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A decade since Bolsa Chica inlet opened, funds to maintain it are drying up

August 23, 2016 GMT

HUNTINGTON BEACH >> When the Bolsa Chica wetlands were opened to the ocean in 2006 for the first time in more than a century, it brought in a flush of saltwater and an abundance of sea life that has helped transform the wetlands.

On Wednesday, the Amigos de Bolsa Chica and California State Lands Commission will celebrate the seminal moment in that restoration when environmental activists and volunteers gathered to watch the tide rush in on an August morning.

The day was the culmination of a $147 million project that scooped away sand and cleared a channel from the ocean to the wetlands. The two-year effort, which included installing jetties, removing massive amounts of sand, diverting and building a bridge for Pacific Coast Highway, turned deserted oil fields into a vibrant marine life habitat.

“It’s kind of a magical resource,” said Shirley Dettloff, a founder of the Amigos environmental group that banded together 40 years ago to save the wetlands from developers who wanted to fill the area with upscale housing.

The celebration, however, is not without a worrisome backdrop.

After 10 years, the $15 million fund to dredge the opening near the bridge at Pacific Coast Highway at Seapoint Street to keep it clear is drying up, according to an Aug. 9 report by the State Lands Commission, an agency responsible for management and protection of natural and cultural resources.

The fund has dwindled to $2.8 million, with no replacement money in the pipeline, the report said. If more money isn’t found, the report states, “funding will be depleted in a few years, leading to the potential failure of the restoration.”

The money to create and maintain the inlet came from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as an offset for the habitat lost in the building of the ports.

Dave Brown, a recently retired assistant executive director with the commission, said the agreements with the ports were “pay and walk” deals that did not require paying for upkeep of the inlet.

The cost of removing the sand that continuously flows in and out of the wetlands is about $1.5 million to $2 million annually, most of that for dredging. Each year, about 75,000 cubic meters of sand are removed — enough to fill about 7,000 standard dump trucks.

If the sand is allowed to build until it completely cuts off the ocean’s influence, the results could be devastating, experts say.

“A full closure would be a full catastrophe,” said Victor Leipzig, a biologist and chairman of the science committee for the Amigos.

But if there is no other regular source of water to feed the 366-acre inlet basin, Leipzig said it would become stagnant and deoxygenated, suffocating the fish and plant life.

Brown said such a large stagnant body could also create a severe mosquito problem.

The State Lands Commission has searched for grants, but Brown said while there is strong interest in creating new wildlife habitat, the same is not true for maintaining those that exist.

“I’m hoping we’ll find some rich uncle somewhere or be able to cobble together funding sources,” he said.

Contact the writer: gmellen@scng.com