For nearly 100 years, people in Santa Barbara have been complaining about the summertime stench emanating off the oxygen-starved waters of Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, located where Cabrillo Boulevard seems to collide with both the railroad tracks and the Pacific Ocean. This past week, a $2 million effort to finally fix the big stink got the green light from the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission.
For a while, city workers crisscrossed the 29-acre lagoon in little motorboats, hoping to infuse the stagnant estuary with enough oxygen to make the odors go away. When this didn’t exorcize the pervasive smells, they installed little air jets throughout the scenic lagoon, hoping the mico-bubbles churning to the surface would do the trick. They didn’t. For a while, they even doped the waters with copper sulfate, which succeeded only in killing everything. Except not, of course, the pervasive stink.
Now, City Hall has another plan. It’s called flushing.
By allowing the brackish waters of the lagoon to wash out to sea — during heavy rains when the ocean-blocking sand berms are breached — and allow the ocean waters to wash back into the lagoon, city planners hope that the natural order of things can be mimicked and the problem solved.
More specifically, what’s proposed is the replacement of the small dam — technically described as a “weir” — that has penned up the waters of the lagoon, preventing them from going out to sea. That weir was first built in 1929, shortly after the family of reclusive heiress Huguette Clark donated $50,000 to City Hall to transform what was once a racetrack into an inviting bird refuge. Among the stipulations was that the lagoon be named after Huguette’s older sister, Andre, who died in 1919 of meningitis at age 17.
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The dam’s concrete has been dilapidated and crumbling for some time. More critically, Cameron Benson — City Hall’s reigning creeks czar — and his Creeks Division are proposing to install three gates to the new dam to allow the ebb and flow of water from the lagoon to the sea and back again. The current dam has only one. But for decades, that one gate has not actually worked. Rather than fix it, city engineers simply boarded the gate over, exacerbating the impermeability of the lagoon.
According to Benson, complaints about the stench started almost as soon as the first dam was built. Minutes of meetings held by the city’s Parks Commission in 1930 and 1931 indicate it was an issue of concern. Matters did not improve when the dam gate — which actually allowed some ebb and flow —stopped working. Rather than fix it, city engineers simply boarded it over. Adding fuel to the bird refuge’s olfactory fire, Cameron noted, were the nutrient-rich deposits made when heavy rains washed down from the Montecito Country Club’s intensely fertilized greens, the Santa Barbara Zoo, and well-tended lawns of Eucalyptus Hill homeowners.
All that heavily fertilized run-off has sparked rich algae blooms in the lagoon over the years. When the algae died, Benson explained, it sucked the oxygen out of the water. Nothing grew. Today, he said, the only aquatic life in the bird refuge are the mosquito fishes deposited there by the county’s Vector Control District. These tiny but hearty fish are no longer than an inch; their function is to eat mosquito larvae. Benson noted that even they struggle. “You can see them coming to the surface,” he said, “gulping for air.”
With the three gates installed, Benson noted, they can be opened and closed when the volume of water flows dictates. This natural flushing should allow for greater replication of the natural washing and flushing cycles that occurred before Cabrillo Boulevard, the railroad tracks, and even the lagoon were ever built.
In addition, he said, the fertilizer-rich run off now funneled into a culvert running along the backside of the lagoon — along the railroad tracks — would be redirected from the bird refuge to what will become a new retention basin where today a weed patch near the city’s tennis courts now lies. That basin will function as a repository for this flow; in lieu of weeds, there will be native plants.
To date, Benson and his Creeks Division have secured two of the seven permits needed to get the project approved. They still need approval from the Coastal Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Given the environmental sensitivity of the habitat to be affected, he said, the project has been given just two months to get the necessary constriction done.
“We’ve been trying to figure this one out now for almost 100 years,” a rueful Benson noted. “I have two months to fix it.”