Laguna Beach OKs Marine Mammal Center expansion, water saving project

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A rendering of the approved pre-release animal pool at Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Courtesy of Todd Skenderian Architect

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center cleared a critical hurdle Wednesday after six years of planning to expand its Laguna Canyon campus and add a reclamation system that could reduce its annual water usage by at least four million gallons.

After 50 years of rescuing and rehabilitating marine mammals along the Orange County coastline, the nonprofit is looking to enter a new chapter made possible by an $8 million capital campaign. Glenn Gray, CEO of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, said his team is very grateful for the unanimous vote of support from the Planning Commission on Wednesday.

“We’re especially looking forward to to the water reclamation project and what it will do for the PMMC and the City,” Gray said.

Following construction, salt water containing animal feces and fish particles will be pumped to a new building for treatment and reuse. The Center’s soiled pool water is currently discharged into the local sewer system.

The nonprofit’s leaders have planned a 2,000-square-foot addition to the existing two-story, 4,000-square-foot barn. Animal care facilities including two new rehabilitation pools will be on the first floor. New offices, a presentation room, and a student laboratory will be on the second floor.

An aerial rendering of the approved Pacific Marine Mammal Center expansion along Laguna Canyon Creek. Courtesy of Todd Skenderian Architect

There’s also a 1,350-square-foot, two-story addition to the existing Animal Shelter building that would be shared by both organizations. This includes new offices, with workspace for the Animal Services officers, a cattery, and an enclosed garage to accommodate small rescue boats.

A public-facing pre-release pool will get a makeover that will look similar to what visitors have seen at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Shotcrete boulders around the perimeter of the 3,500-gallon pool are designed to look like marine outcroppings seas and sea lions haul onto in the wild. The pool is designed with an underwater viewing area through part of the pool’s side wall.

Architectural drawings are scheduled to be shared with city building officials by late August, Gray said. Depending on how construction bids roll in, Gray would like to break ground in the first quarter of 2023.

One big question remains. Where will rescued pinnipeds be treated during the 12 to 18 months of construction? During wildfires, animals have been briefly evacuated to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro and SeaWorld San Diego. But neither site can accommodate the extra capacity for over a year, Gray said.

PMMC is looking for a temporary site in Orange County where animals can be taken and not disturbed by construction noise. The nonprofit is working out the logistics of moving its existing water filtration system and building temporary pools at this satellite location.

Planning Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin commended the nonprofit’s leaders for assembling a project to shrink its water consumption during a historic drought.

“It’s really a remarkable institution with a remarkable history and very forward-thinking,” Whitin said. “The moment is absolutely right where we have water mandates in the State of California and here they are before us right now. Even today there’s discussion about the Colorado River water.”

In a rare move, an association of Laguna Canyon residents endorsed the project despite the second-story additions.

“We value the Pacific Marine Mammal Center as great Canyon neighbors and appreciate the good that they do, in their direct rehabilitation work, and also in the research they generate and their educating of the next generation,” Laguna CANDO president Penelope Milne wrote in an email.

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