Saving One of California's Last Coastal Wetlands
Workers attempt to stop the spread of oil in the Talbert Marsh on October 4, 2021. Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG
A lot of our natural habitats here on Earth have already been paved over. If not developed, they are in constant risk of being degraded by industrial processes. It’s easy to feel hopeless when looking around your own locale and contemplate what has already been lost. Where I live in Southern California, looking at the state of the native chaparral decimated by drought and invasive species feels like attending a funeral.
Perhaps this too is what the people of Huntington Beach felt back in the 70’s. Back then, the Huntington area was rapidly being developed, transitioning from agrarian communities to the suburban and urban communities we know it for today. One of the main wetlands threatened was Bolsa Chica. The landowner, Signal Landmark Inc., a land development company, had planned to turn it into a marina, and was even backed by the Army Corps of Engineers on the project. It must have seemed hopeless at the time: what are individuals supposed to do against the powers of wealth and progress?
They organized. The Orange County League of Women Voters and the Huntington Beach Chapter of the American Association of University Women acted to raise awareness in the community about the wetlands. They formed the Amigos de Bolsa Chica in 1979, filed suit when the City Council failed to protect the wetlands, and continued to fight as Signal threatened its preservation. The Friends of the Huntington Beach Wetlands copied their example, forming in 1984, though they are now called the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy. It was through their local political action, and efforts to raise public awareness, that there are still wetlands in Orange County today.
Unfortunately, on October 2nd, 2021, about 6 weeks before the writing of this article, there was a crude oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach, California. Some of this oil seeped into one of the Huntington Beach Conservancy’s projects, the Talbert Marshland. It is likely that this fragile ecosystem will be impacted for decades to come. This is an affront to the habitat, clearly, and an insult to all the hard work the conservancy put into restoration over the years.
But let’s take a moment to reflect on the importance of wetlands in California. Coastal wetlands are one of the rarest habitats in the state today. A report by the California Natural Resources Agency shows that we currently have one-tenth the amount of wetland acreage that we had two centuries ago. This is a problem as these wetlands serve many important functions in the larger coastal ecology. They clean water before it enters the ocean, preserve shorelines, and provide vital nesting sites for many birds, fish, and invertebrates. They are a crucial habitat for more varieties of plants and animals than any other ecosystem in the state. According to a report by the Clean Water Network, if the US lost its wetlands, we would see a reduction in our nation’s fish production of about three-quarters.
This is an important point to make as wetlands seldom get as much attention as other habitats, like the dramatic sequoia groves of our state, but are vital to our local ecosystems.
In this context, this recent oil spill is clearly very concerning. But will it matter in the long-term? A recent study from UCLA shows that the saltwater marshes in California will likely all be submerged by rising sea levels due to climate change by the end of the century. There will be no more wetlands to defend — there will be no more wetlands to spill oil into.
If a habitat is doomed, what’s the point of putting in any effort to save it? The answer, it seems, is actually quite simple. A habitat only need be doomed if we believe it to be so.
Let’s return to the story of the Talbert Marshland. It was only in 1989, about 30 years ago, that it came to be. Before that, it was an abandoned dirt lot amidst the urban development of the Huntington Beach community. Without concerned citizens forming the friends of the Friends of the Huntington Wetlands, it wouldn’t even be here today. Without the Amigos de Bolsa Chica, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands would be a marina. If it were not for their hard work we wouldn’t have wetlands there at all; we wouldn’t have wetlands to lose.
We cannot move on if we do not keep these victories in mind. Sure, that marsh is now degraded by oil, but that does not mean the cause is lost. What needs to happen now is a renewed effort to preserve it, to defend it from future spills, and to clean up the current level of pollution. Losses in the fight for ecological health does not mean that the larger cause is lost. Scientists do not put out warnings and predictions on the future of our habitats so that we can lose hope, as dismal as these reports may be. Instead, let this information make you angry. Let this information drive you to action.
I know the problem of climate change is complex, global, and is due to forces largely out of our control. I know how hopeless it can feel to face. But if we focus on our local habitats, as the Huntington Beach Conservancy and the Amigos de Bolsa Chica does, if we focus on one ecological problem we can wrap our heads around, maybe then we will start to see victory. If we all win small victories, then they will aggregate into something greater. Into a movement.