Updated Wednesday afternoon with unanimous vote by Coastal Commission.

When Heal the Bay waded into Malibu Lagoon to devise a way to “restore” the rebuilt-by-man lagoon, they probably weren't thinking their blue chip environmental credentials might get bogged down in the swamp.

An ugly floor fight over the lagoon, which spills into the storied Malibu surf break, has erupted between scrappy environmentalists and the acclaimed group. Throw in residents of exclusive Malibu Colony–big on ecology, not so big on riffraff near their mansions–and the dispute over this gem, counted among the final five percent of SoCal's surviving wetlands, is hardly ordinary. On October 13 in Oceanside, the California Coastal Commission joins the fray. Here's the juicy detail:

On Wednesday, the Coastal Commission, as expected, unanimously voted to support the request by will consider a controversial request by California's Department of Parks and Recreation to drain, grade and re-contour 12 acres of the 31-acre site.

It would be long and dramatic transformation of an area familiar to thousands of tourists and commuters, reducing the marsh's three long-ago man-made channels of water to one man-made, u-shaped channel as recommended by Heal the Bay because it is closer to the shape of natural lagoons.

Heal the Bay's design work was funded by the California Coastal Conservancy. Among the plan's fans are Santa Monica Baykeeper and other environmental groups.

But the Wetlands Defense Fund, whose members include many outspoken veterans of major battles to save wetlands adjacent to and beneath Goldman Sach's huge Playa Vista development, as well as the Marina Peninsula, says the project is unnecessarily radical and destructive.

Marcia Hanscom and other critics decry the draining and grading of long-existing marsh and water channels, a process that will kill much of what's living there now and create challenging conditions for other wildlife that's finally returned after a previous restoration project by man dramatically remade the lagoon in 1983.

“For some reason, there's a body of scientists who think that the way to restore a wetland is to dredge it out and start over,” Hanscom says. “I don't think the people who are opposing me on this are evil … I don't think they have bad intentions. I think they are misguided.”

Of leaders of the venerable Heal the Bay, says Hanscom, “I'm sure they understand clean water. They understand plastic [bag] bans. They don't understand coastal wetland ecosystems, wetland ecology.”

Hanscom says Heal the Bay's involvement and blessing has blinded decision-makers — potentially including the Coastal Commission that takes up the case Wednesday — about faulty science used to support this latest human makeover of the lagoon.

“Opinion leaders and elective officials have been convinced, based on who is proposing it,” Hanscom says. “Based on rhetoric, not based on evidence. The political power on the other side of this has done some amazing things in the last few days. It's almost unbelievable how much juice has been put into it.”


Heal the Bay's Mark Gold wrote on the organization's Web site that “The 11-0 vote provided the last needed permit approval before the rehabilitation of the brackish wetland can proceed next summer.

“The restoration will increase salt marsh acreage by four acres and will provide long-needed water circulation to the often stagnant marsh, but there was still vocal opposition against the project. The challengers even brought in a high-priced attorney and an East Coast wetland restoration consultant to bolster their case, which argued against the use of heavy machinery to repair the wetland,” Gold wrote.

Although the political stars are apparently lined up for Heal the Bay's dredging, so far Wetlands Defense Fund is winning the media war:

A Los Angeles Times story questioned the radical nature of the plan.

Malibu Surfside News went into great detail about what will be killed.

A post at Surfline.com, a site for surfers, is urging a fight.

Correction: This post corrects an earlier version misidentifying Wetlands Defense Fund as Wetlands Action Network

LA Weekly