OC cities look to runoff to restore habitat

A couple of Orange County cities are going with the flow to restore habitat and clean up runoff. KPCC's Susan Valot says Costa Mesa's just begun a project, and so has Huntington Beach

[From groundbreaking ceremony: "Once over." [sound of shovel digging into dirt] "There's trash. There's trash!" (laughs)]

Susan Valot: Officials joked when one of them hit a piece of trash during the recent groundbreaking at Fairview Park in Costa Mesa. They're getting ready to restore 35 acres of wetlands and riparian, or water-related, habitat. Costa Mesa City Engineer Ernesto Munoz says the project involves creating a series of ponds and streams, using runoff diverted from a nearby channel.

Ernesto Munoz: The value will not only be enhancement to the park and bringing back nature, but it will also serve as a huge water quality project, because the water that we're going to be taking from the channels will eventually end up in the ocean. And we're going to take that water and move it through this system of ponds and streams, and we'll use percolation to clean up this water.

Valot: In other words, the wetland becomes a filter, and more cleaned-up water percolates back into the groundwater supply. Munoz says the money for the first phase of the $8 million project comes from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

It's part of the Corps' payback for tearing up some native plants farther up the Santa Ana River. Costa Mesa City Councilwoman Katrina Foley says the project's part of a regional effort to restore the trail along that river.

Katrina Foley: It's really an educational asset, because we have schools all adjacent to the park here. We have Estancia High School. We've got Waldorf School. We've got, just down the road, several elementary schools. And they come to the park, and they go down and they, you know, you have a lot of science and biology classes that occur here. You have field trips by many of the elementary schools in the area.

Valot: Crews will start planting native species within the next few weeks. A 10 minute drive away, Huntington Beach is launching a similar project. The city's zoning administrator just approved a five-and-a-half-million-dollar project to divert runoff from the Wintersburg Channel into the now-dry Talbert Lake in the city's Central Park. As in Costa Mesa, the wetlands would act as a filter for runoff. Ray Hiemstra of the advocacy group, Orange County Coastkeeper, likes the idea.

Ray Hiemstra: This is a good first step in cleaning up water quality from this section of North Orange County, actually. This is more of a regional B.M.P., best management practice, so it actually collects water from a bunch of cities and keeps it out of the Bolsa Chica.

Valot: That's the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, just downstream. Kathy Kurjan has lived in Huntington Beach almost her entire life. She says the Talbert Lake restoration sounds nice. But she's not sure it's worth the cost, especially if taxpayers have to pick up some of the tab.

Kathy Kurjan: Because it is directly across the street from where I live, and there are things about it that make me concerned, like mosquitoes, and the smell. There's a potential for smell. And the fact that they are pumping runoff water back into an area that's used by multiple residents.

Valot: City officials say the plan ensures that odor and mosquitoes won't be a problem. But it'll be a while before crews break ground, if they do at all. The full Huntington Beach City Council probably won't vote on the project until next summer.