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Restoring an Estuary, Healing an Environment

Tom Osborne
Tom Osborne

At last some positive, even inspiring news on the environmental front. With two-dozen California wildfires now nearly contained while parts of Texas, the Gulf Coast, and much of Puerto Rico struggle to recover from recent killer hurricanes–all of which scientists tell us were intensified by climate change and ocean warming –I’m joyful about the prospect of restoring the earlier Aliso Creek estuary.

This good news was presented last month, hosted by The Ranch at Laguna Beach and organized by our conservation-minded Laguna Ocean Foundation. Emcee Ed Almanza, a member of that organization’s board, opened the program by identifying the impressive group of scientists whose research on this project has brought in funding from the California Coastal Conservancy, and endorsement from Orange County Fifth District Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, 36th District state Senator Pat Bates, (both Republicans), and the Laguna Beach City Council. Almanza and project hydrologist Nick Garrity skillfully fielded questions from the audience of nearly 50 engaged citizens.

A PowerPoint presentation outlined the physical features of the 35-mile Aliso Creek watershed, its boundaries, riparian and animal habitat, historical Native American legacy, and post-WWII housing development that polluted its waters and replaced most of the estuary with grass and a parking lot. The capstone of the visuals on the screen was the overlays showing the spatial reach and character of the envisioned restored estuary.

The plan sounds promising. Habitat and wildlife will be restored; the bluebelt and greenbelt will be linked; the public will have access to a scenic area; and South Laguna will have a stunning environmental gateway. The overflow parking lot on the inland side of Coast Highway would be replaced (and possibly moved to the north side of the creek) by an estuary. Visiting school children would receive a first-class education on estuarine functioning and restoration. If the public doesn’t understand the dynamics of coastal ecology, what chance is there that any wetlands will remain given the encroachments of development and climate change-induced sea-rise. (Indeed, we were told that from 1850 to today California’s wetlands have dwindled from some 300 to about 100.) An interpretive center would be built on the north side of the creek. There, visitors would learn about the geology and hydrology of the estuarine area and its hinterland, as well as become acquainted with the culture of the Acjachemen Nation people who occupied the area during the arrival of the Spaniards in the late 1700s.

As carefully, even brilliantly, as the restoration plan was conceived and presented, some tough questions were asked from the audience. For example, if aquatic life is to be brought back to an expanded basin at and near the mouth of Aliso Creek, how will such creatures like tidewater goby survive given the toxic urban runoff flowing downstream from inland cities? We were told agreements will have to be reached with the upstream municipalities. This will not be easy, but must be done, regardless of this project if Laguna Beach has any hope of cleaning up the ocean’s unhealthy receiving waters at Aliso Beach. Also, the question arose about how the estuary restoration endeavor would be affected by the Aliso Creek Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study, a new iteration of the old SUPER Project consisting of drop-dams and concretized, channelizing structures now imaginatively rebranded “pools and riffles.” Again, the presenters, having no crystal ball, had little in the way of an answer at this time.

I’m confident LOF has the expertise, vision, and drive to figure out answers to these and additional questions that will arise as the project moves forward. Officials from both parties support a restored estuary. Leading state and local officials as well as a major state agency are enthusiastically behind it. As Bartlett declared with reference to this project: “We can heal the environment out there.”


Tom Osborne’s fourth book, “Coastal Sage: Peter Douglas and the Fight to Save California’s Shore” (University of California Press) will be released next month.



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