This guide is part of KCET's California Coastal Trail project, which looks at the state's massive undertaking to build a trail over 1,000 miles in length along its whole coastline.
Alone among Southern California's coastal counties, Ventura County has just one officially designated nature preserve along its coast. But that may change before long.
Mainly consisting of a broad coastal plain built by millennia of floods of the Santa Clara River and nearby watercourses, Ventura County's coast once held just as much natural diversity as any other place along the SoCal coast.
A century of agriculture, urbanization and industry has destroyed much of the natural Ventura Coast. Massive restoration projects are underway that may reshape the coast here for the better. And in the meantime, there are a few places aside from the Ventura coast's one formal preserve where a bit of nature has been saved.
Santa Clara River Estuary Natural Preserve
This 133-acre estuary is the Ventura County coast's sole formally declared Natural Preserve. This shifting patchwork of riparian forest and coastal salt marsh is the end point for the Santa Clara River, Southern California'ssecond-largest river after the Santa Ana. The Santa Clara, undammed and uncolverted for much of its length, carries sediment from the rapidly rising San Gabriels, Sierra Madres, and other mountain chains in the western Transverse Ranges.
That sediment formed a rich estuary at river's mouth, at the southern boundary of the city of Ventura. As early as 1855, settlers recognized the wealth the estuary's soil held, as well as that of coastal soils up and down the Ventura coastline. Farming on the Oxnard Plain has remade most of the once-rich network of habitats that lined the coast.
This Natural Preserve, which makes up the majority of McGrath State Beach, isn't unblemished by human activity. The city of Ventura has long sent its tertiary-treated wastewater into the estuary, a controversial practice that a recent court settlement between the city and environmental groups is phasing out. The wastewater treatment plant involved sits on former delta lands of the Santa Clara, as do a few farm fields and a marina.
Under that legal settlement, Ventura will be recycling more of its wastewater, sending less into the estuary -- and possibly taking less out of the river to begin with. McGrath State Beach has borne the brunt of those wastewater discharges, with floods either caused or worsened by the effluent closing the campground on a few occasions. California State Parks is examining the possibility of moving the campground away from the river, which would free up 35 acres of former wetland for restoration.
That extra wetland is badly needed. The estuary is vital habitat for the tidewater goby and the federally endangered Southern California steelhead. And in the meantime, the Preserve is a great place to observe shorebirds and other wildlife, tucked just south of the Santa Clara River along the coast between Ventura and Oxnard.
Mandalay Beach Park
That's it for formal Natural Preserves along the Ventura Coast, but there are other places where a bit of the coast has been protected. Mandalay Beach Park, also called Mandalay State Beach, is one example. This 92-acre stretch of coastal habitat just east of McGrath State Beach offers a glimpse into what much of the Southern California coast was like before we built seawalls, marinas, and condos all over it. From the beach, the land rises eastward toward a series of low dunes interspersed with seasonal wetland... and then South Harbor Boulevard and some farm fields on a channel of the Santa Clara's old delta.
The beach itself is habitat for snowy plovers and least terns, so consideration is advisable during the birds' breeding seasons, March through September for the plover, and April through late June for the tern. Dogs are allowed at Mandalay on leash, but consider leaving your pup at home when these nervous and rare birds are trying to make babies.
Ventura River Estuary
Ventura County's other big river usually goes dry along some of its length during summer and fall, but its estuary is a reliable year-round wildlife viewing spot. Protected as part of Emma Wood State Beach at the southwest corner of the city of Ventura, the Ventura River Estuary is home to wildlife ranging from great blue herons to raccoons.
Though the estuary isn't a formal preserve, there are other nature preserves along the length of the 16-mile Ventura River, mainly closer to the river's headwaters. The Ventura is important habitat for the Endangered Southern California steelhead, and a huge amount of attention has been devoted to the possibility of restoring the best of the river's steelhead habitat by removing the obsolete Matilija Dam.
Dam removal and fewer water diversions from the river might well boost the ecological productivity of the Ventura River Estuary, but even now it's a great place to observe a tidal wetland in action, especially if you can imagine what the land might have looked like before the 101 went in.
The estuary is at the east end of Emma Wood State Beach, accessible by short hiking trails from the State Beach and from Downtown Ventura, just across the 101.
Twenty years from now, Ventura County might boast the largest complex of restored wetlands and nature preserves in Southern California. Right now, the former wetlands just uphill from Ormond Beach in Oxnard are a little bit hemmed in between the surf and Oxnard's industrial mainstay, agriculture. There's evidence of other industry as well, including the Point Mugu Naval Air Station and a large tank farm formerly owned by Southern California Edison. Only about 250 of the original thousand-plus acres of the Ormond Wetlands remain.
For the last 15 years plans have been in the works to bring back some of the historic wetlands adjacent to Ormond Beach. The Nature Conservancy bought out the Edison tank farm in 2002, and has been buying up lots a few at a time from local landowners since. The city of Oxnard and the Metropolitan Water District, which owns some local ag land, have also been involved in strategizing how to restore the Ormond Wetlands.
The plans are still up in the air, with different configurations and amounts of open water, tidal marsh, and upland habitats on the drawing board. But however it happens, a restored Ormand Wetlands would become part of the largest continuous patch of coastal wetland habitat in Southern California, stretching about nine miles along the coast from Point Mugu to Port Hueneme.
Which makes it worth planning to visit Oxnard in 2035 or so. Mark your calendars.