Saltwater lagoon ‘best’ option

CARLSBAD — Going from a freshwater to saltwater lagoon is not unprecedented in San Diego County. And it may be happening to the Buena Vista Lagoon sooner rather than later.

The San Diego Area of Governments will recommend the change to the board of directors, perhaps as early as January 2018, in an effort to restore the lagoon after years of indecision as many other entities failed to deliver universal approval.

SANDAG reported its findings in the final environmental impact report last week to the Carlsbad City Council.

Keith Greer, principal regional planner at SANDAG, said the ecological change does present challenges, but said it has been successful with other lagoons, notably Batiquitos Lagoon in south Carlsbad and the San Dieguito Lagoon in Del Mar.

However, no rehabilitation timeline has been established as the plan is not approved and does not have funding, Greer said. It is easier to secure funds when a project is “shovel ready,” he added.

“This is a big change,” Greer said. “Whether it’s the saltwater or freshwater alternative, it’s all better than what’s out there now. It will result in positive changes for the lagoon.”

The city of Carlsbad and lagoon conservation groups all support the saltwater option, as they declared during last week’s City Council meeting.

But, there are several challenges to the proposal. First, protecting endangered birds that have taken a secondary habitat among the cattails choking the lagoon. Second, is a controversial bridge proposal over the inlet required to push in seawater, Greer said.

As for the birds, Greer said the endangered species’ natural habitat is among plant life associated with saltwater, so the change will put the birds back in place.

Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Carlsbad office, said the transition will likely add waterfowl to the lagoon.

“It’s silting in and doesn’t provide the ultimate habitat,” Hendron said. “We have several species that would benefit from its restoration. Right now, there’s really no circulation in that lagoon.”

Keith Merkel, president of Merkel & Associates environmental consulting agency in San Diego, said any option is better than doing nothing. His firm came on board in 2012 when SANDAG took over the EIR, and Merkel said the two biggest challenges are public sentiment and sand influx into the lagoon.

Still, the positives outweigh the negatives, he said. And doing nothing, which is a required option under the California Environmental Quality Act, would destroy the lagoon.

“The largest issue is it increases the long-term maintenance obligations for maintaining the ocean inlet,” Merkel said. “Often times, there’s an imbalance of sand entering and maintenance dredging required. One of the benefits is there are far fewer and less problematic mosquitos issues.”

Hendron echoed many of the statements of Greer and Merkel. In addition to more bird species and reducing mosquitoes, she said saltwater will eliminate the invasive plants and decrease flooding as well as provide better water quality.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to SANDAG detailing its reasoning for the support. The letter noted the lagoon, prior to 1940, was a hybrid between tidal and rive-influenced systems.

In 1940, the weir (dam) was constructed and it has remained a freshwater body ever since.

“Without restoration, over time it would further silt in and degrade,” Hendron explained. “It was thoroughly analyzed. In terms of looking at the ecological benefits, we support the saltwater alternative because it provides the best ecological benefits.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is getting all the property owners on board, Greer said. There are three private entities with partial ownership, two private properties and one homeowners association in Carlsbad.

The root concern of the property owners is the call for a bridge to cross the inlet at the entrance of the lagoon. Greer detailed conceptual plans during last week’s Carlsbad City Council meeting, but said aesthetic designs can be changed.

“The only mitigation you have is to build a bridge,” he explained. “It brings people closer to the owners who control and own the inlet. If you build an inlet, you’ve got to build a way to pass it or you create a safety hazard.”

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