HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Back when wetlands were less respectfully known as swamps, marshes and bogs, Bolsa Chica was tied to the ocean's undulations.
For millennia, its high tides and low tides nurtured creatures that wriggled in the mud and the cordgrass, and thus made a fine dinner spot for hundreds of bird species in Southern California.
The Bolsa Chica wetlands lost its direct connection to the Pacific more than a century ago when its inlet was blocked off for the sake of a duck club. The discovery of oil decades later means walking-beam oil pumps slowly churn where marine life once teemed.
Now, in what may be the biggest and best chance to recover a chunk of the more than 90 percent of California coastal wetlands lost to human use, more than 1,200 acres of the Orange County saltwater wetlands will be restored to something resembling its former self.
But how close the resemblance will be is dividing former allies.
Environmentalists who had fought to save Bolsa Chica from development now question the idea of sacrificing beach land to create a new ocean inlet, the main measure in a $63 million proposal put forward in an environmental report released this summer.
The document is the product of a Bolsa Chica steering committee that includes eight state and federal agencies. They collaborated three years ago to buy 880 acres of the wetlands from a developer who once planned a marina there.
"We have fought tooth and nail right alongside some of these same people, but (building an inlet) is just an unwise thing to do," said Don Slaven, a member of the executive board of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
The preferred plan, which would be mostly funded by the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, would eliminate part of Bolsa Chica State Beach -- across Pacific Coast Highway from the wetlands -- to create a 360-foot-wide inlet. It temporarily would close areas of the beach 800 feet north and south of the inlet for construction.
Estimates in the agencies' environmental impact report show that without an inlet, the project would be about $40 million cheaper.
"From an ecological value standpoint, there may be more bang for the buck by not doing such an aggressive restoration," said Evan Henry, president of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, which has fought efforts to build in the Bolsa Chica lowlands.
Defenders of the project say dropping the inlet would give the wetlands only a shadow of its potential biological diversity. A 300-acre portion of Bolsa Chica that was restored two decades ago represents only the beginning, they say.
The existing wetlands relies on ocean water delivered through a channel running from Huntington Harbor a few miles north.
The system mutes the tidal system, making the difference between high tide and low tide about 18 inches, said Jack Fancher, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife official and one of the project's managers. In a full tidal system, the difference would be as much as 10 feet.
An inlet, which would have to be dredged about every other year, would help create a variety of wetlands habitats. Under such conditions, Fancher said, "the ecosystem blossoms" with great blue herons, great egrets, California halibut, sea bass, anchovies, smelt and hundreds of other species.
"If you'd like to see 60 (fish) species instead of 10 or 12 species, you need an ocean inlet," Fancher said.
Restoration without an inlet "may still have some benefits, but it won't have all these others," Fancher said. "If your restoration potential is a 10, it gives you a 2."
Amigos de Bolsa Chica, a group that has fought to preserve the wetlands since development plans emerged in the mid-1970s, supports creating an inlet but contends it will need to be smaller for the project to gain the approval it needs from 16 different federal, state and local entities.
"That big a cut isn't going to see the light of day," said Amigos President Linda Sapiro Moon. "I'd rather see a compromise in wetlands restoration and retain the beach rather than have no project."
Slaven, of Surfrider, said the Bolsa Chica plan would not only erase beach land, but would release urban runoff along one of the area's cleanest beaches and might aggravate erosion problems.
"Flushing reintroduced water could turn this into a toxic brew that no one knows anything about," Slaven said. "We can't save a wetlands by turning around and destroying a public beach.
"We've worked hard to save the wetlands. We probably should take a rest here and take a look at things," he said.
Testing at the wetlands turned up no urban runoff problems, said Dwight Sanders, Bolsa Chica's state-level project manager and chief of the State Lands Commission's division of environmental planning and management. He said the project cannot proceed until the oil contamination is cleaned up.
Some of the oil wells are expected to continue pumping for 15 to 20 years, so part of the restoration will be delayed.
Sanders said after officials produce a final environmental report that responds to concerns about the proposals, the steering committee will decide which of seven alternatives to put forward. The lands commission probably will vote on a course of action sometime next year, he said.
Coastal Commissioner Shirley Dettloff, who sits on a board that also must take up the restoration issue, said she hopes science and not politics sets the course.
As a founding member of Amigos de Bolsa Chica, Dettloff has a history that sweetens her view of birds, saltmarsh and sandy islands from the boardwalk of the existing restoration.
When the least terns make their annual flight from South America to build nests in the sand, "The island is just alive with white," she said.
But the oil machinery in the landscape testifies to a job unfinished.
"After achieving all we've achieved," Dettloff said, "to not do a good restoration job would be criminal."
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