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Malibu Lagoon project shows signs of success

The Malibu Lagoon is pictured this past week, demonstrating a noticeable difference since the Malibu Lagoon Restoration and Enhancement Project began. Photos by Suzanne Guldimann/22nd Century Media
The Malibu Lagoon is pictured in 2013.
Pictured is a killdeer chick which is nesting at Malibu Lagoon.
Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
12:36 pm PDT June 13, 2017

The Malibu Lagoon Restoration and Enhancement Project celebrated its fourth anniversary this spring. 

“We’re about to start our fifth year of monitoring, and everything is going well,” Santa Monica Bay Foundation Watershed Programs Manager Melodie Grubbs told the Malibu Surfside News. 

Grubbs explained that the team that monitors and evaluates the physical, chemical and biological health of the lagoon is seeing positive trends that include increased water circulation and improved oxygen levels in the water.

Bay Foundation Executive Director Tom Ford explained that those findings are good news for the plants and animals that live in the lagoon.

“So far it seems to be working,” Ford said.

The restoration project is the second major effort to restore and improve the wetlands on the west side of Malibu Creek at Surfrider Beach. Ford explained that the initial project was implemented in the 1980s, shortly after the California State Parks acquired the lagoon.

“It was aesthetically pleasing but didn’t work the way it was intended to work,” Ford said. “What was knew about wetlands restoration in the 1980s has changed.”

The 2013 project reconfigured the manmade channels cut in the 1980s and removed nearly two acres of debris dumped by the California Department of Transportation and used at one time for baseball fields by Malibu Little League and then as a lawn and parking area.

The five-year monitoring program is required to ensure that the restoration is working. It involves mechanical monitors that record things like oxygen levels and salinity, and human teams responsible for challenges like counting fish and surveying benthic invertebrates — the tiny organism that live in the mud at the bottom of the lagoon. 

“We’re very pleased with the progress,” Ford said. “Much has come to fruition, and many of our criteria have been met.”

It’s been an uphill struggle at times. The project was delayed by court challenges and large expanses of newly planted native plants initially suffered from the drought and were slow to grow once the project was underway. However, Ford said they have been making up for lost time with the help of this season’s abundant rain.  

Ford and Grubbs point out succulent green salicornia and silvery salt grass, wetland plants with a high tolerance for salt that are key habitat for birds and other wetland animals.

“There’s a killdeer bird with a nest in the salicornia right by the path,” Grubb said. “The rains have made a big difference. Everything looks amazing now.”

The rains, including a major storm event that transformed the sleepy creek into a raging torrent, were a major test of the reconfigured lagoon. Ford said it came through largely unscathed and that the observers are seeing an increase in the number of species in the restoration area every year.

“We’ve put together a mosaic of different habitat,” Ford said. “The more habitat there is, the more species it can support.”

Recent sightings include a rare species of rail, a type of bird that depends on reeds for cover and nesting, and a single southern steelhead trout, the highly endangered fish that is nearly extinct in Southern California.

A nesting snowy plover was also big news this spring. Although the tiny shore bird is a regular winter visitor, this is the first time the species has been observed nesting at Surfrider Beach in years.

“Everyone was surprised by the plover nesting,” Grubbs said. “It’s outside of the restoration project, but it’s a good sign.”

Ford said that as the fifth and final year of mandated monitoring begins, the project team continues to learn.

“We feel like we’ve got some things figured out,” he said, adding that the knowledge gained from the Malibu Lagoon restoration will help develop and inform future restoration projects.

Ford said he was aware of the community’s early concerns with the project and that he hopes that as the project has matured those concerns have been laid to rest.  

“That’s part of the lessons learned,” he said, describing the whole complex, multi-phase, multi-year project as being “well worth the trouble.”