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The Ribbon is Cut at Malibu Lagoon! A personal view.

May 22, 2013

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The official opening of Malibu Lagoon State Park was on Friday, May 3.
Santa Monica Bay Audubon was specially invited to attend, both to receive a award in recognition of our support, and to bring a few telescopes to show birds to anyone who wanted a closer look.

It’s difficult to believe that it’s taken almost 20 years to get to this point.  I began attending the lagoon planning sessions in the mid-’90’s, and even then I was a late-comer to the meetings.  Sometime around 2001, after many officially mediated meetings, the plan was approved by the committee as a whole.  It then took about five years to get any money for it, one of those numerous proposition-bond measures being the source.  Phase I of the project was completed sometime thereafter, consisting primarily of the parking lot & picnic area remodel. Years more went by.  People bearing petitions began appearing at the lagoon, claiming that suddenly, out of nowhere, the State, in its clanking, mechanistic boots of death, was about to shove some horrific project down the throats of lagoon users, spreading ruination, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth.  It took a while for me to realize that this was the same project approved by many dozens of stakeholders, including myself, many years before.  I had come to expect the plan to vanish without a trace.

In one recent discussion at the beach, one surfer-looking man,  probably not yet born when the process began, complained, “No one ever invited me to any meetings!”  A blindingly naive comment.  I doubt the ocean sends this fellow written invitations, yet still he makes it to the beach.  So far as I know, only Jury Duty people send out invitations; they’ll even come and collect you when you fail to respond.  Beyond that, responsibility falls on the individual.

For anyone who still thinks that almost 20 years is an extraordinary amount of time for a relatively modest project such as this to be planned, approved, funded and completed, I’ll mention this: discussions about the removal of Rindge Dam, located in Malibu Canyon below the highway tunnel, began before I attended my first Malibu Lagoon meeting in the mid-90’s.  The dam remains firmly in place.
Part of the crowd (L. Johnson 5/3/13)

Part of the crowd (L. Johnson 5/3/13)

Far more people came than I expected.  Politicians, Malibu locals, government employees of various agencies, members of environmental groups, and of course a few protestors.  The last group bore signs which, curiously, seemed more concerned with Ballona Wetlands than with Malibu Lagoon.

Tables held snacks and – very necessary on this very hot day – lemonade.  Telescope in hand, passing the snack table on my way out to the viewing point, I picked up what looked like a chicken wrap, only to discover to my dismay, after taking a bite, it was a fish wrap. Uh oh. Those who know me know what that means.

Plaque awardees (J. Kenney 5/3/13)

Plaque awardees (J. Kenney 5/3/13)

The speeches and presentations, scheduled to begin at 11am, finally got underway about 11:30.  The delay was partially due to the reluctance of attendees to leave the comfort of what little shade was available, and stand in the blazing sun near the podium.  Some nice speeches ensued, some attractive awards were given (I received a yellow tile which read, succinctly, 9.6 in.), and – finally! – the official ribbon was officially cut with the official ribbon-cutting hedge clippers.  Very appropriately, the ribbon was a long strand of Giant Kelp.

Afterwards, a rumor was passed along to me that UCLA ornithologist Dr. Hartmut Walter thought the tens of thousands of little waving flags might be annoying/alarming/distracting to the birds, something I hadn’t previously considered.  Birds are extremely sensitive to motion, as it might signal a predator, and constant feather-like motion of innumerable tiny flags may constantly stimulate their alarm system.  I passed this comment along to Suzanne Goode of California State Parks.  They had already been considering replacing the flags with something less fluttery.  I suggested colored golf tees which a footstep could put in place, yet not be visible unless you were looking down on them from close by.  Their downside is that if the water rose, they might dislodge and float away.

Tidal Clock path (J. Kenney 4/16/13)

Tidal Clock path (J. Kenney 4/16/13)

We hung around for a while, talking with friends and strangers, and managed to show a few birds to a few interested parties.  A White-tailed Kite was reported in the vicinity. Someone asked me if I thought an Osprey might nest on the large trunk placed upright in the channel. [I didn’t. It would need a platform affixed to the top on which the Osprey could build a nest.] We saw a bunch of tiny, tiny fish at the water’s edge in the channel. A Spotted Sandpiper, landing nearby, resplendent with breastful of spots, pushed a few viewers over the edge into a chorus of Oohs! and Ahs! When a Mallard pair paddled their way from the PCH bridge over to one of the new channel islands, complete with two downy ducklings in tow, we decided that would not be topped and it was time to leave.

Addendum: On our April birdwalk, some birders speculated about the “Winter Tidal Clock,” with questions phrased in the mode of, “What the heck is that thing for?” My reply, while accurate, insufficiently dampened their doubts.

A far more eloquent explanation was given in the course of a short speech by Clark Stevens, architect and professor, present at the ceremony in his capacity as Executive Officer of the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains. I quote:

We have created places here where visitors will be able to hide in a sandbar willow thicket, or stand on top of a high tide, literally to walk on water for a few days each wet season. We have made the cycles of this uniquely seasonal tidal system more visible here, celebrating the intricacies of this magical ecosystem.

