Early in the morning is always the best time to experience the Bolsa Chica wetlands. With my running shoes tied tight and my stereo strapped to my bicep, I jet out my front door and feel the cool morning air hit my face. Eight minutes later, I reach the backside of the wetlands, rocks crunching under my feet as I run along a path. Others are also out enjoying the sunshine, and as I pass by I say “good morning.” In every direction that I look, the land seems peaceful. The brush moves with the breeze, birds rummage the mudflats for worms, and the sun provides warmth. It is here where I can gather my thoughts, enjoy myself, and not worry about what the day will bring. It is here at the Bolsa Chica wetlands that I can be one with nature.
Meaning “Little Pocket” in Spanish, Bolsa Chica is the largest remaining wetlands complex in Southern California and a key stopover for migrating birds. With two main mesas, upper and lower, and 300 acres of salt marshes, mudflats, pools, and oil fields, the wetlands are a dominant feature within northern Huntington Beach (1). Beginning at the intersection of Warner Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), the wetlands run south, parallel with PCH, and end at Seapoint Avenue. Stretching about three miles in length, the wetlands overlook the coast with the Highway as their division. Believed to be a popular hunting ground to Native American tribes at one time, they were transformed in the early 1900’s into the Bolsa Hunting Club, a prestigious duck and fowl-hunting club with steep membership fees (4). In addition, a Los Angeles Red Car train system included a stop here, and in World War II, a portion of the wetlands was used by troops to watch for enemy attacks (4). Now, the wetlands are a protected area where local residents spend their spare time.
On the weekends, residents and tourists flock to the beautiful wetlands. Since there are parking lots located off both PCH and Warner Avenue, parking is hassle-free and takes just minutes. From the PCH parking lot, a wooden bridge crosses over a tidal inlet and leads to a one and a half mile loop trail that provides wildlife viewing. Two of the wetland’s sand islands house the California Least Terns and Snowy Plovers. In addition, 163 pairs of endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrows live, breed, and nest at Bolsa Chica (3). On any day, the Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, White and Brown Pelicans, Avocets, and Black-necked Stilts are visible, and every once in awhile, the rare Light-footed Clapper Rails appear (3). In the fall and winter seasons, Lesser Scaups, Red-breasted Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks, and Common Loons come to visit (3). Besides birds, other animals such as rodents, reptiles, coyotes, and insects inhabit the grasslands, brush, and Eucalyptus trees. People also come to the wetlands to exercise. Walking and running occur all throughout the day, but bicycling is restricted. From the Warner lot, another trail begins and ends about three-fourths of a mile later at a viewpoint. In front lies the Pacific Ocean and behind lie the encroaching homes. Also at the Warner lot, an Interpretive Center is found for those seeking more information about the history of the wetlands and ways in which they can help with preservation.
For the past three decades, environmentalists have battled to preserve the Bolsa Chica wetlands within Huntington Beach. In the 1970s, developers proposed building a marina, hotel, and as many as 5,700 homes in the area, which had been a working oil field since World War II. This plan was rejected by preservationists and gradually fell apart due to several legal challenges. The wetlands almost became part of a major residential development and marina off Huntington Beach, but the state stepped in four years ago and bought 880 acres for 25 million dollars. If the state hadn’t purchased the land, 3,300 homes would have been built, destroying all forms of wildlife (1). Also, just last year, the owner of a 102-acre parcel next to the marshlands agreed to sell the land to California for 65 million dollars instead of building homes. The upper mesa of Bolsa Chica, overlooking PCH, will be added to the 1,200 acres of publicly owned wetlands that California is restoring (2). “We have the wetlands and a major portion of the mesa,” said Shirley Dettloff, a former Huntington Beach mayor and board member of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, a long time advocate for restoration (2). Dettloff explains that the environmental community will be proud of this accomplishment. With the land belonging to the state, restoration work could be started.
The restoration plan for the Bolsa Chica wetlands involves reopening the wetlands to the ocean by cutting a 360-foot wide inlet through Bolsa Chica State Beach. The resulting infusion of seawater and tidal circulation would restore rich wildlife habitat and help several species of endangered birds and fish (1). Even though a plan was set, Caltrans, also known as the California Department of Transportation, was keeping the state from getting started on the restoration project. Caltrans wanted to turn PCH, now four lanes, into a six-lane bridge, but the California Coastal Commission recommended against this idea. Larry Simone, a planner in the Coastal Commission’s San Francisco office, said that the highway should stay at four lanes because a wider bridge, which would take land away from the state beach, is inconsistent with the state’s Coastal Act (1). After hearing what Simone had to say, the California Department of Transportation agreed to the four-lane bridge. The 100-million dollar restoration project could now proceed. The restoration work, the most expensive wetlands recovery effort in state history, started just last year, mid 2004, and is expected to take three years to complete. Three decades of struggle have finally paid off.
The majority of environmentalists agree with the restoration work, but there are some who oppose the plan. These small groups of people believe that opening up the wetlands could pollute the ocean off Bolsa Chica State Beach. They justify their claim with a University of California, Irvine study released last year showing that bacteria that sits in wetlands can harm coastal water quality (1). Executive director of the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, Chris Evans, states, “it’s a mistake. That particular stretch of beach happens to be one of the better spots of water quality.” In addition, state park officials worry about the impact on ocean water quality at the state beach, which is visited by more than two million people each year (1). The commission staff has presented studies that show that forming this tidal inlet won’t affect the water quality at all.
After reading both sides, I agree with the plan of restoration. First of all, the arguments for the restoration project are more logical than the arguments against the project. Cutting an inlet through the State Beach will gradually restore the wetlands. Cleanup and earthmoving of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands will consist of the removal of sixty one oil wells and associated machinery and the digging of thirteen miles of ditches in search of additional buried pipe and other hazardous debris from over 50 years of oil operations (3). Due to oil operations, the wetlands have been contaminated and are in dire need of restoration in order to help endangered fish and birds. The only way is to let the wetlands experience a natural infusion of seawater and tidal circulation by opening them up to the ocean. The arguments for the restoration project are also more credible in that they were approved by statewide agencies such as the California Coastal Commission and the California Department of Transportation. On the other hand, the opposing side’s arguments were backed up by just one study from the University of California, Irvine. The arguments for the plan may be more convincing, but that’s not the only reason why I agree with them. I feel so strong about restoring the wetlands because they are so close to my home.
(1) Mehta, Seema. “Way Cleared for Wetlands Plan.” Los Angeles Times. http://www.Calcoast.org/news/wetlands110701.htm
(2) Yi, Daniel. “Deal Would Enhance Bolsa Chica.” Los Angeles Times.
(3) “Bolsa Chica Wetlands.” http://www.stockteam.com/wetlands.html