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The Battle for Malibu Lagoon

Athena Shlien on a bridge inside Malibu Lagoon
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI

What a dump. That was Athena Shlien's thought when she saw huge Malibu Lagoon for the first time. She was walking through a marsh that makes up part of the lagoon on her way to Surfrider Beach, perhaps the most popular surfing spot in L.A. County and the historic epicenter of surf culture, where Hollywood filmed such movies as Gidget and Beach Blanket Bingo. From a dirt path that meanders over quaint wooden bridges, Shlien spotted green muck and potato chip bags floating atop the water.

She felt pity for the creatures living in this sorry place, just a couple hundred feet from an enclave of perfect beachfront movie-star homes called Malibu Colony. But as the years passed, she noticed the lagoon area growing more lush with reeds and wildlife. The green muck was still in the water, but the chirping grew louder — ducks, coots, pelicans and great egrets.

"The birds were happier," Shlien says. "You can see it in people, you can see it in a dog when you're walking down the street and the dog looks at you and smiles."

Malibu Lagoon is the last stop for Malibu Creek, which starts on the western edge of the San Fernando Valley in the Santa Monica Mountains and flows about 11 miles to Pacific Coast Highway, crossing under a highway bridge and pooling in the 31-acre lagoon before slicing through sandbars to spill into the Pacific.

In the summer, a natural sand berm prevents the main body of lagoon water from spilling out onto Surfrider Beach. In the winter, when rain comes, the lagoon bursts through to the Pacific. Its western flank is a small but deeply prized wetland, one of the last in Southern California, where humans have famously drained and destroyed more than 90 percent of coastal wetlands — the worst record in the nation.

The seemingly thriving marsh is home to plants and wildlife not usually seen so close to a vast city, including the endangered tidewater goby and, at times, threatened steelhead trout whose southernmost run on the Pacific Coast is believed to be Malibu Creek.

"This is a rare little jewel," says Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation's Mark Abramson. "It's definitely one of our most unique types of habitats — a coastal marsh, a tidal lagoon. We're lucky that it's in State Parks' hands or it would almost certainly be a development."

But a restoration plan to drain and bulldoze a large swath of Malibu Lagoon's channels to the sea, wiping out much of their life, is shovel-ready to begin. It has the backing of powerful state and local government agencies, plus big environmental groups and their leaders, including Abramson. They claim Malibu Lagoon's too-sluggish channels are sick, and only a radical cure will do.

The only thing stopping them is a San Francisco judge, who issued a temporary injunction in May, tentatively agreeing with a ragtag collection of activists who enjoy far less political and financial heft than the proponents. The opponents argued in court that the restoration plan was almost sure to kill more habitat and wildlife than claimed, while failing to fix the lagoon's fundamental circulation problem.

"You're talking about a small number of people," Abramson says dismissively. "They've been able to cause enough shit to slow this thing down."

Abramson and Heal the Bay president Mark Gold say that while everything above the water looks fine, the world below Malibu Lagoon is veering toward disaster. The marsh channels west of the main pool are filling with nutrients, much of them from septic systems and fertilizer used in the vast 109-square-mile watershed that feeds Malibu Creek. The water's oxygen level fluctuates wildly. Tiny creatures in the mud are dying.

Proponents are ready to break ground on a $7 million project that would overhaul the western third of the lagoon, removing 13,000 cubic yards of earth and ripping out mature trees, shrubbery, grasses and muck. They pledge extensive efforts to save creatures and plants, but casualties are a certainty.

Opponent and surfer Andy Lyon calls it "scientists gone mad." Sounding much like Abramson in his distant rabble-rousing days, when he fought to clean up Santa Monica Bay, Lyon adds: "And money, money, money."

Nearly a year ago, Shlien saw a booth at the local farmers market with a large photograph of bulldozers tearing up a beach and the words, "Don't let this happen to Malibu."

This must be a joke, she recalls thinking. But the plan was going before the California Coastal Commission just 10 days later, with proponents almost certain to get their final permit. Bulldozing at the lagoon was set to begin the summer of 2011.

