A controversial coastal restoration will get a public unveiling in Malibu Friday, when officials cut the ribbon at the newly restored Malibu Lagoon State Beach. The project has attracted lawsuits and angry protests, but the scientists and land managers behind the $8 million effort say they have restored the lagoon's health.
One of the surest signs of the restoration's success is the lagoon's new smell, according to Mark Abramson, a senior manager for the restoration.
"Before it was just a stagnant death hole when it was closed," Abramson said. "I mean, it was so stinky, dark, black. It smelled like sewage, death, rotten eggs. Total sulfur smell. You could never call this healthy in any way shape or form."
The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission says the old smell came from oxygen starved water, choked in by sediment. Last year, bulldozers scraped several feet of that muck away, Abramson says, revealing historic wetland soil, sand and gravel.
"And you could see a foot below that," he adds. "The water bubbling up through it. And how clean that water was."
The bulldozers reshaped the lagoon so that a main channel now opens up toward the coastline.
"That channel has tributaries that branch and flow around these various islands," says California State Parks environmental scientist Suzanne Goode. "The wind is moving across and that causes the oxygen to circulate better and better oxygenate the water column for the aquatic organisms."
An alliance of Malibu surfers, realtors, and activists had sued to block the lagoon restoration, and failed. The project’s critics complain it’s a boondoggle, and that the lagoon doesn’t look as the historical record says it should. Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission Director Shelly Luce says that’s not how to define restoration.
"In this case, what we’re talking about is restoring natural flows," says Luce. "And this is the first major wetlands restoration project I know of in Southern California where the main goal was to respect that natural hydrology and make sure that we were allowing nature to do what it does best."
Nature still needs a push. Foot-tall blue and red flags stick out like acupuncture needles from stark terrain. Abramson says each flag marks one of the 68,000 new native plants that need PVC-pipe irrigation to take hold.
"We have about 80 different species of plants we’ve put in here," he says. "Plus we have some natural plants coming up that were part of the old historic wetlands seed bank. So we’re getting free plants, basically."
A core group of opponents maintains this project spells destruction. They say it has killed native and threatened species and taken habitat from wildlife – claims that Abramson vigorously rejects.
"No gobies were killed. No baby ducks were murdered on this site," he says. "Willie the weasel still thrives, we’ve seen him a few times. The only snake we found was after construction [had begun]. So apparently they’re liking the site."
The restoration will also give school kids a chance to learn about wetlands. State parks environmental scientist Goode says they’ll be able to stand on a ramp by the water and observe the tides.
"And as the water level rises, it meets these tiles that we installed, these art deco tiles that give the water elevation," she says. "And it just illustrates without even having to say that this is a place that is influenced by the tides."
Scientists plan five years of biological monitoring of the new Malibu Lagoon. An early survey has found larval forms of an ocean fish called the staghorn sculpin maturing in lagoon soils – a good sign, says Abramson, that at least one of the 17 fish species native to this place are taking to the estuary.
And, he says, if things go as planned, in a couple of years the lagoon will not only have thriving marine life, but will be as lush as a jungle.