Environment & Science

Fund for maintaining Bolsa Chica wetlands is running out of money

Roughly half of the 1,200 acres of the Bolsa Chica wetlands located off of Pacific Coast Highway in Orange County, went through a restoration project completed in 2006 that allowed for saltwater from the ocean to flow into the wetlands again, which hadn't happened in more than a hundred years.
Roughly half of the 1,200 acres of the Bolsa Chica wetlands located off of Pacific Coast Highway in Orange County, went through a restoration project completed in 2006 that allowed for saltwater from the ocean to flow into the wetlands again, which hadn't happened in more than a hundred years.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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Ten years ago this week, saltwater flowed into the main inlet of Orange County's Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve for the first time in more than 100 years. Migrating birds and sea life repopulated the wetlands.

But Bolsa Chica's marshes now face a new challenge: The State Lands Commission is running out of funding to keep the seawater flowing in.

Back in the late 1960s, a developer had plans to turn the wetlands into oceanfront residential property. But after a tussle over ownership rights, the California State Lands Commission received 320 of the 1,200-acre wetlands.

Then, about 20 years later, when the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were seeking mitigation projects to offset their expansions, a deal was struck. The state got a total of $151 million from the ports and from bonds to restore the wetlands.

In August of 2006, the tidal inlet was opened and sea life flushed the marshes. But now there is less than $3 million left in the restoration fund. The Lands Commission says it is searching for additional funding.

The wetlands — located along Pacific Coast Highway between Seal Beach and Huntington Beach — are like a hotel for migrating birds. Egrets, herons, terns and other feathered guests check in during the summer, sharing the waters and grassy islands with sting rays, clams and other sea life.

“We have very few places like this,” said Karen McReynolds, 57, a volunteer docent and biology professor.

Using her hand as a visor, McReynolds peered out over the wetlands' shimmering marshes. She was on the hunt for a white-and-black bird with a long, bright-orange beak.

“I’m actually here because my favorite Bolsa Chica bird is only here in the summer, and I haven’t come to see it yet,” she said.

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Visitors often come with heavy-duty photography gear to capture images of the wildlife.

“It’s just peaceful,” said Cypress resident Tanya Brodowski. “We come every day. Sometimes twice a day.”

For now, there’s enough money left in the state's fund to dredge the inlet at least once more so that ocean water can breathe life into the wetlands, said Shirley Dettloff, secretary of the volunteer group Amigos de Bolsa Chica.

“Once a year they do dredging, and those monies, yes, are running out,” she said. “So, we’re going to have to do something.”