Shlien and her boyfriend, Ian Bryant, got up at 4:30 a.m. and drove two hours south for the hearing. She'd never attended a public hearing and didn't know what to expect as she walked into the Oceanside City Council chambers, where the state Coastal Commission meeting was being held.

"I saw all these people that looked like they were kind of liberal or environmentalist," she recalls, "and I thought, 'Look at all these people who are on our side!' "

Well, not exactly. One side was dressed a bit nicer, and seemed to be wearing official-looking plastic badges. They testified in the technocratic language of engineers, using phrases like "TMDL" — total maximum daily load, a measurement for how much pollution is acceptable.

"They never talked about the lagoon as if it were living," Shlien says. "It was all kind of looking at it under a petri dish."

Most disturbingly, she says, "They never acknowledged the fact that this process would disrupt Malibu Lagoon."

The opposition looked more like surfers and old hippies. They didn't have badges. And when they gave their public comments, the side with badges snickered, laughed, rolled their eyes. Even a couple of Coastal Commission members chuckled.

"It was such a blatant show of staged democracy," Shlien says. "If a hundred people showed up, it was gonna be approved, because people had been greasing the wheels."

The plan was unanimously approved 11-0 by the commission, whose voting members are all appointed by the California governor or state Legislature.

On the drive home, Shlien cried. She emailed every environmental organization she could think of. Most didn't respond. Later she realized most of them supported the project. She got one response — from activist Marcia Hanscom.

"Yes, we are going to fight this," Hanscom wrote. "And you're welcome to join us."

They and a growing group of worried residents, surfers and environmentalists held meetings, passed out fliers and held up signs to motorists on PCH. Faced with the proponents' deep pockets, they raised money — more than $150,000 — and hired attorneys to sue the Coastal Commission and 20 other parties.

Last May, Judge Ernest Goldsmith halted the restoration until Oct. 27, when he will decide which side prevails. But Goldsmith's temporary injunction effectively stilled the bulldozers for at least a year, because no matter how he rules, earth removal and dredging are impossible until next summer, when the lagoon is isolated from the ocean by the sand berm.

His ruling was a huge victory for the iconoclasts fighting to stop the human redo of Malibu Lagoon. It placed time on their side.

Malibu has always been a land unto its own, fiercely resistant to change. The words Topanga, Zuma and Malibu come from the Chumash Indians, who founded the village of Humaliwo next to the lagoon. Once the Europeans arrived, Malibu passed from one land baron to the next, and in 1892, Frederick Hastings Rindge, a Harvard graduate and millionaire, bought Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit from an Irish family for $10 an acre.

The Rindges built Malibu. They constructed a supply pier, a 15-mile private railway to bring supplies in from the pier, a 140-foot dam across Malibu Creek and a heavily gated, private wagon trail along the beach, passable only at low tide. In 1927, to their horror, the Rindges were forced to deed land to California so that Roosevelt Highway — now Pacific Coast Highway — could be built.

As the Rindges' empire withered, Malibu passed to the next generation of aristocrats: the homeowners. An early settlement was Malibu Colony. Its residents fought a government plan — now universally seen as bizarre — to turn PCH into a massive oceanfront freeway, as well as L.A. County's effort to built a high-capacity sewer system, which residents decried as a Trojan horse to usher in development akin to the Westside's.

In the 1930s, wetlands were seen as "swamps." Swamps had mosquitoes, and swamps were to be drained. So when California Department of Transportation workers were digging into a cliff to widen PCH, they dumped much of the soil and debris into the western part of the stunning lagoon.

Later, in the 1970s, two baseball fields were erected atop a dump site near the lagoon's current channels.

Lyon, the surfer, who grew up near the lagoon, says, "It was like our playground. It was just fields and stuff." In the summer, when the lagoon dried up, Lyon rode his BMX bike on it, watching with envy as rich kids from the Colony rode their motorized minibikes.

The lagoon was made a state park in the 1960s, and a major restoration was attempted in 1983. The ball fields were removed and three channels to allow seawater in were cut and seeded with salt-marsh plants. The area was bisected with what has become a popular nature walkway through the marsh, connected by wooden bridges.

