Bolsa Chica Saga Proves Wetlands Are for The Birds
After 20 years of argument and struggle, numerous revisions and a predictable snarl of litigation, the most expensive wetland restoration project in California history has cleared one of its final hurdles and appears poised to become reality at last.
Bolsa Chica, a prime piece of oceanfront property adjacent to the upscale Orange County community of Huntington Beach, was once one of the largest and most significant coastal wetland complexes in the state. The California Coastal Commission's approval of a $100 million restoration plan in November all but assures that this rare piece of undeveloped coastline will remain the province of birds and fish, rather than well-to-do homeowners and boaters.
Evidence that Bolsa Chica has long been viewed as prime real estate comes from archaeological sites on the low mesa adjoining the wetlands, where 8,000-year-old human burials have been found. Those early hunter-gatherers may have been enamored of the view, but they were drawn primarily by the abundant food supply. Long a key stop on the Pacific Flyway, Bolsa Chica is an avian refueling depot, the bounty of aquatic life in its plankton-rich waters allowing migratory birds to replenish fat stores depleted by their long flights. The abundant wildlife was a convenient source of sustenance for prehistoric humans.
That abundance of waterfowl also drew modern hunter-gatherers, to the lasting detriment of Bolsa Chica's ecological integrity. A mosaic of salt and brackish marsh, tidal basins and mudflats, Bolsa Chica was connected to the Pacific via the Bolsa Chica slough. In 1899, however, members of a local gun club blocked the slough and diked the wetlands to create a system of ponds for waterfowl hunting.
Despite this hydrological insult, bird life continued to flock to Bolsa Chica in astounding numbers.
"This section of the country along the coast between Long Beach and Newport Beach, south of Westminster, was one of the greatest natural habitats for wild life and game birds in the world," local historian T. B. Talbert wrote in his 1952 autobiography, My Sixty Years in California. "Wild ducks, geese, jack-snipe, coots, plover, doves, killdeer, egrets, herons, gulls, pelicans, land birds and waterfowl of every kind and description varied their flights from the ocean to swamp to grain fields, from grain fields to ocean again, to feast on seafood, grain, seeds, bugs, toads, worms, grasshoppers, and the like. I have seen birds by the thousands so thick in flight as to almost eclipse the sun. The hours-long flight of ducks patterned against a blazing sunset sky was most amazingly spectacular and beautiful"
Not long after duck hunters discovered this game-bird paradise, oil was discovered beneath Bolsa Chica. More of the marsh was drained and filled, and a forest of drilling rigs sprouted. The property caught the eye of developers during the 1960s when the oil field began to play out. In 1970, Signal Corp. bought about 2,000 acres of Bolsa Chica's wetlands and drier upland from the gun club.
Even in its degraded state, Bolsa Chica remained a magnet for waterfowl; with 90 percent of Southern California's coastal wetlands lost to farms and urban development, each remaining patch became more precious. The Audubon Society's annual winter bird count yields higher numbers and greater diversity of species at Bolsa Chica than at any other site in coastal Southern California, according to Fullerton College ecology professor Allan Schoenherr.
Thanks in part to its popularity with birders, efforts to protect Bolsa Chica have been underway nearly as long as efforts to develop it. In 1973, the state purchased 300 acres of the wetlands and established the Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve. In 1976, local activists formed Amigos de Bolsa Chica to battle development plans.
Bolstered by numerous courtroom victories, preservationists, including the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, derailed one proposal after another. The most extravagant project, approved in 1985 by Orange County, would have resulted in 5,700 homes, a marina, shops and an oceanfront hotel (see CP&DR, November 1989).
In 1997, the state acquired nearly 900 acres of Bolsa Chica property and began devising a restoration plan. The developer retreated to the adjoining mesa, planning 1,200 homes on 183 acres overlooking the patchwork of drilling pads and degraded marshland below.
Even that retreat and the apparent victory of Bolsa Chica's defenders did not end the controversy. Local activists continue to argue that allowing development on the mesa will threaten the ecological integrity of the wetlands below, and call for protection of the entire property. The Coastal Commission handed the landowner a serious setback just over a year ago when it ruled that homes could be built only on a 65-acre portion of the mesa. The developer sued to overturn that decision; that case is still before the court.
Despite the legal storm swirling around the mesa, plans to breathe life back into the lowland portion of Bolsa Chica cleared a key hurdle in November with the Coastal Commission's approval of the restoration plan proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Nothing comparable has ever been tried in California.
The heart of the plan is letting the ocean back into Bolsa Chica for the first time in more than a century. A 360-foot-wide channel will be cut through Bolsa Chica State Beach. (Four acres of beach will be lost as a result.) About 2.7 million cubic yards of material will be dredged to create a shallow tidal basin; other acreage will become ponds, sloughs and other types of habitat, including nesting islands for birds. When the project is completed — a process expected to commence in 2003 and take three years — Bolsa Chica will again be a patchwork of pickleweed, mud flats, grassland and open water.
The $100 million overall price tag includes the cost of land acquisition (the state paid about $25 million for the wetland acreage). Most of the money — about $79 million — has come from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which are paying to restore Bolsa Chica as mitigation for marine habitat lost to port expansion.
Not all development opponents are pleased by the restoration plan. Local beachgoers rue the loss of public sand, and worry that the new channel will allow bacteria into local surf. Project planners have studied the possibility and discount it.
Minor hurdles still remain. The project requires several more state and federal approvals, including key authorization from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Regional Waster Quality Control Board. Project supporters, however, regarded the notoriously protective Coastal Commission as the last significant hurdle standing in the way of Bolsa Chica's resurrection as a "beloved haven" for wildlife.
Jack Fancher, project manager, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 760-431-9440.
Coastal Commission staff report on restoration project, www.coastal.ca.gov/mtg-11mmi.html
Amigos de Bolsa Chica: 714-840-1575, www.amigosdebolsachica.org/