One feature has generated a number of questions:   The winter ramp, or summer clock- they are one and the same, but change functions and names each spring and fall.  When the lagoon is open to the tides, the winter ramp will take you down into the heart of the tidal range.  But in the spring- like now- after the building sands succeed in blocking the dwindling flows of Malibu creek from reaching the high tides, this same path will become the summer clock, marking the passage of time as the waters advance four feet up the shallow ramp for every inch that the lagoon rises.

And if you are fortunate or observant enough to be here when the first big winter rain is delivered from the mountains to the lagoon, you will see the water race up the last of its path, at which time summer will end and winter will begin, as the heavy lagoon and rain-filled currents will break the sands again and our creek will rejoin the tides for another winter.

Clark added, in a follow-up email to me: “Although the winter ramp/summer clock is obviously not a pure wetland feature, it has become a favorite inlet for small fish and fry, including a goby which our biologists sighted yesterday [5/3/13].

He gave a great deal of additional commentary, which I am placing on a special Malibu Lagoon Project Page devoted entirely to the Winter Ramp/Summer Clock.

Summer water level at 9 feet -  Courtesy of Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains

Summer water level at 9 feet –
Courtesy of Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains

After the previous reconfiguration in the early 1980’s, it took years for plants to grow.  It was probably 10 years before any reeds appeared.  People forget.  In my opinion, it will take time for the inundated channel soil to populate with sufficient invertebrates to support many birds, although invertebrates were present for the opening ceremony, much to the delight of the biologists. It will also take at least a year, probably longer, for the new plants to form a nice ground cover. State Parks will soon be looking for volunteer help with weeding. We’ll keep you posted.   [Chuck Almdale]

Tidal Clock elevation markers (J. Kenney 4/16/13)

Tidal Clock elevation markers (J. Kenney 4/16/13)


  1. ethanski permalink
    May 26, 2013 4:45 am

    So the final obvious question is……are you pleased with the final? results? 100%, 90%, 80%, ????
    I could not be there for the ‘opening’ day. Ethan g.


    • Chukar permalink
      June 7, 2013 5:17 pm

      I have no simple answer. Some aspects I like, some I don’t. I’m happy that the birds were not significantly affected during the project (see the continual posting of census results on other pages & blogs). I find it odd that total bird numbers are lower after the project ended. I was happy to see the Mallard ducklings in the lagoon – it’s a start. I’m not crazy about the current lack of fully grown vegetation, just as I was not happy back in 1984 after the prior reconfiguration. I look forward to seeing it bloom, but I believe it will take many months. I wish there were some trees and brush around the perimeter fence. More shade in general would be good, such as over the various picnic tables. I hope that the expanded channel opening will accomplish the important goal of improving overall water quality in the lagoon, but that remains to be seen. I hope that winter storms don’t destroy or silt in the channel opening, as it frequently did with the previous 3 channel system; that too remains to be seen. I’m stunned at the discovery of nesting Least Terns (with eggs!) on the beach – after an absence of 73 years – but I’m frankly not hopeful that they will succeed, as there are always people who pay no heed to what their untrained and uncontrolled dogs and kids are up to – 99% of beachgoers are conscientious, but it could take only 1 incident to ruin a nesting year.

      As I’ve written many times – SMBAS didn’t get exactly what we hoped for – did anyone? – but considering the dozens of “stakeholders” involved in the decision-making process, I think what we now have was the best compromise that could be achieved. Everyone got something, no one got everything.


  2. May 25, 2013 3:19 pm

    The photographs of the “winter clock” and the “tidal clock elevation markers” in the article do not represent the location on the day of the “ribbon cutting” but weeks before. Perhaps because on the day of the event the water at the location was already becoming cloudy with algae beginning to accumulate there?

    Jonathan Coffin, Inglewood Ca.


    • Chukar permalink
      June 7, 2013 4:54 pm

      We didn’t take a photo of the “clock” on ceremony day because we didn’t walk in that direction. As I mentioned the clock in the article, I put in a recent photo to illustrate what I was talking about. Had I not mentioned the clock, a subject which I find interesting, I probably wouldn’t have put in the photo. It’s that simple.


  3. May 22, 2013 9:10 pm

    It was not strange that the protest signs were about Ballona Wetlands. The whole opposition to the Malibu Lagoon cleanup was a proxy battle, a grudge match over certain people getting cast aside at Ballona. Malibu’s lagoon much removal was seized upon by certain Playa del Rey interests, who teamed up with gullible locals and hothead surfers who are always angry at the mainstream. How embarrassing for Malibu that these people were given any credence by a cowed and cowardly city council, which should have called the sheriff’s deputies more than once.

    On behalf of the adults in Malibu, an apology is owed to the rest of the state. No on elected me, I speak for mysel as a Malibu resident who cares about the wetlands. And I am embarrassed and sorry about those people.


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