Hartmut Walter, a now-retired professor of biogeography and conservation biology at UCLA, remembers seeing the "restored" lagoon for the first time. "I was very disappointed. They had created this completely new environment. There were plants that don't belong at all, plants from the Channel Islands. It was very strange. They made a mistake, obviously, because these side channels don't have circulation."

According to Heal the Bay's Gold, the underwater ecosystem began to deteriorate quickly. Surfers were complaining about getting sick. The Environmental Protection Agency and state and local water boards deemed the lagoon in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

"Malibu Lagoon is impaired," Gold says. "Everything, from water quality, high fecal-bacteria counts, high nutrient concentrations and low dissolved oxygen. Under the Clean Water Act, there has to be something to improve the water quality."

Opponents of the new restoration plan point out the absence of fish kills in the lagoon. But Rich Ambrose, an environmental sciences and engineering professor at UCLA and a technical adviser for the project, says fish "swim up to the surface during the day. Invertebrates living at the bottom can't do that. There are very few worms and clams" living in the lagoon bottom, he says.

But the ecosystem's relative health is a hotly contested issue. The two camps have been debating each other in courtrooms, parking lots and the comments section of Malibu Patch. Like political partisans, they contest every fact and impugn every motive.

The establishment side includes government agencies, such as California State Parks, the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, the California Coastal Commission and the California Conservancy, and major environmental organizations Heal the Bay, Surfrider Foundation and Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation.

The opposition includes outspoken activists shunned by the enviro-establishment, a few chapters of the Audubon Society, a mix of surfers, Malibu Colony homeowners and other local neighborhood residents, like Shlien and Lyon.

The establishment accuses the opposition of being out for attention. They particularly focus on Roy Van de Hoek and Marcia Hanscom — two key figures in saving hundreds of acres in the Ballona Wetlands from the Playa Vista luxury development. Their critics say Van de Hoek lacks a Ph.D. and paint Hanscom as a dupe of wealthy Malibu Colony homeowners.

She denies this, noting that her group, Wetlands Defense Fund, has raised a little more than $150,000 from slightly more than 100 donors to fight restoration. The largest donation, $20,000, came from a family in San Francisco. Many Wetlands Defense Fund donors gave $100 or less. Some donations were simply dollar bills dropped into a can.

The attacks on Hanscom and Van de Hoek aren't as vitriolic, however, as the opponents' slams on leaders of the restoration plan, whom they accuse of being driven by greed and a quest for $7 million in state bond money. Heal the Bay is singled out, with bumper stickers reading "Steal the Bay." Surfer Lyon calls Heal the Bay "hired hit men."

In 2002, the Coastal Commission used public funds to hire Heal the Bay, handing the organization a $287,000, 30-month contract to develop the restoration plan. Heal the Bay spent $175,000 on the environmental engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol and another $100,000 to pay Mark Abramson and another employee. Gold says Heal the Bay hasn't gotten any more taxpayer funds since 2004, insisting, "We don't have a vested interest, and we're not involved in the litigation in any way."

But, in fact, reputations are riding on what unfolds at Malibu Lagoon.

Shlien calls Abramson, previously paid with public funds by Heal the Bay to lead the effort, "an eco-terrorist." She adds, "He's like a mobster. He's making money off of the system. With a green sticker on it."

One day, while handing out fliers, Shlien got into a confrontation with Suzanne Goode, the senior resource ecologist for California State Parks. "We literally got into it," Shlien recalls. "My heart was beating so fast and I was so hurt. And people were laughing at us."

"I don't think it was an argument," Goode says. "There was emotion there. I told her she was saying something that wasn't true."

One memorable incident occurred before the Malibu City Council, when Lyon began berating council members with, "I surf there, you don't!"

"This is exactly the problem we've had all along with this," Mayor John Sibert replied to Lyon. "With people ... aggressive behavior. Please ... stop."

"There is a sand bar that is blocking the lagoon right now!" Lyon retorted.

"Please stop! No!" Sibert shot back at Lyon.

"Go look at it! It's there!" Lyon yelled.

