wetlands for the first time in more than a century.

It was the most significant and visible step in the long, ambitious effort to revive the degraded wetlands. The flow of ocean water -- cut off by members of a duck hunting club in 1899 -- is expected to help transform the saltwater marshes into a major wildlife sanctuary.

Once slated to be developed into an oceanfront housing tract, the wetlands were spared by environmentalists who lobbied for both money and political support to restore the marshland. Although fresh water -- mostly urban runoff carried in flood channels -- has long drained into the marshland, ocean water had, until Thursday, been blocked from reaching the area.

For conservationists, the earthmovers that finished cutting the ocean channel early Thursday were a welcome sight.

At 5 a.m., more than 100 people -- some who toasted the event with champagne while others photographed the historic moment -- lined a small bridge overlooking the recently carved inlet in Huntington Beach that would link the sea and marsh.


“I was out here at sunset last night because I wanted to walk the berm for the last time,” said Karen Moon Kuster, 55, of Long Beach. “It’s really exciting to be here, because it’s going to be wonderful now that it’s restored.”

Environmentalist Shirley Dettloff arrived at 4 a.m. A founder of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, a preservation group that has grown from six to 2,000 members over the years, Dettloff and a hard-core group of supporters had battled developers who wanted to turn the wetlands into, first, a marina and then housing.

“I absolutely have chills right now,” said Dettloff, a former Huntington Beach councilwoman and former state Coastal Commission member. “This is the group that believed in this project for 30 years, and to see this day is amazing.”

As she spoke, giant excavators guided by floodlights dug out the final shovelfuls of sand. “I really didn’t care what time this was going to happen; I would have been here any time,” she said.

The construction work caps a three-year, $147-million state project to reclaim a portion of the 880-acre wetlands that, for years, had been used for oil drilling.

State bonds provided revenue, but most of the restoration costs were covered by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as part of a mitigation measure for port expansion.

The restoration project included scooping out 2 million cubic yards of sediment and building jetties, two bridges spanning the 360-foot-wide inlet, and several public viewing areas.

Bulldozers began knocking down the last remaining barrier -- a 15-foot-tall, 400-foot-long sand berm -- at 3 a.m., and removed the final scoop of sand at 5:50 a.m. The moment was timed to coincide with low tide so the incoming rush of ocean water would not be overpowering.

Now linked to the ocean, the wetlands area along Pacific Coast Highway will rise and fall with the ebb and flow of the tide. The ocean water, biologists say, will be a fast-acting medicine, bringing marine life and additional migratory birds back to the wetlands.

The wetlands already are home to roughly 200 species of birds, including threatened ones, such as the California least tern and the light-footed clapper rail.

The restoration work undoes the effort of turn-of-the-century duck hunters who walled off the ocean in an effort to create ponds to make it easier to catch their prey. In the 1880s, the hunting club bought the land, which had been owned by farmers who grew lima beans and celery there. Oil drilling intensified after World War II, and more homes were built in the area.

Now, wetlands are recognized as vital filters for urban runoff, stopovers for migrating birds and habitats for endangered species.

Southern California has other significant wetlands such as the Los Cerritos wetlands in the Long Beach area, the Buena Vista wetlands in Carlsbad and the Ballona wetlands in Los Angeles County.

But Bolsa Chica, which contained an oil field, is regarded as “the largest and most complicated in terms of cleanup in the state,” said Robert Hoffman, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist who is on the project’s steering committee.

Jack Fancher, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in charge of the project, has referred to the decades-long battle to restore Bolsa Chica as “a steeplechase” because of the obstacles the project faced.

One hurdle emerged this month when project leaders were notified by the owner of the remaining oil wells, Aera Energy LLC, that the company needed more time to clean up soil that might be contaminated with oil-drilling residue.

The cornerstone of the Bolsa Chica restoration work was creating the inlet so that ocean water could flow into the wetlands. But because of the company’s concerns, seawater was allowed into only a portion of the wetlands that border Pacific Coast Highway.

Soil cleanup by the company is underway, said Susan Hersberger, an Aera spokeswoman. But the company also has expressed concern about whether it is prudent to introduce seawater into an active oil field, she said.

“The company seeks more study for impact and risks and would like more analysis,” she said. Both sides have agreed to extend the cleanup deadline 30 days.

Although 65 oil wells have been removed so far, drilling will continue with 55 remaining oil wells in a 250-acre section of the wetlands until the operation is no longer economically viable. Then it too will be cleared away.

At one time, as many as 4,884 homes were proposed for the wetlands, which developers argued were so degraded they were beyond any restoration effort. By 1996, the proposal had shrunk to 3,300 homes. A year later, the state paid $25 million for 880 acres. That parcel was added to 300 acres that landowner Signal Landmark had given to the state for wetlands preservation in 1973. The result was the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, whose boundaries have since grown.

Bolsa Chica supporters believe the wetlands will be visited by thousands of schoolchildren seeking to learn about wildlife and the ocean.

For spectators including Doug Morgan of Huntington Beach, who got daughter Kylee, 4, and son Jack, 6, out of bed to watch the inlet’s opening, it was akin to witnessing a major event, like the Rose Parade, in his backyard.

“We wanted to wake up early and see this,” Morgan said. “My daughter was pretty excited.”