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Tension over wetlands

Times Staff Writer

If Tim Anderson had his way, he would be exploring this seemingly tranquil marsh to photograph the endangered Belding’s savannah sparrow nesting in pickle weed.

But life isn’t tranquil these days at the Los Cerritos Wetlands.

First, the gray-bearded naturalist from Westminster videotaped a tractor rolling over marsh plants. Then he spotted a bulldozer moving through a swampy area near a pool favored by green-winged and cinnamon teals.

Today, two pools have vanished and the reeds are turning brown, said Anderson, 54, who heads a local wetlands land trust. He shipped off his images to the California Coastal Commission, where the staff concluded that a pipe project violated the state Coastal Act and ordered an immediate stop to it. It’s unclear whether drought or man-made disturbance caused the pools to dry up.

As officials check for other potential violations, community tensions are rising over the future of Los Cerritos, a patchwork of tidal inlets, dried earth and oil pumps that straddles the Los Angeles County-Orange County line near Alamitos Bay.

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A century ago, the Los Cerritos marshes stretched over 2,400 acres at the mouth of the San Gabriel River. Today, state officials call the remaining 400 acres in southeast Long Beach and Seal Beach “a degraded wetlands,” the largest privately owned coastal marsh in Southern California, which has lost 95% of its coastal marshes to development.

Los Cerritos is at a turning point. State conservation officials want to buy the entire wetland and restore it, but the single largest owner, Bixby Ranch Co., has not agreed to sell to the state and may be negotiating with a private suitor, state and Long Beach city officials said.

The marsh is the last crucial link in a decades-long struggle to purchase and restore vanishing coastal wetlands along a migratory bird route called the Pacific Flyway from Ventura County to the Mexican border. The effort along the entire coast has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but experts say the restored marshes will aid birds and other wildlife, cleanse water and prevent flooding.

Los Cerritos has received unprecedented attention this year, in part because of two projects proposed on dry land on both sides of the wetlands: a 16.5-acre Home Depot Design Center retail complex to the east and a 425-unit Lennar Homes luxury condominium and retail complex to the southwest.

Several Long Beach officials -- Mayor Bob Foster, Councilman Gary DeLong and City Planning Director Suzanne Frick -- said a developer is trying to buy nearly half the wetlands. Although building on wetlands is strictly regulated, such a sale could delay or block the state’s purchase or trigger a prolonged fight.

“It will be like Bolsa Chica or Ballona or any of the other incredible land-use battles for which Southern California is famous,” said Sam Schuchat, executive officer of the Coastal Conservancy, one of two state agencies working together to try to buy Los Cerritos.

The private developer seeking the land, he said, “is in for the legal and political battle of their life.”

Some who live nearby worry that more growth would harm wildlife, exacerbate traffic and destroy the sense of open space that parts of the marshes convey.

Even now, much of Los Cerritos looks like some kind of dirt patch specked with puddles. Flanked by four supermarkets, two cinema multiplexes, two motels and a lineup of power plants, it’s a place where people and nature intermingle in curious ways.

Birdwatchers use the stores as signposts, relating how they spotted blue-winged teals just east of the In-N-Out Burger. Or they snap photos of egrets across from Barnes & Noble. A few weeks ago, traffic stopped on Pacific Coast Highway in a California version of the Boston-based children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings.”

“I always take my binoculars to Trader Joe’s, because I can go shopping and birding at the same time,” said resident Harriet Bennish, who spotted a pair of American avocets last month in a pond that dried up weeks later.

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Rich in oil

Oil is the reason these marshes have survived at all.

Long before voters passed the State Coastal Act in 1976 to protect such lands, Los Cerritos was an active oilfield, studded with bobbing oil pumps and threaded with unpaved roads.

More than 180 acres belongs to Bixby Ranch Co. of Seal Beach, with ties to the Bixby family that once owned most of Long Beach, Seal Beach, Los Alamitos and other cities nearby.

Los Cerritos is hardly a household name in Southern California, where more high-profile wetlands historically have grabbed the headlines: Ballona south of Marina del Rey, Bolsa Chica and, in San Diego County, Batiquitos Lagoon in Carlsbad.

But the name is well known among birders and wetlands experts, because migratory birds cruising between Alaska and Central and South America use this and other coastal marshes for foraging and shelter, much as Angelenos may stop at Barstow on the way to Las Vegas.

But development crammed along the coast has destroyed nearly all the mud flats and vegetation where birds thrive.

Schuchat counts only a few wetlands totaling 5,000 to 6,000 acres that have been or could be restored in the three-county Los Angeles area: Ormond Beach in Ventura County, Ballona and Los Cerritos in Los Angeles County and, in Orange County, Bolsa Chica and Upper Newport Bay.

These remnants are key to the coastal environment, said Alexis Strauss, director of the water division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional office in San Francisco.

“Wetlands filter out contamination, they provide wildlife habitat, they provide rearing grounds for fish,” said Strauss, who is monitoring the investigation at Los Cerritos.

Vigilant visitors to Los Cerritos have begun snapping photographs, not just of birds but of whatever appears to be disturbed soil or dumped construction waste.

The investigation continues. Peter Douglas, executive director of the Coastal Commission, issued a cease-and-desist order June 28 to Bixby Ranch Co. to halt what the firm described as a pipe project along Pacific Coast Highway just north of the In-N-Out Burger.

The state Department of Fish and Game is investigating the site.

So are the Army Corps of Engineers and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Building in a coastal wetland would require separate permits from those four agencies, said water board spokesman Stephen Cain.

“Our records do not show they approached our agency to do that,” Cain said.