"Andy, you're out of order," said Councilwoman Pamela Ulich, who opposes the restoration. Then she turned and asked someone, "Can you get the sheriff?"

Lyon was forcibly removed, and the council deadlocked 2-2 over taking a stand on restoring Malibu Lagoon.

As a group, surfers are divided on restoration. Many nonprofits, including the Malibu Surfing Association and Surfrider (which has partnered before with Heal the Bay), support the project, which, they say, will have little effect on the surf itself and a positive effect on water quality. But opponents say that adding more water to the lagoon, as the restoration envisions, is bad for the famed wave off Surfrider Beach, which has deteriorated over 30 years.

The environmental activists, locals and surfers who oppose remaking the lagoon have a temporary and somewhat precarious alliance. Their common ground is a shared distrust of the environmental establishment — and a worry that the unforeseen consequences of restoration will be a lot worse than anyone imagines.

The Malibu Lagoon Restoration and Enhancement Project — its formal name on the Coastal Commission application — is not, in fact, a "restoration." Nobody knows what the lagoon was like in its natural state. In truth, the project's architects hope to re-create the spirit of the lagoon.

"I think the goal of restoration ecology is to bring back natural functions and values," says Ambrose, the UCLA professor. "It's really more like a rehabilitation."

Their approach can sound, at times, very technocratic. Environmentalists value rare habitats more highly than less-rare habitats. To create rare habitat, they plan to create more wetlands, rehabilitating the old asphalt parking lot, as well as land from an illegal, chemical-laden private golf course — controversially built near the marsh by billionaire Jerry Perenchio. Then, the scientists plan to lower the marsh's slight elevation to sea level and introduce more species.

But before creation comes destruction. A temporary dyke must be constructed to cut off the channels from the main lagoon, allowing workers to drain the channels and reshape them with bulldozers. 

Suzanne Goode says this will be done with the utmost caution. "We have to pump the water out [of the channels], pump it into tanks, disinfect it, and pump it into the ocean," before beginning the massive earth removal. "That's $2 million right there. It's a high-stakes environment."

"We're trying to minimize impact to as many species as possible," Ambrose says. "The workers will try to not kill as many as they can. Some of those fish and a few invertebrates, they'll be killed, sure. And then the birds will be displaced. And the plants will be killed."

After a pause, he adds: "My view is the long-term view. There was nothing there before 1983. It will recover. The above-water part will be just as good. Below-water will be way better."

The plan does not have a single architect. It grew out of meetings — Abramson estimates more than 100 over 20 years — with such groups as the Malibu Creek Water Council and the Malibu Lagoon Task Force. The participants eventually drew up a list of priorities, such as replacing the asphalt parking lot and buying Perenchio's golf course.

Remarkably, Perenchio had hidden his wife's secret, nonpermitted, 10-acre pitch-and-putt behind a towering stone wall in downtown Malibu for 21 years, lying to the Coastal Commission that it was a jogging path while pouring lawn chemicals onto the greens. Rich denizens of Malibu Colony next door kept Perenchio's secret, and local lore has it that some of them relished the idea of outwitting the powerful Coastal Commission.

All the while, Perenchio's multimillionaire son, John Perenchio, was a sitting member of the board at Heal the Bay.

Activist Roy Van de Hoek discovered the existence of Perenchio's golf course while perusing a detailed aerial postcard of Malibu. When the embarrassed Coastal Commission sought to award Perenchio an after-the-fact permit to quell complaints, a political uproar ensued and the Coastal Commission was castigated in the media.

Through Wetlands Action Network, Hanscom and Van de Hoek sued under environmental laws. In a settlement, Perenchio was forced to bequeath his choice land to the state — once he and his young wife are dead. The deal will add acreage worth millions of dollars to the Malibu Lagoon restoration.

At the time, Hanscom and Van de Hoek were already established wetlands activists. They helped fight a widely reported eco-war to prevent Playa Vista, the largest mixed-use development in the history of Los Angeles, near Playa del Rey. Although the luxury minicity was constructed, a coalition of some 100 groups managed to preserve hundreds of adjacent acres of the Ballona Wetlands and much of the protective uplands along the Westchester bluff.

