Athena Shlien had been hitting “refresh” on her computer all morning, her eyes fixed on the Malibu Patch home page, which promised up-to-the-minute news about the Malibu Lagoon hearing in San Francisco. Finally, she couldn't take it anymore and went for a surf. It was a beautiful day, the water shimmering in the midday sun. When she got back and saw the news, her heart sank.

“There was always this possibility,” she says.

Judge Ernest H. Goldsmith of the State Supreme Court last month rejected a lawsuit to stop the dredging, resculpting and restoration of Malibu Lagoon. In May, Goldsmith had issued a temporary injunction against the bulldozers, deciding that “harm that would result from the project approved by the Coastal Commission would be severe” and that it would “damage various types and species of flora and fauna, several of which are endangered.”

But after weighing more than 1,000 pages of evidence, he ruled that the Coastal Commission had indeed examined the alternatives, and a restoration plan previously approved by the commission would be “the least damaging.”

In June 2012, work finally will begin on a $7 million restoration — under discussion for 20 years — that aims to completely overhaul the western third of the prized lagoon.

For the last couple of years, the debate has raged (see L.A. Weekly's “The Battle for Malibu Lagoon,” Sept. 1) between the environmental establishment — which wants to try to remake the lagoon — and a small group of environmental guerrillas who believe the human redesigners will make the lagoon worse.

Well-funded nonprofits such as Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, as well as government agencies like the California Department of Parks and Recreation, say the lagoon is dying and must be redesigned.

The opposition, headed by Marcia Hanscom of the Wetlands Defense Fund, says the lagoon is fairly healthy and that the restoration itself will do more harm to the rich ecosystem and its wildlife.

Both sides accuse each other of being driven by greed and profit. Both claim science is on their side. Judge Goldsmith chose the winner.

James Birkelund, the attorney for the Wetlands Defense Fund, which sued the Coastal Commission after it approved the project, complains that in Goldsmith's ruling, the judge “took the path of agreeing with the large environmental groups and agencies because the Coastal Commission trusted and liked them. He … did not give equal weight to the petitioners.”

But after much research, Goldsmith sounded skeptical of many of the opponents' legal arguments. His decision had been predicted by some supporters of the restoration plan, many of whom are expressing relief.

“We're happy about the decision. We're excited that the project is moving forward,” says Mark Abramson, a senior watershed adviser at the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. ” I was pretty sure that we were gonna be OK.

“I'm happy that Judge Goldsmith vindicated me from being an eco-terrorist,” he jokes, referring to a slam on the proponents made by blogger Shlien in the Weekly in September.

“We're pleased that it's going to get done,” says Clark Stevens of the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains. “It's gonna be nice to stop being defensive about it . … We didn't want it to be about controversy.”

But the ruling stunned environmental activists who had fought it, and the controversy shows few signs of dying down.

“Why is it that in May it'll cause severe harm, but in June of 2012 it won't?” Hanscom asks.

“I felt like we were doing a good thing and that the truth would prevail,” Shlien says. “I guess I had romantic notions.”

Andy Lyon, a surfer and vocal opponent of the project, says, “I didn't really think it was gonna be such a blowout, but why wouldn't it be? The money, the Coastal Commission, the players involved…,” he trails off.

After the ruling, the comments section of the Malibu Patch blog post quickly devolved into a war of words between dredging opponent Lyon and Jack Topel, an environmental scientist and project manager at the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

“Today is a great day for Malibu Lagoon and all the wildlife that calls it home,” Topel wrote. “The people that are implementing the project are some of the most passionate conservationists I've ever known.”

Lyon responded: “I ask that everyone go to the lagoon and look at it … don't take the word of these scumbags that are milking Millions of Dollars, your tax dollars, to do this project . … May the Chumash spirits curse him for what he has done !!!” (The Chumash Indians once lived near Malibu Lagoon.)

After some back-and-forth, Topel lashed out: “Andy, you are nothing but a spoiled, foul-mouthed, rich little Malibu brat. Incapable of controlling your mouth.”

Things got so heated that the site's editor, Jonathan Friedman, felt compelled to delete the angriest comments and appeal for calm. After some hemming and hawing, Topel apologized: “I guess I've been as caught up as anyone in the moment. I apologize to Andy and anyone else that I may have offended. I should have taken the high road and not let my emotions get the best of me. Am I forgiven? Please don't ban me from Patch :)” Topel declined to comment for this article.

Days later, Andy Lyon was involved in an argument over the restoration plan with a writer named Ben Marcus. The two actually became involved in an oceanic brawl, as Marcus was paddle-boarding and Lyon was surfing.

The mayor of Malibu, John Sibert, is taking the still-simmering dispute in stride. He believes the acrimony grew so intense because of asymmetric warfare being fought by the anti-dredging activists: “A good scientist can't speak in absolutes,” Sibert says, “but activists can — and people were getting scared.”

But not all scientists agree with the plan backed by the big environmental groups, which will necessarily destroy some fish and wildlife before it attempts to bring back the ecosystem and the wildlife. There's been a lack of consensus on just about everything relating to Malibu Lagoon, from its natural history to its current water quality.

Sibert, a former professor of chemistry at Yale University, admits the current plan isn't perfect but argues, “You don't want the perfect to get in the way of good enough.”

According to the project's proponents, the new version of the lagoon will benefit from improved oxygen flow and will be able to support a more diverse underwater habitat.

Above water, things will change, too: Visitors and surfers will walk along the periphery of the lagoon, which will see the addition of a shade canopy, a picnic area, a bird blind and educational signs.

A much-used pathway and three bridges that currently cut through the marshland and connect the parking lot to Surfrider Beach, one of the most popular surf spots in L.A. County, will be removed. The plaintiffs had argued that this would impede beach access, but Goldsmith seemed to dismiss this argument out of hand.

Under the redesign, the current ability to explore parts of the wetland from a raised boardwalk will be far more restricted — a more curated experience, with visitors encouraged to walk in certain areas and look at certain things.

Or maybe not. Shlien and Hanscom aren't ready to quit just yet.

“If it comes to it, I will chain myself to a bulldozer,” Shlien declares. “I don't want to go to jail, but I'm willing to.”

Hanscom says, “We're looking at all the various legal options. We may appeal [the court's decision], or do some other legal action. We're certainly going to appeal to the governor.”

And not just the governor. With 2012 State Assembly elections looming, Malibu Lagoon could become a small but thorny campaign issue for those running for seats representing the once-quiet beach community.

Reach the writer at

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.

LA Weekly