After a Century, Wetlands Will Reunite With the Sea

Times Staff Writer

When bulldozers finally smash through the wall of sand separating the Pacific from the Bolsa Chica wetlands, allowing millions of gallons of seawater to rush into the marsh for the first time in 107 years, a hard-core group of supporters will be on hand to cheer.

“This will be our dream realized,” said Shirley Dettloff, a local environmentalist who, like scores of others, devoted decades to battling developers who wanted to turn the Huntington Beach wetlands into a marina or an oceanfront housing tract.

Spared, a portion of the 880-acre wetlands is now poised to be reunited with the ocean as work crews finish shoveling through 2 million cubic yards of sand to create a channel linking the ecological reserve and the sea.


The job, scheduled to be completed Aug. 24, may end with more of a trickle than a splash.

Project officials want to slow the velocity of the water as it pours into Bolsa Chica and are expected to order the contractor to unplug the inlet at low tide, during predawn hours, to minimize the number of spectators for safety reasons.

“Many of us who have been working on this for 30 years would like a bit more for the opening, but I’m sure some of us will be down there looking over the bridge at that time,” said Dettloff, a former Huntington Beach councilwoman and former state Coastal Commission member.

Cutting the channel is seen by state biologists as the keystone to one of the most ambitious and expensive wetland restoration projects in state history. And although the expected rebirth of the area as a major wildlife sanctuary has environmentalists and naturalists excited, others are leery of some of the potential side effects.

As the stagnant and murky waters of Bolsa Chica are drawn back out to sea by the tides, there is concern that it could -- temporarily, at least -- stain local ocean waters.

Still, the general feeling among all those who had a hand in saving Bolsa Chica is that they are on the brink of an astonishing achievement, even if much hard work lies ahead. Because the wetlands were used for oil drilling for years, the cleanup is extensive and the cost of the project has now grown from $100 million to $147 million.

“You have to put this in the context of a region that has lost 90% of its historic wetlands,” said Robert Hoffman, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, who is on the project’s steering committee.

In addition to the mammoth task of scooping out nearly 2 million cubic yards of sediment, a bridge for PCH and another for oil workers were built and several viewing areas were added. Ocean water has been slowly pumped into the wetlands to gradually raise the water level.

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

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.

“It’s been a contentious, long road,” said Jack Fancher, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist in charge of the project. “It’s been like a steeplechase or a very long endurance race with obstacles.”

But repairing an ecosystem that’s been dysfunctional for decades is a worthy cause, he said.

At one time, as many as 4,884 homes were proposed on 1,100 acres of the preserved wetlands. 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.

Members of a duck hunting club had cut off the wetlands from the ocean in 1899, diking ponds to make it easier to catch their prey. Oil drilling began after World War II, then homes were built in the area.

Now, wetlands in general are recognized as vital filters for urban runoff, way stations for migrating birds and habitats for endangered species. They generate economic benefits by restocking commercial ocean fisheries. And communities get recreation spots for nature lovers, hikers and birders.

Bolsa Chica already attracts thousands of hikers and bird watchers, who, armed with binoculars, watch herons, pelicans, other diving birds, and threatened and endangered species such as the Belding’s savannah sparrow, California least tern and light-footed clapper rail.

But the greater significance is its prime fisheries habitat, said Hoffman, who said the area will essentially serve as a fish maternity ward because of the wetlands’ shallow, warmer water.

Based on monitoring at the Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad -- a similar, $57-million restoration job ended there in 1996 -- once the inlet opens, he said, “literally overnight you get additional 30 species and in 10 years you can get 60.”

For example, California halibut are dependent on wetlands habitat for their first year, he said. Juveniles born offshore drift into shallower waters, where the young settle in bays and inshore banks snacking on fish, crabs, clams and squid.

Surfers have a love-hate relationship with the project. They smile at the new surfing peaks at the south end of Bolsa State Beach north of the inlet, which they attribute to a sandbar built from sediment dumped offshore from the project’s dredging activity. But they cringe when thinking about chemicals, wildlife waste and anything else that may be flushed out into the surf.

“We like the restoration, but some of us have set up a water monitoring program and they intend to take daily samples,” said Don Slaven, a surfing veteran and member of the Surfrider Foundation.

Bolsa Chica State Beach has a reputation for having clean ocean water, in part because there are no creeks, storm drains or rivers dumping bacteria-laden urban runoff, said Monica Mazur, environmental health spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Project officials were aware of the bacteria potential and avoided the danger by not adding any connections to existing flood channels, Fancher said.

“Our conclusion is that the restored wetland alternative that we have implemented will not increase the frequency of beach health warnings at Bolsa Chica State Beach,” he said.

In addition, he downplayed whether oil field contamination would flush into the ocean. What contamination was prevalent was dug out and the remaining soil sampled for verification, he said. The cleanup was endorsed by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, he added.

Fancher did have good news for surfers: Once the inlet is opened, the sandbar should remain.

“That should make for a popular surf break and good, clean tidal water flow that won’t degrade surf zone water quality.”