A new joint powers authority has acquired 66 acres of coastal wetlands at the mouth of the San Gabriel River in Long Beach and Seal Beach, and may acquire at least 100 more acres in the near future. The Los Cerritos wetlands may provide the scene for the last major coastal wetlands restoration project in Southern California.
The project has a very long way to go, as its size, scope and expense has yet to be defined. Only last summer did a joint powers authority composed of the cities of Long Beach and Seal Beach, the state Coastal Conservancy, and the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy acquire the first 66-acre piece. More than 300 additional acres of wetlands and potential wetlands still remain, all of it in private ownership.
"The only reason it hasn't been developed is because it has been an oil field," said Sam Schuchat, executive director of the Coastal Conservancy. Now, the property is both contaminated and wetlands— a set of circumstances that makes development nearly impossible.
Scientists and environmentalists have documented the fact that Southern California has lost at least 95% of its coastal wetlands to urban development. Two of the highest-profile environmental battles of the last 30 years have involved preservation of coastal wetlands — at Playa Vista in Los Angeles and at Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach (see CP&DR Local Watch, October 2003; Environment Watch, January 2002). Only in recent years have public agencies acquired the wetlands at issue, and full restoration is still many years away. The other significant Southern California coastal wetlands are at Ormand Beach in Oxnard, a few sites in San Diego County and at Los Cerritos, according to Schuchat.
"It feels to me like we are at the end game for coastal wetlands acquisitions in Southern California," Schuchat said.
Thus far, Los Cerritos has not become a high-profile environmental cause, probably due to the lack of the development pressure that raised the stakes in Playa Vista and Bolsa Chica. This may be changing at Los Cerritos, though, because a controversial big-box development is proposed adjacent to the wetlands.
In October 2006, Long Beach approved a 155,000-square-foot commercial center to be anchored by a Home Depot on 16 acres located across a channel from the wetlands. City officials said the project would have no impact on the wetlands, but the project, which lies in the coastal zone, has since been appealed to the Coastal Commission.
Project opponents argue that runoff from the big-box center and its 750-space parking lot would harm the wetlands. Coastal Commission staff members have raised the issue and, in a staff report last November, noted that wetlands have not been fully delineated. Opponents argue that the big-box site itself is part of the Los Cerritos marsh.
In its appeal to the Coastal Commission, the University Park Estates Neighborhood Association contended that the entire area needs a master plan before the city contemplates new development. "The desire to maximize the acquisition and restoration of the Los Cerritos wetlands and to minimize deleterious impacts through minimally invasive use of adjacent areas remains the overwhelming popular desire of the adjacent stakeholders," the appeal states.
Developer Thomas Dean acquired the property from AES Corporation, which has an electricity generating plant nearby. AES no longer needed the 16-acre site, which had served as a tank farm.
Schuchat said there is no interest in acquiring the proposed big-box site for the wetlands project. "We don't have any reason to believe that development will impact what we want to do," he said.
Long Beach Councilman Gary DeLong, chairman of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority, also dismissed concerns about the big-box development's impact. DeLong, who voted for the Home Depot project, said the project is consistent with the city's local coastal program, and he insisted there is very little threat to the wetlands posed by any new development. The city's focus is on redeveloping existing areas, not on growing into sensitive wetlands, he said.
The Coastal Commission will likely decide on the appeal later this year. The wetlands restoration project is not dependent on the Coastal Commission's decision.
Originally, the marsh covered about 1,500 acres. Roughly 400 acres remains either undeveloped or in a reclaimable brownfield state.
"All of the area was wetlands historically. The San Gabriel River had a delta there," Schuchat explained. "It's got these remnant wetlands, and, because they are on either side of the San Gabriel River, they are imminently restorable."
Because the wetlands lie on both sides of the river — the boundary between Long Beach and Seal Beach, and the line between Los Angeles and Orange counties — no one entity has been willing to tackle the restoration project. One year ago, the two cities and two conservancies formed the joint powers authority. The authority's goals are to provide flood protection and habitat restoration, and to improve water supply and quality.
The wetlands authority is negotiating to acquire an additional 100 acres. The Bixby Ranch Company owns another 180 acres in Los Cerritos.
The original acquisition of 66 acres was enabled by the Trust for Public Land, which purchased the marshland from the longtime owners. The authority then acquired the property for $10 million. The Coastal Conservancy provided $7 million, while Signal Hill Petroleum provided $3 million. Signal Hill will continue to extract oil from the site, but agreed to consolidate roads and well sites.
Additional acquisitions could be funded with Proposition 84 bond money and possibly by the Port of Long Beach as environmental mitigation. Those same potential resources might also help pay for restoration work.
Exactly what the wetlands authority will do with the site is undecided. Some conceptual planning has been done, and authority members are starting to work on more detailed plans. At this point, a complete study of habitat values has yet to be completed. Schuchat said a lengthy planning process with plenty of public input is in order. But, he warned, there can be a clash between habitat and public access.
Indeed, DeLong emphasized that there must be more in the wetlands project than simply a lack of urban development. "As we do the restoration," he asked rhetorically, "how do we turn it into a community-serving asset — and not just something you can look at out your car window as you drive by?"
Sam Schuchat, Coastal Conservancy, (510) 286-1015.
Councilman Gary DeLong, Long Beach, (562) 570-6300.
Coastal Commission appeals and staff report: http://documents.coastal.ca.gov/reports/2006/11/Th14b-11-2006.pdf
Los Cerritos Wetlands Authority: www.rmc.ca.gov/wetlands/about/about.html