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Wetlands Are Making a Comeback in Southern California

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Malibu Lagoon, currently in the midst of a massive restoration project, is one of several renovated or reconstructed wetland areas around Southern California. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Just north of where Malibu Creek empties into the Pacific, longboard-lugging surfers and blanket-bearing beachgoers traverse a dirt path along what appears to be a new park built on the shores of this estuary.

But this is no ordinary open space. It's a $7 million restoration project for Malibu Lagoon, over 20 years in the making, to improve water quality and accommodate a more naturally-sustainable ecosystem for the flora and fauna that will inhabit it. It's one of many such projects designed to restore, rehabilitate, or re-create wetland environments from Santa Barbara to San Diego county. Don't look now, but the wetlands are making a comeback.

For the uninitiated, "wetlands" might seem like a mere eco-buzzword uttered from the lexicons of Sierra Club-types, but up until nearly a century and a half ago, coastal and inland wetlands were common features in the Southern California landscape, as the bayous are to Louisiana or the swamps are to Florida.

Like bayous and swamps, they functioned as natural barriers or buffer zones during severe storms and floods. They provided living, breeding, and eating grounds for walking, flying, and swimming wildlife alike. Native American tribes hunted some of the animals for food and harvested some of the plantlife for construction material. Most importantly, the native Southern California wetland ecosystems were self-sustaining entities, where plants kept the water clean through natural processes -- thus recharging underground aquifers or sending it back to sea -- and every other living thing in it thrived accordingly.

But we know this only in hindsight. For in the latter-half of the 19th-century, the region abruptly shifted from a natural paradise to a paradise for land speculators and real estate developers. "Wetland" might as well been spelled as "wasteland" as the new human development order deemed the land either dangerous (as breeding grounds for mosquitoes), or as a literal dump. Malibu Lagoon was where dirt and excess debris from the construction of Pacific Coast Highway were dumped in the 1940s, and the Ballona Wetlands -- at 192 acres, the largest coastal wetland area in Los Angeles county -- was where some of the mud and dirt from the man-made creation of Marina Del Rey (itself once part of a larger, 2,100-acre Ballona Wetlands) ended up.

In San Diego County, where numerous coastal wetland areas still thrive, particularly in the North County area along the I-5 Freeway corridor, the 150-acre San Dieguito Wetlands in Del Mar recently completed a three-year, $86 million restoration project which involved altering the topography to allow improved drainage and tidal exchange, and the construction of nesting areas for local and migratory birds.

But perhaps the most striking example of the wetlands' return is in unabashedly urban Los Angeles County, where inland wetlands environments are either being re-introduced or built from scratch.

Nestled within a commercial and industrial section of the city of Carson is the 17-acre Bixby Marshland, completed five years ago by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, adjacent to their water pollution control plant. Though built from formerly industrial land, the marshland was intended to re-introduce a wetlands environment into an area which once was home to Bixby Slough, a large freshwater wetland in the Carson-Harbor City-Wilmington area. The Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park is the last remaining portion of the Slough.

Wetlands vegetation line the lake at the recently-reopened Echo Park in Los Angeles. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Los Angeles' Echo Park, which reopened this month after a two-year, $64.7 million rehabilitation, now features four acres of wetlands vegetation sections in the iconic lake, which are designed to filter out sediments and pollutants from the stormwater that feeds into the park's eponymous body of water. The wetland plants include Water Lillies, Water Hawthorn, and California Arrowhead. A circulation system keeps the water from going stagnant. The poor quality of the lake's water prior to the renovation project was one of the probable causes of death of the lake's famed lotus bed.

The South L.A. Wetlands Park also features a man-made lake, lined with native riparian and chaparral plantlife, that employs a similar method of stormwater cleanup. The wetlands park, built on the site of a former transit yard, opened just last year and is already a popular spot for local families to connect with nature.

It's heartening to know that after some 150 years of neglect and taking our wetlands for granted, that we're righting historical and ecological wrongs. Human development will inevitably continue, but it should be designed to coexist with nature and not obliterate it. And though our wetlands environments of the future will likely involve human intervention as opposed to a more natural scenario, the least we can do is provide a legacy that can kickstart the cycle of nature, rather than unceremoniously dismantle it.

Still, we have a long ways to go; the long-overdue restoration of the Ballona Wetlands is still in the planning phase, as that area falls prey to pollution, human urban development, and an over-abundance of invasive plantlife.

But back at Malibu Lagoon, though most of the young native plants have yet to grow taller than the red and blue flags temporarily placed to mark their plantings, the payoff is starting to show. Earlier this month, Audubon Society members have confirmed the presence, if only temporarily, of a California least tern nesting -- the first such nesting at the Lagoon by that particular bird species since the 1940s. What goes around...

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