Council Fails to Reach Consensus on Malibu Lagoon Restoration Plan
• Lawsuit Filed by Plan Opponents Seeks Temporary Restraining Order to Stop June Start Date
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
After more than three hours of public testimony and a lengthy debate, the Malibu City Council, with Councilmember Laura Rosenthal absent, deadlocked on the hotly contested Malibu Lagoon Restoration and Enhancement Project.
The project, which includes draining, dredging and reshaping the western portion of the lagoon, has drawn a firestorm of criticism in the Malibu community, although the plans have already received all of the necessary approvals and work is scheduled to begin in June.
Opponents have filed a lawsuit and are seeking a temporary restraining order.
The council had the option of taking a position on the project to support, oppose or remain neutral; and direct staff to prepare a letter to that effect.
A presentation on lagoon water quality by US Geologic Survey scientist John Izbicki that preceded the restoration project discussion appeared to send shock waves through the crowded council chambers and provided many opponents of the state parks' project with ammunition during public comment.
Izbicki described recent bacteriological research on "almost 5000" water samples from 50 sites in and around the lagoon. According to Izbicki, analysis has revealed "almost no detections of fecal bacteria in groundwater." However, 60 percent of samples from the lagoon "exceeded [bacterial] standards for marine water, 16 percent of samples exhibiting low levels of dissolved oxygen and levels of enterococcus that are "consistently high."
According to Izbecki, even when the breach is open, water inside the lagoon picks up a massive load of enterococcus during the six hours between tides. And a connection between the lagoon and nearshore ocean exists even when the berm is closed, through a feature the scientist described as "a seepage face."
Izbecki indicated that the concentrations of bacteria were more than 1000 times greater than the combined effluent from the entire Civic Center area.
However, the fecal indicator bacteria in the Malibu Lagoon are not associated with human-specific bacteria.
"Birds produce fecal material," Izbecki said. "The bottom as a substrate is a reservoir for that material, it allows materials to survive and even grow. The birds will reinoculate the lagoon. Its a natural process."
"This is really shocking what you're telling us, that this is from animals," Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich said.
Due to the large number of speakers, public comment was held to two minutes, with state parks and the lead opponents receiving 10 minutes each.
"[It's] important to recognize what we're trying to do here. You can change opinions, not facts," Mayor John Sibert said, explaining why he declined to recuse himself from the discussion after critics indicated that his position on the board of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission constituted a conflict of interest.
"My bias is towards science and truth," Sibert said. "I represent Malibu on the council."
Lead opponents Marcia Hanscom and Roy van de Hoek began public comment with a presentation that outlined the basis for the lawsuit that has been filed.
"[This project] violates the law, the Coastal Act," Hanscom said. "If this was a private developer, there is no way ESHA would be allowed to be destroyed like that. This project will kill wildlife. It eliminates an access [to the beach]. It's unnecessary."
"This is a fully functioning lagoon and wetland," van de Hoek said.
Suzanne Goode, the State Parks spokesperson and lead advocate for the project, provided a presentation on the project but left before public comment had ended, and was not present during council deliberation to answer questions.
"The trail through the lagoon rests on fill…[it] has become a very big problem for us," Goode said. "Fine nutrient laden sediments [are] trapped in the channel. Circulation is very poor, pinched off by fill left for the footpath. Sediment settles. Extreme nutrients cause excessive growth of phytoplankton, algae and submerged vegetation." Goode explained that this was not necessarily bad, but at the lagoon there is an "overabundance."
"[It's] the most nutrient rich lagoon in Southern California," Goode said. Microcystis dominates the phytoplankton [and] can produce microcystin [a toxin]. We've been told we need to clean up upstream, but we actually need to clean up what's in the lagoon."
Beach access advocacy group Access for All's director, Steve Hoye, blasted Goode's statement that the footpath's bridges "pinch" the channel and stated that the one access that will remain open to the public is three times longer than the current footpath route. "Do you know how long it takes to open an access?" asked Hoye. "[The footpath is] extremely valuable because its beautiful," he said, stating that beach access is a state priority. "Do we eliminate the beauty of this area and the access to one of the most beautiful beaches?"
Lifelong Malibu resident and surfer Andy Lyon argued that historical photographs indicate that there was never a lagoon prior to the 1983 reconstruction. "Show me one picture," he said. "It never existed. You can't show it any time in history. It never happened."
Hartmut Walter, professor emeritus at UCLA, supported Lyon's contention. "I have begun to doubt that this is a lagoon," he said. "It is an estuary." Walter described the lagoon as a manmade "novel ecosystem."
"It's foolish to try to restore [it to a] pristine ecosystem," Walter said, adding that it is impossible to accurately recreate historic conditions. "It's a small estuary, much too small to be critical wetland. not sufficient.
"What is purpose of a state park?" Walter asked. "One is to protect nature, but there are many others. [This project] seriously shortchanged Malibu and the California society by not focusing on cultural issues," Walter said. "Foreigners, residents, kids use this park. This proposal has neglected that. It is unique in that the large birds are unbelievably confiding and tame. There is no other place in California where we can get so close to big nature."
The council debated, discussed and deliberated in what one observer described as a scene reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, but they could not reach a consensus.
"I wanted to ask State Parks and there's no one here to ask," Conley Ulich said. "[If 16 percent of the water is anoxic] is 84 percent OK? I also wanted to ask Mr Izbicki [what will happen] if they scoop it out and the birds inevitably are going to poop again?" said Conley Ulich.
"This city does have a history of looking at a plan and going back and maybe changing. I think its possible to do this," Conley Ulich said. She added that the definition of restoration is to "return something that was removed or abolished."
Conley Ulich stated that the lagoon was unnatural and was not going to be restored but made into something else. "We are in an economic state when I hate spending this much money when there are other ways," she said. "I feel like the only thing green about [the project] is the money."
"I hope I will never make a decision over whether I'm going to get reelected," Sibert said, in response to audience comments.
Councilmember Jefferson Wagner wanted a motion that would incorporate an alternative plan that would involve removing obstructions above the bridge.
At one point Lyon, apparently frustrated with the process, began shouting at the council.
"I understand you," Councilmember Lou La Monte said. "I don't know if there was a lagoon. There's very little we can do. How we vote on what doesn't make any difference. With all due respect, this is kind of going to look like a theme park of a lagoon. The Legacy Park does too, but it is cleaning the water. We don't have jurisdiction of PCH. Caltrans does. We don't have those kinds of jurisdictions. We have the responsibility. It's the state's lagoon. It's not ours."
Whatever work is done in the lagoon will not [work] for more than a few years," Wagner said. And we'll all be back here again."
Sibert declined to entertain a motion that the issue be continued until the fifth member of the council could break the deadlock.
The council, deadlocked 2:2 on whether to support or oppose the plan, voted instead to direct staff to coordinate with the California Department of Parks and Recreation on project scheduling and reciprocity of any studies conducted within the project area; and follow up with State DPR and Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board to expand the water quality monitoring requirements of the project.
Conley Ulich suggested that each council member write a letter to the governor expressing their personal views on the issue.
Hecklers in the audience shouted "cop out" as the council adjourned for the night at 11:30 p.m.