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The Planet

October 1997, Volume 4, number 8

Fighting for Wetlands

by David Edeli and Jenny Coyle

In a Southern California neighborhood where homes sell for half a million to a million dollars depending on the length of your walk to the beach, a 905-acre wetland has been spared the bulldozer.

The Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club and four other groups helped swing a deal to take Bolsa Chica -- an oilfield which is also the largest unprotected coastal wetland south of San Francisco -- out of the hands of a developer and into public ownership.

"When people think of sprawl, they think about cities pushing out into the desert," said Marcia Hanscom, wetlands chair for the chapter. "But sprawl in the other direction -- out to the coast -- is just as bad. This is one of the little bits of refuge we have."

California has lost 90 percent of its original wetlands and more than half have been destroyed nationwide. Bolsa Chica was saved, but others won't be without a fight. Many people don't understand why wetland habitat is worth safeguarding, but Sierra Club volunteers and staffers are working to teach them the value of this dwindling resource.

Bolsa Chica Saved

While the Pacific Coast Highway -- which runs along the ocean -- borders one side of Bolsa Chica, the rest is surrounded by housing and commercial development. Situated 100 miles north of the Mexican border, the wetlands are a midway point on the Pacific Flyway between Alaska and South America, and provide habitat for eight endangered species, including the California least tern, peregrine falcon and brown pelican.

When Koll Real Estate Group proposed to build 3,300 homes and a strip mall on the Bolsa Chica wetlands and surrounding area, the Angeles Chapter opposed it -- including the developer's plan to make the project more palatable to the public by restoring some of the wetlands. Why? Koll wanted to dredge the beach to create an inlet, ostensibly for wetland restoration. But the inlet would have routed a channel of storm drain runoff and other urban residue away from waterfront luxury homes in another Koll development, and wreaked havoc on the salinity of the wetlands. Chapter members and others protested the inlet at a beach rally where they used black plastic sheeting to spell out Koll's name with a slash through it.

The chapter and other local groups worked with federal and state officials to create a mitigation deal where money to buy and properly restore Bolsa Chica came from sources like the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The ports want to expand into other wetlands, which will involve deep-water dredging; they mitigated that wetland loss by contributing to the Bolsa Chica project. Hanscom said money also came from the California Coastal Conservancy and fines Exxon paid after the Valdez oil spill in Alaska because of Bolsa Chica's importance to the Pacific Flyway. "It was a very creative purchase," said Hanscom. In February, 880 acres of Bolsa Chica went into public ownership under the State Lands Commission; combined with 25 acres donated by the Metropolitan Water District and held by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, 905 acres have been protected.

The Club also teamed up with three other plaintiffs and won two lawsuits, proving that Koll's building project violated state environmental laws, and that the California Coastal Commission erred when it approved the project on a wetland.

"Using money from ports that want to dredge wetlands may not seem like the most pure way to save Bolsa Chica," said Debbie Cook, an attorney who represented the Club in the lawsuits. "But at least this way the wetland restoration will be done right -- and not the way Koll wanted to do it."

Prairie Potholes Protected

Whisper the words flood control in South Dakota and residents will get very interested in wetlands; they haven't forgotten the devastation wrought by last winter's storms. That's what the East River Group of the South Dakota Chapter counted on when it got the public involved in the Atkins Wetlands Interpretive Trail Project to teach locals about the importance of prairie pothole wetlands. Left behind by retreating glaciers from the last ice age, prairie pothole wetlands are depressions that range in size from a quarter-acre to hundreds of acres. They look boggy, though some are dry half the year.

The Atkins Waterfowl Production Area is a 160-acre wetland managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and because it is wedged between Sioux Falls and the small town of Tea, it's not a popular hunting spot. "But," said Karen Fogas, conservation assistant for the South Dakota Chapter, "it's just six miles from the same freeway exit shoppers use to get to the Sioux Empire Mall -- a bonanza for public education opportunities."

Working with Club funding through Project ACT, the group teamed up with South Dakota BASS, the Izaak Walton League and others to build a mile-long trail with interpretive signs. Volunteers have staked the trail, will soon cover it with donated gravel and last month started work on a 150-foot-long bridge made of recycled-plastic boards.

Additional money was raised mainly through direct solicitation; the flood control function of wetlands was a persuasive selling point, said Fogas. The public also values the ability of wetlands to purify water, and the fact that Atkins harbors blue herons, screech owls and migrating songbirds.

Field trips to the site rallied even more support. "It sells itself," said Fogas. "The site has so much potential. There's so much community enthusiasm."

Wastewater Transformed

When Columbia, Mo., (population 100,000) proposed to expand its waste-treatment facilities to dump much larger flows of waste into the Missouri River, the downstream hamlet of Lupus saw a threat to its shorelines, swimming, fishing, boating and overall quality of life.

Wetlands restoration won't create a habitat as effective as the real thing (see "Filtering the Truth," page 6), but sometimes it's a wildlife-friendly solution to an urban problem. According to Ken Midkiff, the Sierra Club program director for the Ozark Chapter, "The town of Lupus wanted to raise hell, and we were ready to help them. We testified before the Columbia City Council, garnered public opposition and played an active role in shaping the solution to the problem."

Columbia got financial support from the state and federal governments -- including the Environmental Protection Agency -- to turn a city-owned stretch of dry field into a pollution-filtering wetland. Now, treated water from Columbia's primary facility is run through two wetland "cells," and then through a third, 2,500-acre wetland created by the state.

Midkiff said the wetlands were constructed by making berms to retain the water, and cement structures for diversion from one site to the next. The area truly looks like a wetland: "There are cattails, rushes and reeds, and egrets, blue herons and muskrats," he said.

The project is further enhanced by a trail that goes through the wetlands all the way into downtown Columbia. "We've taken something distasteful -- the wastewater treatment process -- and turned it into a wildlife habitat and recreation area," Midkiff said. "The wetlands habitat provides its natural capacities, but it also functions as a model for biologically and ecologically sound waste treatment."

Robin Mann, Sierra Club Wetlands/Clean Water Campaign chair, praised these successes and others. "The grassroots efforts are too numerous to mention," she said. We have dedicated activists working to restore waterways, curb pollution and prevent destruction of wetlands in every chapter. The pressures against us from private interests will continue relentlessly, but we have a potent and renewable resource in our creative and flexible activists."

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