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Huntington Beach wetlands continue to expand, following decades of degradation

The coastal wetlands of Orange and Los Angeles counties, once scorned for the obstacles they posed to the construction of roads and buildings, have been squeezed by development to less than 10% of their 19th-century size.

But recently approved funding for improvements at two Huntington Beach preserves offer evidence of a growing recognition of the beneficial role they play for man, flora and fauna alike.



Not only do wetlands provide specialized habitat for threatened and endangered species, they also absorb and trap greenhouse gases, buffer human development from rising seas, and offer a rich field laboratory for scientists.

“Wetlands can either be a tool or a weapon,” said Kim Kolpin while standing on the footbridge at the 1,200-acre Bolsa Chica Ecological Preserve in Huntington Beach. Kolpin is a 25-year veteran of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, serving as its executive director since 2012.

“You have 300,000 homes, schools and other buildings right behind this,” she said. “If the wetlands are healthy, they can bear the brunt of sea-level rise. Otherwise, the ocean’s right there with a clear path inland.”

Predictions vary, but official guidance from the Ocean Protection Council calls for the state to prepare for 3.5 feet of sea-level rise by 2050, thanks to climate change. King tides and big surf already cause annual flooding from Capistrano Beach to the Balboa Peninsula to Pacific Coast Highway just upcoast from Bolsa Chica.

Beside its protective role, wetlands provide a preventative offset to carbon-induced climate change.

“Current studies suggest that mangroves and coastal wetlands annually sequester carbon at a rate ten times greater than mature tropical forests,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. “They also store three to five times more carbon per equivalent area than tropical forests.”

Then there are the birds.

The Bolsa Chica wetlands exploded with new wildlife after 2006, when an ocean inlet was completed and allowed the inland waters to become a fully functioning, intertidal wetlands. In December, the Audubon Society listed 236 avian species identified in the preserve.

The focus of upcoming improvements are two deteriorating sandy islands that provide safe refuge for birds that nest directly in sand — and have largely lost beach habitat to humans. The islands host 13 species, including the least tern, the Western snowy plover and Belding’s savannah sparrow — all three of which are threatened or endangered.



Meanwhile, the resurrection of the Huntington Beach Wetlands from salt flats to functioning wetlands continues, with the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy recently winning a $2.5 million grant to purchase the Newland Marsh. It will become the fourth and final in a series of marshes that the conservancy has acquired and restored in the area fronting the AES power plant since 1986.

“The shorelines are some of the most biodiverse parts of the ocean,” Kolpin said.

In 2018, a coalition of the 18 state and federal environmental agencies approved an ambitious strategy to preserve, restore and expand the region’s marshes, salt flats, lagoons and estuaries. The plan’s goal of doubling inter-tidal wetlands in Orange and Los Angeles counties was criticized by some as being more aspirational than realistic. Meanwhile, others point out that the dynamic nature of the original locations can’t be replicated in this day and age, and often need ongoing maintenance.

“Restoration is never perfect,” Kolpin said. “It’s never going to be like it was before human intervention. But if we’re providing food and habitat for our animals, it’s worth it.”

A new marsh

John Villa, 61, became executive director of the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy in 2016, following a career utilizing his MBA abilities as a corporate contract negotiator.

“I told myself I wanted to use my skills for good, not evil,” Villa said, only half kidding, in a masked, socially distanced interview at the conservancy’s interpretive center.

They’re handy skills for navigating the wetlands’ management world of financing and grants. Last month’s announcement that the conservancy secured $2.5 million to buy the Newland Marsh at the corner of Beach Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway from CalTrans, for example, was the result of grants from three different state agencies. He’ll need another $3 million to do the actual restoration work, of which $250,000 has been raised so far.

The wetlands in this stretch, immediately upcoast of the Santa Ana River, once covered some 2,300 acres. Then in the 1920s, when the area’s oil boom hit, a berm was built along the beach, the Santa Ana River was channelized, and the wetlands largely disappeared.

The conservancy’s holdings are a modest cry from what once existed, currently consisting of 134 acres of wetlands and coastal dunes with the Newland Marsh to add about 45 acres to the total. As with the Talbert, Brookhurst and Magnolia marshes, the Newland Marsh will be transformed from scrub brush and salt flat to a functioning wetlands by bringing in brackish water from the flood control channel that winds through the area.

Villa joked about his wetlands being a stepchild to larger, more well-known preserves like Bolsa Chica.

Beside Bolsa Chica being more than six times the size, it’s also easier to see from Pacific Coast Highway traffic and has a network of trails that attracts some 80,000 annual visits.

Huntington Beach Wetlands are less popular with both wildlife and the public, with 78 species of birds, 3,200 annual visits and just one trail on one of its marshes.

But like Bolsa Chica, the area hosts threatened and endangered species, including the least tern, Western snowy plover and Belding’s savannah sparrow. While it doesn’t offer much in terms of sand nesting, it provides a feeding grounds for those that nest in the 6-acre fenced least tern preserve on the nearby beach at the wetlands ocean inlet.

As for visitors, Villa has thrown himself into public outreach, including hosting cleanups, plantings and tours that begin at 9 a.m. the third Saturday of each month. He’s planning to add several new amenities, including two trails, a boardwalk and a second interpretive center at the Newland Marsh.

And the wetlands modest size?

“In 50 years, with rising sea levels, we might get more,” he said with a laugh.

Big Bolsa

The Bolsa Chica wetlands have survived an inlet closure made when a hunting club was built there in the 1890s, oil wells that came in the 1920s, and gun turrets and bunkers built during World War II. A massive development and marina proposed in the 1960s spurred the community to begin an effort to preserve and restore the natural habitat.

The marina idea was discarded and the development was scaled back to some 5,000 homes and then, after a successful lawsuit, to 379 homes. At the same time, the state was acquiring more of the land. And all the while, environmentalists have been working with the state on restoration projects.

The latest grant for improvements, announced earlier this month, provides $135,000 of design and planning funds for the restoration of the two sandy islands, built in the 1970s specifically for least terns, according to Kolpin.

One of the tern islands has lost most of the sand atop its base and much of the second has eroded away completely, both thanks to extreme tides and sea-level rise. The improvements will be made to withstand the future rise of the ocean, Kolpin said

Other projects in the works include a $325,000 sustainability study to examine the best way to go forward with future improvements and a new plan being developed by UC Irvine students and staff to restore native vegetation on the 63 acres that burned in a July brush fire. And while the restorations are changing some aspects of the wetlands, Kolpin said climate change is also playing a part — and not just in water levels.

“As we’re seeing temperatures increasing, we’re also seeing flowers blooming when they didn’t used to bloom, animals showing up here that haven’t been here before,” she said.

Source: Orange County Register

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