A state judge in San Francisco has temporarily halted a contested project intended to restore pollution-choked Malibu Lagoon.
Superior Court Judge Ernest Goldsmith on Tuesday issued a stay delaying the project until a lawsuit challenging it can be heard, calling the harm that would result from the project going forward "severe."
The order means the $7-million plan to reshape and improve water quality in the wetland at the outlet of Malibu Creek will be at a standstill until next summer or beyond.
"The project would damage various types and species of flora and fauna, several of which are endangered," Goldsmith wrote in the order. "Birds in the area, some of which are endangered, would be deprived of food sources found in the lagoon. Petitioners have shown to the satisfaction of the Court that many species and their habitat would not recover."
Document: Read the judge's stay
Starting June 1, crews were to temporarily drain part of the lagoon and use bulldozers to scoop out sediment and improve water circulation in the degraded wetland under a project overseen by the state Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Wetlands Defense Fund, Access for All and the Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network sued the state Coastal Commission to block the project on the grounds that it is too damaging to existing habitat, including aquatic vegetation and fish, and would remove a pathway to the popular Surfrider Beach.
State officials were disappointed by the unexpected ruling, which means the project that has been decades in the making will not be able to proceed until at least next summer.
"This is a project that has widespread support from environmentalists and scientists and government agencies," said Suzanne Goode, a senior environmental scientist for California State Parks. "We really had hoped we could get started this year."
Most environmental groups, including Santa Monica Baykeeper and Heal the Bay, support the restoration plan, saying it would remedy the lagoon's polluted, stagnant waters and poor ecological health.
The Coastal Commission unanimously approved the project in October. Legal proceedings are taking place in San Francisco because that's where the agency is headquartered.
A battle has erupted over the last few months as opponents to the project, surfers and Malibu residents among them, have rallied against the plan at city hall chambers and roadside protests, asserting it would destroy habitat and hurt wave action at Surfrider Beach, a one of the world's most famous surf spots.
The Surfrider Foundation, which supports the project, commissioned a coastal engineering firm to review that claim. The firm concluded that it is unlikely the project will have an adverse effect on surfing.
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-- Tony Barboza
Photo: An egret lands in Malibu lagoon. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times