After that, the two were a natural fit for the Malibu Lagoon "stakeholder groups" — smart, knowledgeable and tireless — and they became fixtures at meetings in the late 1990s.

Van de Hoek, with his white beard and long, white ponytail, looks like a park ranger on his way to a Phish reunion; Hanscom looks like a librarian. Few would guess that Hanscom has caused as many problems for developers as almost anyone in the city. They are both so calm, so even-tempered.

What set them against the restoration is a matter of much disagreement.

Hanscom says that in 2004 — even as she and Van de Hoek were suing Perenchio over his illegal golf course — she started to hear about committees and meetings to which she, Van de Hoek and a few others hadn't been invited.

"All of a sudden, things started changing behind the scenes," she says. "And we started hearing there was this technical advisory meeting, this science committee ... meeting without us."

Mark Abramson, who has shepherded the lagoon project as long as anyone, first at Heal the Bay and now for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, has a different story: He says Van de Hoek asked to be on the technical advisory committee but was rejected because he was unqualified. Although Van de Hoek has extensive experience with, and knowledge of, wetlands and holds undergraduate degrees in environmental biology and geography, he doesn't hold a doctorate.

"I can tell you this," Abramson says, "when we would not let Roy be part of the technical advisory committee, that's when they started fighting this project. To me, it's an ego thing."

Van de Hoek says Abramson has gotten his wetlands confused — that Van de Hoek had applied to be on the science advisory committee for Ballona Wetlands while fighting the Playa Vista development, and was rejected.

"Mark went to Cal Poly for landscape architecture," Van de Hoek says. "What he knows is design and layout — aesthetics. He's not a fish biologist. I am."

After the pair complained, Abramson told Hanscom and Van de Hoek that they could attend a technical advisory meeting — but couldn't speak. The meeting was, unsurprisingly, a bit technical, and Hanscom didn't understand the implications.

"Marcia, they're gonna dredge this place," Van de Hoek whispered. But Hanscom was unconvinced: "It doesn't sound like that. They're not saying those words."

Goode insists that after that, Hanscom "was well aware of every step we were taking. I don't know why she changed her mind" and ultimately sued to stop the restoration.

After the technical advisory meeting, Hanscom asked Abramson to meet her at the lagoon, to spell things out.

"You're not really gonna take out this vegetation area here, right?" she says she asked at one spot.

"Well ... yeah," she recalls Abramson saying.

"What about this one?"

"Yeah."

"This one?"

"Well, what do you think?" Abramson said, visibly annoyed. "Of course we're gonna take it out. We have to."

Abramson has a vague recollection of going to the lagoon with Hanscom but says it doesn't stand out. "I went through there with lots of people," he says.

Horrified, Hanscom called Goode, who told her, "Don't worry, phase 2 will never happen. It's too much, we'll just do this other part" — referring to phase 1, a relatively modest plan to replace the asphalt parking lot with natural soils.

"I may have said something like that" to Hanscom, Goode says. "I couldn't see how we would ever get the money and pull it off."

For a time, it seemed like Goode was right. California's fiscal climate caused a multiyear delay in phase 2. Some say that as the project lost momentum, it lost touch with its constituency — and with stakeholders who might have defended it.

But another growing problem was that wetlands were being restored elsewhere — some with unintended, negative consequences.

One example is the far-off Owens Valley, the area "raped" by William Mulholland and Harrison Gray Otis, its river water stolen and diverted into the new Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 (made famous in the film Chinatown). The verdant valley was turned into a dust bowl. In 2006, it was restored in a $39 million river-rehabilitation project, the largest of its kind in the Western United States.

But now, the river unexpectedly has become overrun with bulrushes and tulles, which the scientists failed to foresee. Much of the choked river has become unusable by boats, even slim kayaks.

Scientists were wrong about two other restorations well south of L.A., at Bolsa Chica and Batiquitos wetlands. Redesigned by experts, the wetlands were supposed to cleanse themselves and require dredging only once or twice per decade. Instead, they are filling with sand and must be continuously re-dredged.

