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Aliso Creek

Back to the Future

By Tom Osborne
By Tom Osborne

$1.6 million! That’s what was recently paid for William Wendt’s painting, “The Old Coast Road.” The amount was more than twice the anticipated selling price for this iconic work of art. This brought to mind a color plate I saw long ago of Wendt’s painting of “The Winding Stream,” (“Old Bridge at Aliso Creek,” Laguna Beach, c. 1917). Another one of Wendt’s masterpieces going back a near century ago, this oil on canvas depicting Aliso Creek and its estuary speaks to me. It drove me to write this column.

I contrasted in my mind the elysian scene out of Laguna’s past captured so stunningly by Wendt with the urbanized, degraded, unhealthful Aliso Creek of today. That watercourse daily empties its toxic brew into the ocean at our doorstep at the rate of more than 1 million gallons per day. Like others before me, I let my mind drift to images of what the waters near the mouth of Aliso Creek might look like if the bygone, paved over wetlands were brought back for future Lagunans. Might it look something like Wendt’s painting? I wondered. Assuredly, a reclaimed estuary would help filter toxins otherwise headed for the ocean, thereby enhancing public health and safety. Migrating whales, kelp, and other marine life would benefit as well. So coupled with my love of waterscapes everywhere, Laguna’s venerable art colony heritage has inspired me to work for estuarial restoration.

The prospects for that restoration happening were greatly enhanced by the $300,000 grant awarded by the California Coastal Conservancy to the Laguna Ocean Foundation. LOF board member Ed Almanza did an extraordinary job of writing the grant proposal.

Curious about how officialdom has gone on record about the restoration goal, I went online and came away with high hopes for bringing “the lagoon back to Laguna,” as award-winning local Bluebelt ocean activist Mike Beanan phrases it. In the words/actions of just a few of these officials (source and civic groups:

Laguna Beach City Council on March 31, voted unanimously, 5-0, to direct the City Manager to assign senior City staff to become involved and “to enthusiastically endorse and support the project.”

Assemblyperson Alan R. Mansoor, letter of Sept. 2, 2014: “I support this project.”

Orange County Supervisor Patricia C. Bates, letter of Aug. 27, 2014): “I support this project.”

Hallie Jones, executive director of Laguna Canyon Foundation, letter received by California Coastal Conservancy on Sept. 2, 2014: “The Laguna Canyon Conservancy wholeheartedly supports . . . the Aliso Estuary Restoration Planning project.”

South Laguna Civic Association has donated $1000 toward estuary restoration.

To be clear, these letters endorsed the concept of a restored Aliso Creek Estuary and urged that the state of California help fund a feasibility study. The results of that study, which will be undertaken by credentialed experts on riparian habitats and related matters, should be known in late 2017. Many hope that a restoration plan will result because that has been our longtime dream.

A small, vocal group comprising a subcommittee of the recreation committee does not share this dream. Instead, they’re planning a skateboard park for the inland side of the Aliso Creek Park. That subcommittee has other options to consider because skateboard parks can be sited in more than one type of locale. Estuaries, however, can only exist at or near the mouth of a watercourse.

The dream of estuary restoration resonates with the art colony, ocean-identified Laguna heritage. Just imagine how future generations of Laguna students might one day be able to take field trips to their own restored wetlands to see tidewater goby and learn about ocean ecology. William Wendt’s evocative painting of old Aliso Creek may just take our citizenry back to the future. I hope so.


Tom Osborne received Laguna Beach’s Environmental Award in 2009, and is writing a book on Peter Douglas and the California Coastal Commission, under contract with the University of California Press.



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