Where seawater mixes with freshwater at the mouth of Aliso Creek lies a six-acre remnant of what was once a broad estuary, which restoration advocates say has the potential to provide habitat for several threatened species and serve as a link between the protected greenbelt and marine reserve.
The creek that crosses 35 square miles of watershed has been the subject of several ambitious and largely unrealized conceptual plans involving restoration, water treatment and creek bed stabilization over nearly 20 years.
Now, a new Aliso Creek effort involves a $300,000 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy awarded to Laguna Ocean Foundation to explore restoring the wetlands where the creek empties into the sea.. It appears to be the first that targets the degraded lagoon and its immediate surroundings.
“We have not been involved with or are aware of previous planning efforts for the estuary,” confirmed Greg Gauthier, manager of the Coastal Conservancy’s Wetlands Recovery Project.
Indeed, the 19-mile Aliso Creek watershed and its ecosystem continue to be the subject of studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including one currently underway.
However, these studies all begin their focus 1.5 miles inland at the South Coast Treatment Plant, and continue upstream, said Marilyn Thoms, manager of the OC Public Works watershed division. Public projects that involve federal funding avoid private property, such as the Ranch golf course and hotel that separate the main body of the watercourse from its estuary.
Laguna Ocean Foundation began pursuing the estuary restoration grant two years ago and vetted their idea with Deborah Ruddock of the Coastal Conservancy, said Ed Almanza, its vice chair. Ruddock suggested applying through the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project, which is made up of a number of agencies, including the California Coastal Conservancy. They did, and the Conservancy agreed to underwrite most of the $350,000 cost of devising an estuary restoration plan.
To cover the rest, a private donor and LOF will contribute $20,000 and $10,000 respectively and LOF will secure in-kind services valued at $20,000, according to Almanza.
Though the project was conceived and proposed by LOF, the Conservancy grant will be funneled to them through the Ocean Foundation, based in Washington, D.C. Since the grant size is larger than LOF’s annual budget, Conservancy staff recommended that the Ocean Foundation administer grant payments to consultants hired by LOF, said Almanza.
Aliso Creek once drained through a broad expansive estuary with extensive wetlands, since degraded by urban development and the physical modification of the creek mouth and its banks. The lagoon suffers from unseasonal fluctuations in water level due to incessant urban runoff, obstructed discharge to the ocean and frequent episodes of poor water quality, LOF reports.
Even so, it remains one of the few south-county locations that serve as a habitat link between preserved parklands and the Laguna State Marine Reserve, the report says. It is also a critical habitat for the tidewater goby, and has the potential to support pond turtles, the least Bell’s vireo, and the threatened populations of the yellow-breasted chat and yellow warbler.
The foundation aims to create a feasible restoration plan for the lagoon and estuary that gains support of local property owners, agencies and organizations and is guided by skilled restoration ecologists.
By this fall or winter they expect to begin sharing a concept with the public and then identify long-term management implications and project costs, with a final report by December 2016.
In the meantime, the county and the Army Corps of Engineers are moving forward to complete the Aliso Creek Mainstem Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study, one of several projects recommended by their 2002 Watershed Management Study. The SUPER (stabilization, utility, protection and environmental restoration) Project in 2009 was another, but it was never funded.
Still, any projects pursued upstream will ultimately affect the flow that reaches the lagoon, said Almanza. For that reason their plan for the estuary will anticipate a range of different outcomes that may result from future upstream projects.
“We believe the right place to start is at the mouth,” he said. “If you get that right, then everything up stream has to conform to some degree to keep the estuary functional.”
They are not sure to what degree the can restore it to its previous condition, “but we’re going to try,” said Almanza.
The grant will fund hiring a team of restoration ecologists, hydrologists and coastal engineers to answer the technical questions about whether and how a restoration can be accomplished, said Almanza. And they plan to do all of their technical homework now to ensure the plan complies with the California Environmental Quality Act, the statute that requires state and local agencies to identify the significant environmental impacts of their actions. Just as building projects are declared to be “shovel-ready,” LOF’s plan will be “CEQA-ready,” said Almanza.
Assuming a project is viable, the next step would be funding. “At some point the project will only take life if the public accepts it,” said Almanza. “The support for this to happen has to come from the community.”
Laguna Canyon Foundation was one of numerous organizations that wrote letters supporting LOF’s grant pursuit. In fact, the Canyon Foundation is already involved in its own creek restoration project, removing non-native, invasive giant reeds upstream from the estuary. “It’s important to think about the habitat holistically, which is why we are supporting Laguna Ocean Foundation’s study,” said Executive Director Hallie Jones.
What is now a sore spot along Laguna’s coastline could become a jewel, said Almanza.