Boon or Bust for the 'Bu?

Malibu surfers believe the fate of their favorite wave is tied up with the fate of the nearby lagoon. Branden Aroyan

Surfrider Beach in Malibu, Calif. is famed for its right-hand point break and often-chaotic melting pot of waves, crowds, and characters. However, a raging debate over a restoration project planned for the nearby Malibu Lagoon, and how it may affect the surf break, has taken the typical three-ring circus that is Malibu and turned it up a notch or three in recent weeks.

"It's a huge issue, man," says professional surfer and Malibu local Pascal Stansfield. "People are going pretty crazy with it right now and I'd say the majority of the regular Malibu surfers are completely over it."

Plans have been in the works to try and restore the lagoon that lies just inland from Surfrider Beach for over a decade. The wetland area -- like more than 70 percent of the historic wetlands throughout California -- has been beat down and polluted by a century's worth of development. Factors like construction of the Pacific Coast Highway and urban pollution from building upstream in the Malibu Creek Watershed have, according to numerous environmental outfits, filled the lagoon with huge amounts of unwanted sediment to such a degree that it no longer works the way it should. Frequent algae blooms, resulting from the build up in sediment in the lagoon's tidal channels, use up all the oxygen in the water, effectively destroying the ability of the plant and sea life in the water to breathe.

"The lagoon is very, very sick and we need to make it healthy," says Dr. Shelley Luce, the Executive Director for The Bay Restoration Commission, the group spearheading the enviro-minded efforts.

The project, which comes with a price tag of $7 million, had cleared all the various regulatory hurdles and painstaking approvals that such an undertaking in coastal Southern California requires. Crews with bulldozers and assorted other machinery were scheduled to drain, dredge and start hauling away all the decades worth of unwanted dirt and non-native plant life last Wednesday morning.

However, after a lawsuit was filed by a trio of Malibu-based groups concerned with, amongst other things, the potential impact the restoration will have on the critters that currently call the lagoon home and the quality of the waves that peel out front, a judge in San Francisco issued a late-hour hold on the project pending a court review this October.

Since restoration work can only be done during the dry summer months, this ruling effectively means that the project will not begin until, at the very earliest, next summer.

Environmental debates aside, the primary issue for surfers is the creek mouth that works to let water in and out of the lagoon. In basic terms, the creek is the lifeblood of the wave at Surfrider. The sand that flows out of it when it breaches fills in the cobble stone points that comprise Malibu's Third, Second and First Point. Local surfers claim that when the creek breaches to the west, in the direction of Third Point, the overall quality of the wave at Surfrider is at its best -- the opposite being the case when it breaks east.

Further, many long-time local surfers claim that a similar lagoon restoration effort by the State Parks in 1983 changed the wave, for the worse, forever. Thus, for people who consider the rollers at Surfrider to be practically sacred, any type of work in or around the creek mouth is a potential source for outrage.

Andy Lyon, an outspoken Malibu local who has been rumored to have occasionally helped facilitate guerrilla westerly creek breaches with a shovel under the cover of darkness, puts it: "Basically, Malibu is formed based on where the creek lets out and they have been screwing with that off and on for 30 years ... I don't care what they say, I live here, I surf here and I know: if they do this thing the way they are planning to, it is only going to make things worse."

The Surfrider Foundation, which has supported the restoration plan since the beginning, hired an independent engineering team to investigate the surfers' claims earlier this year. The investigation concluded definitively that the restoration would not mean bad things for the waves at Malibu.

"The solution to the surf quality issue is not fighting the wetlands efforts," says Surfrider's Environmental Director Chad Nelsen. "Everyone knows, the more west of a breach the better the surf, but this project really won't impact that."

Nelsen also believes that there is a potential to tweak the restoration project in such a way that it could possibly increase the likelihood that future breaches stay to the west.

Luce, who counts herself amongst the masses who surf Malibu, and is resolute in her opinion that her project will have zero impact on the waves, also thinks such a surf-friendly development is possible. "We are very open to that," says Luce, "but we weren't asked about it until just the past few months."