Roughly 300 surfers, activists and residents watched the Malibu City Council on April 9. That's more than 2 percent of the population of Malibu. If the same percentage of Los Angeles showed up, it would be 90,000 people.
The citizenry was worked up over the fate of Malibu Lagoon, a brackish yet beautiful pool of water and wetlands fed by Malibu Creek and filled with wildlife, just a short walk from the Malibu Civic Center.
One year ago, the City Council deadlocked 2-2 in an explosive debate over a plan by the state and big environmental groups to dredge up and then resculpt the stunning but poorly circulating lagoon.
Dubbed by some “destroying nature to save it,” the dredging plan is not without serious risk. Two other major wetlands “restorations” in California backfired after scientists gave the go-ahead but Mother Nature failed to deliver on the scientists' upbeat predictions.
Some think a disaster is in the offing in Malibu. On the other side, the project is enthusiastically backed by major environmental groups Heal the Bay and the Surfrider Foundation, plus Gov. Jerry Brown.
A year ago, when the City Council deadlocked on the issue, surfer Andy Lyon, who heatedly opposes dredging, started screaming and had to be escorted out. “When I yelled, I became the idiot,” Lyon recalls, “but it made everyone pay attention.”
But this year, speaking to a bigger crowd, Lyon didn't scream. He spoke for six minutes at the April 9 meeting, gave a PowerPoint presentation against dredging Malibu Lagoon, and was largely applauded. Clearly the calculus had changed.
Just after 1 a.m., with about 150 residents still present, the City Council voted 5-0 to withdraw its support for dredging, file an amicus brief in a lawsuit against the plan, and urge Brown to pull the plug.
“There was no leadership to say this was wrong” last year, Lyon says. “Now there is.”
Rather suddenly, Lyon and other surfers have entered key political roles in Malibu, inspired by the dredging plan and local opposition to it. Their efforts have helped put Gov. Brown and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Committee in the delicate position of pushing something that a community and its elected leaders oppose.
April 10 was Election Night in Malibu, and again the surfers played a decisive role. “The lagoon was a major part of the election campaign,” says Marcia Hanscom, whose Wetlands Defense Fund has repeatedly delayed the dredging project in court. “Had the three surfers not run, the debate would have been very different.”
Political neophyte Skylar Peak, 27, a surfer, former lifeguard and civic activist who hopes to act as a bridge between the warring sides, got the most votes, making him the youngest member in the history of the Malibu City Council.
Peak, who opposes the dredging, says, “I come at it with an open mind. Both sides think there's something wrong.”
Three surfers ran effervescent grassroots campaigns — Peak, Lyon and Hamish Patterson. While only Peak won, Lyon managed to work in comments about the lagoon during every answer in the candidate debates. People got the message.
Patterson, a Spiccoli-like figure straight out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and also a YouTube diarist known as “The Illusion,” alleged that the real reason for dredging the lagoon was to make it hold more water runoff, paving the way for new commercial development.
“The city is run by the city manager and city attorney — and the commercial developers, who are in cahoots,” Patterson says.
But Suzanne Goode, senior resource ecologist for the state parks and a chief architect of the restoration, says, “There's a lot of misinformation that's been put out there by the project opponents.” She dismisses the City Council vote against dredging as “what they thought they had to do” in the face of an election the following day.
Equally dismissive was Shelley Luce, of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, who described the council's vote as “unfortunate” and remarked: “It has no bearing on the project itself, which is entirely in the state's jurisdiction.”
It's true that Malibu has no say. But the Malibu City Council's unanimous opposition, plus a resolution passed by the L.A. County Democratic Party Central Committee against the project, could create political momentum against dredging.
Bulldozers are set to dig out major parts of the lagoon and wetlands starting June 1. Scientists concede that many creatures will die and the lagoon — today rich in bird life — will become a muddy and unappealing construction site, only to re-emerge with a cleaner, if aesthetically different, ecosystem.
“The governor's office has been very clear that it does not feel the project should be put on hold,” says Roy Stearns, a spokesman for California State Parks. “It's all about the science, and the science says that the restoration should be done.”
But that position has been challenged, somewhat effectively, by Malibu manicurist Wendy Warner, who has sided with the surfers and activists against dredging. She has no formal science education, but she has pored over research and alleges that “the new science is being completely ignored.”
On the Malibu city website, Warner found a 2005 study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that detected high levels of Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA — a superbug staph — in the sand at Surfrider Beach between the lagoon and the ocean.
The dredging plan calls for the lagoon's water to be drained, treated and dumped in the Pacific. But the presence of MRSA in the sand raised a question: Would dumping the lagoon's water, even if treated, shift this hard-to-kill superbug to the ocean?
“The discharge pipe for the [proposed] construction project is sitting on the beach sand,” Warner says.
Malibu Mayor Pro Tem Lou La Monte had already thought some parts of the restoration plan were weird, and the MRSA issue got his attention. In addition to restoring the lagoon's water flow, the project aims for a more curated, landscaped experience. Today visitors stroll on simple boardwalks through wetlands. The new plan would funnel visitors onto limited observation decks. The landscape, now mostly wild, would be somewhat tamed to include bird blinds, picnic areas and more educational signs.
La Monte calls it “a theme-park version of the lagoon.” But when he saw the NOAA findings on MRSA, he was aghast. “I didn't think we should give our support to this project if we couldn't guarantee that the water wasn't gonna make anybody sick.”
The City Council had been sending letters to Suzanne Goode, demanding that various tests be done after the restoration was finished. The city also wanted the state to indemnify it from lawsuits.
On March 30, Goode agreed to some tests, but she ignored the requests based on NOAA's findings about the superbug.
“None of us were happy with the response we got back from State Parks,” says Malibu Mayor Laura Rosenthal.
Goode argues that the lagoon naturally pours into the ocean each winter. “I fail to see the difference” between the state purposely putting lagoon water in the ocean and “what is normally occurring,” she says.
Councilman John Sibert, a former chemistry professor at Yale University, feels that activists like Hanscom and Lyon used scare tactics and ignored solid science. But he voted against the project on April 9. “The lagoon's sick,” he says. “We need to do something about it.” But “I don't think [the state] took us seriously.”
At this point, Rosenthal says, the feeling is that “the proponents have not done a good job of communicating … their science.”
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