2 Huge Wetlands Projects Advance

Science, engineering are put to the test in the Bolsa Chica and San Francisco Bay restoration efforts.

By Seema Mehta
Times Staff Writer

October 28 2002

Biologists are embarking on massive efforts to reclaim a pair of California wetlands -- campaigns that will take decades to unfold and push the limits of science and engineering.

The projects -- to restore oil fields in Orange County and salt ponds in South San Francisco Bay to their natural, estuarine states -- are the biggest, most expensive such wetland projects in the Western United States. Both are nearing major milestones.

In Northern California, officials are weeks away from signing a $135-million agreement to buy and begin restoring roughly 26 square miles of Cargill Inc. salt ponds along the south bay. In Southern California, experts working on the $100-million Bolsa Chica restoration are nearing agreement with an oil company over removing toxins and selling oil rights.

These steps are just the beginning. Given the evolving science of wetlands restoration and other challenges ahead, biologists say they may not even see the fruits of their efforts in their lifetimes.

"It's so hard for man to create nature," said Marge Kolar, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manager of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge that will expand to include restored ponds. "There's no instant gratification."

The restoration efforts are among hundreds being undertaken throughout the state. Most are at least partly experiments. It's often impossible to know precisely how a site looked and functioned before it was disturbed. Scientists also must reckon with existing pollution and plan for potential effects of future land uses in surrounding areas.

Decades ago, wetlands were called "swamps." Railroads and power lines were built over them. They were dammed, diked, filled or paved to make way for new development. As preservation efforts gained steam in the 1970s, the passage of the federal Clean Water Act and the California Coastal Act stemmed the destruction -- but not before nearly all coastal marshes had been eliminated or severely degraded.

"We have an absolutely horrible history of destroying wetlands in California, especially Southern California," said Jack Fancher, a federal biologist overseeing Bolsa Chica's restoration. "The massive, large-scale destruction of wetlands pretty much stopped with the enactment of those two laws."

Economic Benefits

Now, wetlands are viewed as vital filters of urban runoff, way stations for migrating birds and habitat for endangered species. They generate economic benefits by restocking commercial fisheries. And communities get recreation spots for nature lovers, hikers and birders.

"We're at one of those historic moments when people's thinking has evolved to the point that we recognize that not only are wetlands valuable for shorebirds or for what they do for coastal water quality, but if you can really restore functioning wetlands, you can achieve a whole range of different ... goals," said Mary Nichols, Gov. Gray Davis' resources secretary.

At Cargill, salt production dating to the Gold Rush has left some patches 10 times saltier than the ocean. Sea water is moved through a series of diked ponds that are colored red, orange and other bright hues by microscopic bacteria. As water evaporates, the remaining brine becomes saltier. The process results in sunken fields so encrusted with salt they appear covered in thick sheets of ice.

Under an agreement announced in May, Cargill will be paid $100 million for 16,596 acres and get a federal tax write-off of $143 million. The company also would give up salt-making rights on another 9,000 acres. The purchase, to be completed by Dec. 15, would be funded by $72 million in state bond money, $8 million from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and $20 million from four Bay Area nonprofit groups.

The private foundations and the state and federal governments also will provide $35 million to draft a plan and care for the wetlands until restoration can begin.

The planning itself is expected to take five years. Once scientists agree on the types of habitat to be created, levees will be breached and briny water released into the bay carefully so as not to overwhelm fragile ecosystems with too much salt. The levees have long protected South San Francisco Bay cities from storm flooding, so any changes also must ensure the safety of those cities. That could mean building new levees closer to populated areas.

All that work across Cargill's roughly 26 square miles could cost as much as $1 billion and take decades to complete.

"It takes time for all the vegetation to return and for all the invertebrates to get back in and to make it a real functioning wetland," Kolar said. "I would hope that in my lifetime, the initial construction would be started and some wetlands would be vegetated and others would be in the process of being restored."

An earlier restoration of south bay ponds in the 1980s took more than a decade before a channel of flowing bay water nourished the former salt-crusted fields, coaxing it into a lush marsh of pickleweed, cord grass and reeds and providing habitat for endangered harvest mice and other life.

