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Malibu Lagoon restoration project receives final OK

October 13, 2010 |  3:50 pm

A $7-million restoration project to improve water quality and biodiversity at Malibu Lagoon is set to begin next summer after earning final approval Wednesday from the California Coastal Commission.

The unanimous vote gave the state Department of Parks and Recreation the go-ahead to temporarily drain a 12-acre section of the lagoon and use bulldozers to re-contour it, remove sediment and replace nonnative vegetation with plants appropriate for a salt marsh. Crews also will remove a pathway that has been blamed for restricting the flow of water in and out of the lagoon.

The project, more than a decade in the making, drew praise from most conservation groups as a solution to the wetland's polluted, stagnant waters and poor ecological health, but drew strong criticism from others.

During a 4 1/2-hour hearing at Oceanside City Hall, opponents showed a video of bulldozers set to metal music and decried the project as overly mechanized, saying it would disrupt an impressive assortment of plants, fish and seabirds.

"Let us approach the situation with the utmost delicacy," said Athena Shlien, a surfer from Malibu. "If restoring the lagoon is in part to benefit the habitat, then why in the world would we destroy it first?"

The panel sided with the majority of conservation groups, including Santa Monica Baykeeper and Heal the Bay, which said the aggressive approach is what must be done to improve chronic water pollution and oxygen levels so low they have caused fish die-offs.

"Opportunities to restore and increase ... tidal wetlands in Southern California are extremely rare," said Coastal Commission staff ecologist Jonna Engel. "And when they arise, such as here at Malibu Lagoon, we should pursue them."

The western reaches of the lagoon -- once filled in to make room for baseball diamonds -- were first restored more than 25 years ago. But it soon became clear the layout of the lagoon, with its steep banks and dead-end water channels, did not allow for enough water circulation to support a healthy ecosystem, state officials said.

The approval means that starting in June, work crews will grade the lagoon's banks to make them lower and scoop out more than 1,000 dump-truck loads of sediment to build a single meandering channel more suited to tidal ebb and flow.

Commissioner Steve Blank said he was convinced to vote for the restoration by scientific studies and the support of environmental groups that are “usually against moving a single grain of sand on the beach.”

Sara Wan, the commissioner from Malibu, said any short-term disruptions the project might cause are worth it for the long-term environmental gains. "While it's not going to solve all the problems," she said, "it's going to go a long way."

-- Tony Barboza in Oceanside