Coastal wetlands used to cover a huge swath of Southern California's coast, serving as a sanctuary for wildlife and plants. But today one is hard pressed to find many wetlands left in this urbanized section of the state, where homes, marinas and ports long ago replaced native habitat. While wide, sandy beaches and rocky tide pools are part of the Southern California landscape, quieter wetlands with estuaries, marshes and sand dunes are harder to find.

That might explain why coastal wetland habitat is prized in the region. One effort to preserve and re-create coastal wetlands is happening in Oxnard in Ventura County, where state and local officials have struggled to bring back a two-mile stretch of Ormond Beach. When finished, 750-acre Ormond Beach will be a significant addition to the regional wetlands inventory. But it's been a bumpy path to get there, and more bumps — in the form of adjacent urban development — remain.

The largest city in Ventura County with approximately185,000 residents, Oxnard for years was a dumping ground of unwanted industrial uses. In the past generation, though, the city has focused on more desirable development and cultivating its coastal location. Ormond Beach reflects the city's past, containing the city's wastewater treatment plan, a power plant, a paper mill and even a Superfund site on its border. But it is also home to at least six endangered or threatened species, and more than 200 species of migratory birds are found there.

Local environmentalists pushed for restoration of Ormond Beach for many years, and in 1999, the California Coastal Conservancy began purchasing land. The conservancy has spent $25 million on land purchases and planning for the restoration of the site, according to Peter Brand, senior project manager for the conservancy. The conservancy has already bought 540 acres, with plans to acquire more. A feasibility study for restoring the beach area is scheduled for completion this summer, Brand said, followed by more developmental studies before construction begins.

A better-known wetlands restoration project in Southern California is at Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach, a project that Brand said cost $145 million (see CP&DR In Brief, May 2005; Environment Watch, January 2002). Bolsa Chica's restoration costs were high due to its location next to busy Pacific Coast Highway and oil fields. Ormond Beach, in contrast, is located away from most development in Oxnard. It lies south of Port Hueneme and north of the 1,500-acre Pt. Mugu Lagoon. When Ormond Beach is restored, the combined wetlands will be the largest in Southern California.

"The Ormond Beach wetlands restoration project is larger than the other big coastal wetland restorations on the south coast like Bolsa Chica, Ballona, Batiquitos and San Dieguito," said Brand. "The biggest difference between Ormond Beach and Ballona and all these other projects is not just size, but that we can restore something close to the historic extent and function. … The others don't have that opportunity because of existing development."

The biggest problem at Ormond Beach is probably the Halaco scrap metal facility, which operated next to the wetlands until 2004. Environmentalists fought for years to get Halaco to close after the plant was found to have caused both air and water pollution. Halaco's legacy is a 40-foot-high, 28-acre mountain of toxic slag that remains on the fenced-off site. Brand said drainage from Halaco's site is a problem for restoring the wetlands. The site was added to the federal Superfund cleanup list in 2007, but due to limited federal funding, clean up may take many years. A federal lawsuit brought against Halaco by two environmental groups, Channelkeeper and the Environmental Defense Center, is in the process of winding down.

"Channelkeeper and the Environmental Defense Center have concluded that the Environmental Protection Agency can handle it from here," said Daniel Cooper, an attorney for the groups. "It's time for us to get out."

While the bulk of development in Oxnard is far from Ormond Beach, two projects proposed near the area have alarmed environmentalists who fear that more development will hurt the wetlands restoration. The projects, which may be considered by the Oxnard City Council in the next year, are a 1,300 unit residential project called SouthShore, and a 287-acre industrial park.

The housing project is especially of concern to environmentalists, who fear that the residents and their pets will disturb the nests of endangered birds at Ormond Beach. But Matthew Winegar, Oxnard's director of development services, does not share the concern about adding residents to the area. "The beach has never been a recreational beach," he said.

"The wetlands didn't extend to SouthShore," Brand, of the Coastal Conservancy, said. "That's one project we've pretty much ignored."

The industrial park also is not considered a big problem by everyone, although potential flooding of that site is a worry. David Armstrong, whose firm serves as land use consultants to the city as it plans for the industrial park, said industrial parks are usually raised above natural sea levels. He said the industrial park is a compatible use for the property, which had been zoned for residential use but is currently farmland. The project would also provide 3,200 jobs in a poor area, he said.

Brand said the Coastal Conservancy hopes to buy some of the farmland adjacent to the beach, but no deal has been struck.

Winegar said stormwater runoff will either percolate into the ground or, during larger storms, be treated to prevent harm to the wetlands. He doubts the industrial land will be turned into parkland. "I don't think there will be enough money to go around," he said.

Some environmentalists are also concerned that a proposed $55 million overhaul of the city's water system could impact Ormond Beach by allowing these developments and others to occur on the edges of Ormond Beach. The project is reliant on federal enabling legislation that has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives, according to Al Sanders, conservation chair of the Los Padres Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Federal funding for the project is still pending in Congress.

Sanders bemoaned the time the Ormond Beach project has taken to complete. "It really has been a citizen driven effort," he said. "We don't have any elected officials who have taken this on as their cause celebre. The biggest problem is the lack of direction on what should happen."

Peter Brand, California Coastal Conservancy, (510) 286-4162.
Matthew Winegar, City of Oxnard (805) 385-7896.
Al Sanders, Sierra Club, (805) 488-7988.
David Armstrong, Armstrong Real Estate Advisors, (310) 600-6682.
Daniel Cooper, Environmental Defense Center, (415) 440-6520.
The Case: Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and Environmental Defense Center v. Halaco, U.S. District Court case no. CV01-00456CAS(MCX).