Still, "every wetland really is different," Kolar said. "You can learn a little bit [from other projects], but this is Mother Nature. This is biology. ... It's never exactly the same."

Though the Cargill acquisition and planning are funded, wildlife officials still must find the restoration money. "Our hope is that because it will be happening over a period of years, it won't be as hard to gulp as one fell swoop," she said.

Uncertain Funding

Other salt ponds acquired in the Napa-Sonoma Marshes Wildlife Area eight years ago offer a lesson in the perils of uncertain funding. More than 9,000 acres were bought then left untended while scientists worked on a restoration plan. The ponds grew drier, saltier and far less hospitable to wildlife.

Planners involved in the upcoming south bay restoration said that's why they made sure they had money to maintain the ponds while the long-term restoration plan is drafted.

"You need to be ready now to do something with the ponds," Kolar said. "You can't buy them and plan to do something over the years."

Human influence at Bolsa Chica has been more invasive.

A duck hunting club cut off the wetlands from the ocean in 1899, diking ponds to make it easier to catch their prey. Oil drilling began after World War II, then homes were built on nearly half the wetlands.

There are 1,200 acres left, mostly cracked, dusty brown earth dotted by pumping oil rigs. Decades-old access roads divide the site into puzzle pieces fringed with pickleweed and ice plant.

If all goes well, Bolsa Chica -- site of a raging 27-year development battle -- will once again become a thriving coastal estuary and major migratory bird stop on the Pacific Flyway along with an adjacent state preserve. At $100 million, it would be the second most expensive wetlands restoration in state history.

The plan calls for cutting a 360-foot-wide channel through Pacific Coast Highway and five acres of sandy beach that lie between the ocean and the wetlands, then building a bridge to reconnect the road.

Backhoes and bulldozers will excavate 2.7 million cubic yards of soil to form the inlet and a tidal basin. Dredged soil will be turned into levees and nesting islands. Some will replenish sand at Bolsa Chica State Beach and elsewhere.

Invasive ice plants will be replaced by cordgrass, underwater eel grass beds, beach primrose, rare coastal woolly heads and other marsh flora. One of the last acts, which could happen in 2006, will be to remove a dam and restore tidal flows. The surge of seawater will carry in juvenile halibut, crabs, plankton and other microscopic creatures.

Eventually, the former oil field will attract nesting California least terns, light-footed clapper rails and other marsh birds.

"It's the best feeling. The best reward I have professionally is when they're open and they come to life," Fancher said. "You invest part of your life, your personal life, in these things that are so big and so complicated and sometimes contentious battles."

A 248-acre portion will continue to produce oil until it's no longer economically viable, then it, too, will be restored.

The biggest obstacle to a revived Bolsa Chica -- or "Little Pocket" in Spanish -- is contamination. An Oct. 8 study found oil, heavy metals, PCBs and mercury on the land--a legacy of decades of drilling.

Aera Energy LLC and wildlife officials are negotiating over what level of cleanup the oil company and landowner must do, as well as how much the government will pay Aera to curtail some of its oil operations.

Depending on the level and location, the chemicals will either be isolated on the site, treated or hauled to landfills.

Then, Fancher and others must determine whether the government has enough money to fund the $100-million plan. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have given $79 million to compensate for marine habitat destroyed by their expanded operations. Officials also hope to get funding through Proposition 40, a $2.6-billion water and parks bond California voters approved in March.

Other challenges include preventing runoff from future developments nearby and minimizing the impact of polluted storm water that would overflow a substandard flood control channel that will continue to cross the property.

"It's like a hurdle race: You jump one hurdle but there's another one coming," Fancher said.

Still, Fancher said, only 60 miles south in Carlsbad is a success story. Urbanization and three bridges degraded the 610-acre Batiquitos Lagoon. A $55-million project reopened it to the ocean in 1996.

Recent monitoring has shown that hundreds of invertebrate, fish and bird species have returned, including nesting endangered Western snowy plovers.

Lessons learned about revegetation, ocean inlets and sand replenishment at Batiquitos are being applied to the larger, more complex -- and more expensive -- Bolsa Chica project.

"The easy ones have been done," Fancher said. "That's an explanation for why the costs are what they are ... [And] we must save these because they're all that's left. If we don't save these, we don't have anything."