The work was done to repair leaks in a freshwater pipeline, said Gregory Brown, who is an executive with BreitBurn Operating, which runs the oilfield for Bixby.

Brown said that workers scooped dirt onto the area so they could repair the pipe and that the firm considered it the kind of repair and maintenance that does not require a permit.

BreitBurn has hired a consultant to aid regulators in determining how much of the area is wetland, Brown said.

Timothy J. King, vice president of Bixby Ranch Co., declined to comment on the investigations or any construction on the firm’s property.

“We have a policy here, that I stick to very vehemently, that we do not make comments in articles,” King said. As for Anderson’s photos and videotapes, he said, “I can’t comment as to what he may or may not have, or what his opinion is, or not.”

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Jigsaw puzzle

Los Cerritos is a real estate jigsaw puzzle, with three private landowners holding most of the land.

A year ago, the state purchased 66 acres from one of those landowners, the Bryant Family Trust, in a $10-million deal struck with the help of the Trust for Public Land.

The same state officials are working to buy another piece, more than 100 acres known as the Hellman property in Seal Beach. They hope to close a deal with the Hellman Family Trust by the end of the year.

The biggest prize, the 180 acres of Bixby property at the wetlands’ heart, appears out of reach for now.

Talks with Bixby Ranch Co. have repeatedly stalled, state officials said.

Long Beach Councilman DeLong said he has been told that Thomas Dean, who is involved in the nearby Home Depot project, is in escrow to purchase the Bixby property. Frick, the city’s planning director, said she had heard the same from Dean. And on Friday, former Councilman Frank Colonna, now a board member of the other state conservancy working to buy the land, said King told him less than two weeks ago that the land is in escrow.

Foster, the mayor, said July 20 that Dean called him a few months ago to say he was making an offer on the property. Foster said he told Dean that the land should remain wetlands.

“The policy of the city would be to have all those wetlands ultimately in public hands and ultimately restored,” Foster said. Although he would prefer that the state buy it now, he said, “you have to have a willing seller and a willing buyer.”

Dean did not respond to repeated telephone calls in the last two weeks or a letter faxed to his office July 19. County land records do not show a recent transaction, and King would not comment on a potential sale.

“There have been stories for years. This is not something new,” he said. “At this point, we are simply operating as an oil company.”

The Coastal Act limits building on wetlands but does not rule it out, although commercial and residential projects typically are not allowed, experts said. Still, fierce legal fights have erupted in the past at Bolsa Chica and elsewhere over the definition of wetlands and the role of property rights.

Even if the land is sold, state officials say, they would be willing to buy it from the new owner after an appraisal.

“If Bixby were for sale to us, and if it was at a price that was at fair market value, the state has the money to buy it,” said Schuchat, citing the Proposition 84 funding that voters approved last fall to protect water quality and safety.

Belinda Faustinos, executive director of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, said Friday that she is preparing a letter to King to underscore the state’s interest in buying the land.

Even if the state could buy all of Los Cerritos, rejuvenating it would cost many millions. The Bolsa Chica restoration cost $147 million, bankrolled in part by the Port of Long Beach, which was legally required to offset the fish habitat lost during recent expansion projects. By restoring wetlands, the port helped create new habitat.

Port officials, long pressured to aid wetlands closer to home, said they might consider a similar effort in Long Beach. But Los Cerritos would pose “very large challenges” for the port, in part because power plants lining the wetlands take in water for cooling, destroying nearly all fish larvae, said Robert S. Hoffman, assistant regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

DeLong promises to work hard to ensure public ownership. He is the new chairman of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, made up of representatives of Long Beach, Seal Beach and the two interested state conservancies.

Some residents chide the first-term councilman, calling him too sympathetic to real estate and development interests.

They criticize his support of Home Depot and his creation of an advisory group that met privately to plan zoning changes that could affect development around the wetlands.

The members of the group included residents working in real estate, construction equipment and education but not any wetlands scientists or environmentalists.

DeLong defends the members as people who put the public interest first.

The City Council balked at endorsing the plan, and Frick said her staff is creating its own plan, using research from DeLong’s group and others involved in the issue.

Two council members from eastern Long Beach said the city has lagged in protecting Los Cerritos. Councilman Patrick O’Donnell gathered his colleagues recently for a special session on Los Cerritos and other local wetlands.

“We’re starting to do what we should have done all along, which is to give the wetlands more focus,” he said.

Added Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske, “I just hope we’re not too late.”

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Wetlands species

The Los Cerritos Wetlands provide feeding grounds for rare wildlife and plants, including the federally protected California least tern and California pelican. Other declining native species there:

Belding’s savannah sparrow

Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi

Lives year-round in coastal salt marshes from Goleta Slough in Santa Barbara County to northern Baja California. Only 5 1/2 inches long, the songbird is brown with streaking on its head and face and a yellow area between the eyes and bill. California has listed it as endangered since 1974, largely because of lost habitat.

Southern tarplant

Centromadia parryi ssp. australis

Grows in salt marshes and grassy lowlands along the Southern California coast. A member of the aster family, it has yellow-orange flowers and dark green foliage. Because its numbers are shrinking, the state considers it a sensitive species, and it must be considered during environmental reviews.

Sandy Beach tiger beetle

Cicindela hirticollis gravida

Lives only on light-colored sandy areas near water. It can be found at Los Cerritos on areas called salt panne, which are intertidal salt flats bare of plants. It is food for the Belding’s savannah sparrow, and the state ranks it as a sensitive species.

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Sources: California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,

California Native Plant Society

Reported by Deborah Schoch Los Angeles Times


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