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Southern Los Cerritos Wetlands, in Seal Beach, set for restoration with $31 million grant

A portion of the Los Cerritos Wetlands, a 500-acre complex of critical habitat for native wild and plant life, is set for restoration with help from a State Coastal Conservancy grant — after decades of work by local advocates to preserve the area.

The state agency recently awarded a $31.8 million grant to the Los Cerritos Wetland Authority — a joint powers agency comprising the cities of Long Beach and Seal Beach, the state conservancy itself, and the California Rivers and Mountain Conservancy — to get the first phase of the decades-in-the-making project underway.

The history of the Los Cerritos Wetlands is complex and dates back thousands of years, with the Gabrielino-Tongva Indian Tribe, now known as the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, as its ancestral inhabitants.

In its heyday, the wetlands encompassed more than 2,400 acres of land, providing crucial habitat for native wildlife. It was, and still is, central to the spiritual and cultural traditions of many Indeigenous communities, according to a nonprofit called Puvunga Wetlands Protectors, including the Tongva, Acjachemen and Payomkawichum.

The land was eventually occupied and taken over for various uses — from oil drilling to flood control — and reduced down to its current 500-acre status at the mouth of the San Gabriel River, straddling the border between Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Various portions of the wetlands, according to Eric Zahn, principal restoration ecologist for Tidal Influence LLC, the firm hired to consult on the wetlands restoration project, are currently owned by 12 different entities.

“People have been working on the conservation of this area since the 1970s,”  Zahn said in a Thursday, Sept. 21, interview. “It wasn’t until about 2006 that the (LCWA) was formed when a landowner purchased land for the purpose of conservation — so that was really the turning of the tide.”

The $31.8 million grant, meanwhile, will fund an effort called the Southern Los Cerritos Wetlands Restoration Project, which aims to breathe new life into the 103-acre portion of the complex in Seal Beach that was purchased by the LCWA specifically for conservation purposes.

The project is part of a larger effort to restore the entire 500-acre wetlands area, Zahn said. But because land ownership is so complicated, larger-scale projects are likely much further down the line.

But still, the grant funding for this portion of the project is a significant milestone, and construction on it will mark the first large scale restoration effort on the wetlands since planning and community engagement for it began more than a decade ago.

The Southern Los Cerritos Wetlands Restoration Project will be broken down into two separate phases: The first will entail restoration efforts and public access improvements on about 54 acres of the site; the second intends to reconnect the wetlands to the ocean.

“Right now, it’s not dynamic — it just looks like a big wasteland,” Zahn said. “We’re turning weed-infested uplands into intertidal ocean habitat, and it’ll become something more akin to what you see at Bolsa Chica.”

By eventually reconnecting the wetlands with the tides, Zahn said, the project will restore the area to as close to its original condition as possible and, in the process, help support native wildlife thrive.

Birds and fishes who migrate along the coast, Zahn said, are in search of the tidal wetlands as part of their evolutionary instinct.

“(But) these habitats, they’re few and far between,” Zahn said, “So, we’re going to be supporting migratory wildlife and local fisheries at a much higher level —  not to mention all the creatures that you don’t see, the little reptiles and mammals that are all hidden down in holes.”

Much of the wetlands now, Zahn added, are infested with non-native plants — which serve as a good source of food for some general wildlife, but can’t support the specialized species that rely specifically on the tidal wetlands habitat to survive.

“I like to equate it to a human community,” Zahn said. “For it to be a good community, everybody needs to be equally represented. And right now, the community doesn’t have everything it needs to support all those specialized species.”

Besides restoring the ecological aspect of the wetlands, though, the project will also improve public access to the area, according to a Coastal Conservancy staff report. It will do so by creating a new trail, access gates and public gathering spaces.

The project, the report said, will also expand tribal access to the area — with the potential for co-management of the land.

A Tribal Access Plan will be developed with Gabrielino-Tongva and Acjachemen representatives, the report said, which could include developing a story porch, cultural interpretative signage, special access areas and more.

“These features will allow for reconnection of tribes to the land for cultural and ceremonial practices,” the report said, “education about tribal cultural history of the wetlands, protection of cultural resources and potential co-management of the land.”

Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust — a nonprofit that advocates for the area’s conservation and restoration — said Thursday that public access is a crucial component of the project.

“When I first started with the (LCWLT),” Lambe said, “you couldn’t even walk on that land; it was still privately owned.”

Once the land was made public, the LCWLT began hosting guided tours of the wetlands twice a month — which is still the only way the public can access the area currently.

“Fast forward today, there’s hardly any open natural green space in Southern California,” Lambe said, “so every little piece that you can claw back and restore is hugely important.”

So far, Zahn said, about 65% of the design and planning for the first phase of the restoration project has been completed.

The $31.8 million grant will pay for the remaining planning and permitting, Zahn said, as well as five years of community outreach about the project and the actual implementation of the first phase of the plan.

“The second phase that will be implemented later on, which is dependent on acquiring a connection to the Haynes Cooling Channel,” Zahn said, which is currently used by the LA Department of Water and Power. “They will still be using it until 2029 — at that time, they have expressed that there’s potential for it to be used for tidal wetlands habitat.”

But planning and potential funding for phase two of the project are still far down the line, Zahn said, though he added that he hopes to secure additional State Coastal Conservancy money for that when the time comes.

“I think what is most exciting is that this project is going to essentially open the gates to 100 acres of land for both humans and wildlife that has just been left kind of disregarded and abused for decades,” Zahn said. “It’s going to be a huge resource that many people just don’t know about. It’s going to be a big eye-opening experience.”

Work on phase one, Zahn said, is expected to get underway in September 2025.

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Source: Orange County Register

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