It's enough to create concern about how much scientists have really learned about Mother Nature since the 1983 Malibu Lagoon restoration.

"These lagoons are very dynamic," says UCLA Professor Dave Jacobs, a geologist and biologist. "Floods are actually what maintain them. Episodic floods effectively play the role of the bulldozer in many of these systems, removing the sediment."

Hanscom says she heard that the plan was going forward last fall via a Facebook message from a Malibu Times reporter, asking her if she knew about an item on the California Coastal Commission's agenda regarding a Malibu Lagoon restoration project.

Oh, shit, thought Hanscom. It's happening.

The plan on the agenda included removing, for good, the dirt path and wooden bridges now used by thousands of nature lovers each year to birdwatch or see a living wetland. Project planners say the walkways limit wind flow and create pinch points that trap sediment.

"People love to walk across the bridges," Goode says. "But if you were to inherit a wetland, the last thing you would do is put a pathway through it."

Under the restoration, visitors will be allowed only to walk the periphery, where "enhancements" would include a shady canopy, a picnic area and signs explaining everything. A bird blind would be constructed so people can watch birds through a sort of peephole made of plants, letting humans get close to birds without disrupting them.

An artist's rendering of the path is reminiscent of the garden at the Getty Center. It's clean. It's orderly. There are separate walking lanes for surfers and for school groups. And the humans are separated from the animals.

If UCLA's Walter was disappointed with the 1983 restoration, he isn't any happier now. .

"Because of its unique natural and social attributes, there is really nothing wrong with the present park design and practice," he wrote in a letter to the Coastal Commission. "In fact, it seems optimal. The existing access trail with its bridges is of exceptional value. No other plan will provide the close interface between people and wildlife that can be observed every day."

Walter agrees that you would not purposely design a wetland with a walkway slashing through it. But people have been using the path for decades, and the birds seem to have gotten used to it. With surfers just offshore, the chaotic mix has reached a sort of equilibrium, allowing people to get much closer to the wildlife than elsewhere.

"The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation is interested in aquatic habitat, and Marcia seems to be focused on the supra — the bird habitat," says Chad Nelson of Surfrider. "It's a difference in goals."

"Fundamentally they treasure the way the lagoon is," Ambrose says. "The above-water stuff is really nice. But I've done the studies in the water. And it's not what it should be."

"They're very passionate about trying to protect the environment, and have ideas not well-based in science," Ambrose says. "There's not a lot of common ground."

Zuma Jay Wagner, who runs a surf shop on PCH, has proposed a middle ground in which a substantially less invasive renovation would be pursued. But amidst the acrimony, Wagner says, neither side listens to him. He believes Judge Goldsmith in October "is gonna step in and say, 'You guys come to terms.' Then they'll be grabbing my homework."

Across the street from the lagoon, Shlien sits outside Malibu Kitchen café, in a shopping center that itself is a former wetland. The café parking lot is where her confrontation with Suzanne Goode took place.

"I've given away a lot for this," Shlien says wistfully. "I've given my pride, my time, my own money ..." In fact, she has given more than $8,000, dwarfing the $100 and $200 checks written by many locals.

Asked how certain she is that her side is right, she promptly replies, "One hundred percent. My heart knows. No scientist can tell me, when I go to the lagoon and that when I witness all this life feeding on life, 'Oh, it's dirty, you just can't see it.' I think that science — it's not overrated, but there's a system in this country of telling people they don't deserve to feel what they're observing.' "

Her eyes begin to tear up. "Well, what makes them more right than me?"

Her boyfriend, Bryant, a sun-kissed surfer, walking one recent day down the lagoon path that the restoration would remove forever, talks about the inevitability of a 100-year storm hitting the area — and turning whatever man has done into a new configuration, and yet another version of Malibu Lagoon.

In such a drastic storm, he says, a surge of water will come coursing down Malibu Canyon, "and destroy the berm, flush things out, change the face of the lagoon."

"It's gonna happen," he says. "It could be this winter."

Reach the writer at hillelaron@mac.com.