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Steelhead Return to Malibu Lagoon

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Malibu Lagoon before the restoration project | Photo: faria!/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A year after the completion of a controversial restoration project that divided Los Angeles environmentalists, California State Parks says a species missing for decades has been spotted in the Malibu Lagoon.

On May 15, fish monitors assessing the effects of the restoration project saw a 20-inch adult steelhead swimming in the lagoon, according to State Parks. Though the ocean-going trout species does visit Malibu Creek, it hasn't been seen in the lagoon itself for many years.

According to State Parks, the steelhead is the third endangered species to revisit the lagoon since the restoration project was completed last year -- and its announcement is pretty clearly written with environmentalist critics of the project in mind.

California State Parks manages the lagoon as part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach.

Controversy erupted over the restoration project in the run-up to its July 2011 launch date. Much of the dispute had to do with the validity of using heavy equipment to dredge almost 90,000 cubic yards of soil from the lagoon area. Project opponents charged that the bulldozers would harm many of the birds, mammals, and other animals that had recolonized the lagoon after a partial restoration in 1983.

Backers, which included the State Coastal Conservancy, the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, The Bay Foundation, and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, charged that the post-1983 lagoon didn't have sufficient connection to either the Bay or Malibu Creek to keep its water oxygenated, and said that dredging was necessary to keep the lagoon from becoming stagnant. Opponents disputed the idea that the health of the lagoon's aquatic ecosystem was in decline, and suggested a number of lower-impact approaches to maintaining the ecosystem's health.

Battle lines were drawn in 2010. Mainstream green groups such as Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, and Surfrider Foundation backed the plan to dredge the lagoon and its fringing marshes. Across the aisle, the Wetlands Defense Fund, Access For All, and the Coastal Law Enforcement Action Network filed suit in 2010 to block the project, charging that the California Coastal Commission had approved it improperly.

Though the lawsuit did delay the project, it was ultimately tossed out of court and dredging began in 2012.

A year after completion, California State Parks says the restored lagoon and marshes have played host to nesting California least terns, which had not nested in the lagoon for 70 years, and to an increased population of tidewater gobies, one of the species project opponents charged would be harmed by the dredging. The goby, the least tern, and the local population of steelhead are all listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Regardless of your position on the merits of the project, that seems like good news. Which might be why State Parks' announcement of the steelhead sighting took pains to reiterate its justification for the project, an argument it seems to have already won by default.

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