Environment & Science

As tension escalates over Malibu Lagoon, UCLA scientist explains why he believes this restoration will help

A view of Malibu Lagoon in July 2011.
A view of Malibu Lagoon in July 2011.
Marcia Hanscom/Wetlands Defense Fund

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In the 1970s, the Malibu Lagoon was topped with a baseball diamond, and was filled with sediment. A first effort to return the lagoon to wetlands happened in 1983.

“That ’83 project was an attempt to bring better wetland functions to the area, and it did," said UCLA professor of environmental health sciences Richard Ambrose. "It definitely was a big improvement over just a dirt lot. But there were problems."

Since the start of the month, supporters and opponents of a state-sponsored Malibu Lagoon restoration project are lining Pacific Coast Highway as the project kicks into high speed. But for the last 20 years, scientists have considered the lagoon an impaired waterway.

For decades, Ambrose has been studying Malibu Lagoon’s functions. He’s not alone: bird researchers and conservationists have documented more than 295 species of native and naturalized birds at the lagoon. Ambrose says he’s seen many of them himself.

His studies looked at what’s below the water’s surface. “There are things that you can’t just go out there and look at and know that it’s a problem.”

Invertebrates, clams, worms, shrimp and other marine life require more oxygen, a better chemical balance in water, to thrive. That’s one reason the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission has obtained permits to drain the water and reshape the surface.

Opponents to the project say that they’d happily come out to the lagoon with shovels to do work by hand. But Ambrose says the depth of the problem demands a bulldozer.

“They talk about trying to weed, or do other things that don’t involve moving earth. But the design that’s leading to the problem right now is really the design of these tidal creeks,” Ambrose said. “And you can’t just do something superficial to change that. You have to go in and restructure the topography.”

The Wetlands Defense Fund and others have spent a lot of time challenging the project and in recent months winning support from politicians. They say the lagoon isn’t so sick it needs this cure, and they say the short-term impacts to wildlife are too great to justify the project.

Ambrose says the science of wetlands management has come a long way since the days when a baseball diamond sat at the lagoon. “We have really high confidence, good scientific knowledge about what’s going to happen in terms of the recovery of the species after the Malibu lagoon project,” he said. “For me I’m willing to see some temporary impacts knowing that they’re going to recover and when they recover the whole system will function better.”

Marcia Hanscom of the Wetlands Defense Fund says she’s looking into legal options to halt restoration work at the lagoon. For his part, Ambrose says he understands why the stakes are high for everyone who cares about the lagoon. While the U.S. has lost about half of its wetlands, about 91 percent of California’s historic wetlands are gone.

(Correction: The name of one of the groups opposing the Malibu Lagoon project is Wetlands Defense Fund, not Wetlands Defense Center.)