It was five years ago this month an ocean inlet debuted at the Bolsa Chica wetlands, and there are many ways to tell the area is flourishing. There is the diversity of wildlife. The picturesque landscape. And of course, the potent scent of bird droppings.
That last attribute might not be pleasant, but it’s a sure sign of a healthy ecosystem, one that’s rebounding at the eleventh hour amid a constant march of urban development.
“I just see this place as like a life raft,” said Kelly O’Reilly, biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. “All these wild things are clinging to this life raft. So many of these species don’t have any other place to go where they can get away from people.”
That doesn’t mean the wetlands are pristine. The low hum of oil pumpjacks is nearly ubiquitous, as is the distant rumble of motorcycles on Pacific Coast Highway. Pipelines crisscross the terrain, and visitors might notice an occasional example of graffiti.
Nonetheless, the land has been rejuvenated. Dozens of nodding-donkey oil wells were removed so hundreds of acres of marsh could be inundated by the ocean. Islands of green pickleweed, banks of brown mud and patches of rust-colored earth commingle everywhere, looking like someone dropped a camouflage blanket over the place. At the center of it all is a vast basin where millions of gallons of silver-blue seawater enter and exit each day.
“That is probably the most striking aspect of it, is visually,” said Flossie Horgan, executive director of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. “What used to be oil roads and derricks is an inland bay. It’s gorgeous.”
A far different vision once was proposed – 5,000 homes and a marina – but environmentalists helped prevent it from becoming reality.
In doing so, they created the crown jewel in Huntington Beach’s wetland crown. Farther down the coast, smaller patches of marsh are being restored all along PCH, from Newland Street to the Santa Ana River.
“The community has done an excellent job of rallying around our wetland areas,” said Connie Boardman, a Huntington Beach councilwoman and president of the Land Trust.
More broadly, there has been something of a renaissance in a state where 90 percent of wetlands have been eradicated.
In Newport Beach, the Back Bay recently completed a $50 million restoration. In Carlsbad, the 600-acre Batiquitos Lagoon thrives roughly 15 years after an ocean inlet was created. And in Marina del Rey, the 600-acre Ballona Wetlands are more vibrant seven years after work to increase tidal influence.
Bolsa Chica’s inlet project, which also involved cleaning contaminated soil and building nesting mounds for birds, cost $151 million. Money came from the Ports of Long Beach-Los Angeles, which paid to offset habitat destruction caused by their expansion, as well as state bonds and interest.
A natural inlet existed nearby at PCH and Warner Avenue before being plugged by duck hunters in 1899, but the new opening would shut itself if not for human intervention. Every two years, it must be dredged to remove accumulated sediment, and engineers are studying whether they can modify the design to reduce clogging.
Though the restored area is largely off-limits to the public, elevated areas afford stellar views, and up-close sightings of feathers and fins are common.
Locals also are free to enjoy a pleasant side-effect, that being improved surfing near the inlet jetties. Sand deposited offshore altered the angle and size of waves to create “one of the best breaks” in Huntington Beach, said Sean Collins, founder of Surfline.com.
“Fishing has (become) really good as well,” Collins said, with halibut and bass thriving in the wetlands and making their way out to sea.
“We’re very, very happy because the marine fishes that are using the full tidal inlet just run the gamut of things that are vital to coastal fisheries,” said Jim Trout, himself not a sea creature but rather an official with the State Lands Commission.
It’s also been a “boom year” for various types of birds, such as snowy plovers, savannah sparrows and least terns, Trout said.
Indeed, visitors to gated-off areas find a world that, with homes and cars visible in the distance, seems remarkably wild.
Caspian terns, circling near a heavily scented nesting site, greet humans with kamikaze-style dive bombs and ceaseless squawking. Stingrays lap at algae-covered water-control gates, just above schools of minnows and just below resting brown pelicans. Crabs dart sideways amid beds of fist-sized oyster shells, and endangered plovers scurry around like turbocharged chicks.
“The more you look,” O’Reilly said, “the more you see.”