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Bolsa Chica


Preservation of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Zero to 1200 in 26 years, and climbing

The conservation story of the Bolsa Chica wetlands is a story of perseverance, high ideals, and sustained citizen and community involvement. It’s not fast-paced, but it does have many twists and turns. It spans decades, with tough battles against enormous  odds.  Along the way, there were disagreements, high passions, and changing attitudes.  And while the final chapter has not yet been written, a great deal has been accomplished for wildlife, the environment, and our  quality of life. This year, Sea & Sage Audubon Society recognizes the tremendous accomplishments over several decades by awarding the 2002 Fern Zimmerman Conservation Award to two conservation groups that are major players in the battle to preserve the Bolsa Chica wetlands: the Amigos de Bolsa Chica and the Bolsa Chica Land Trust.

Here is some of the Bolsa Chica story
by Susan Sheakley, Conservation Co-Chair

In 1976, a group of concerned citizens formed the Amigos de Bolsa Chica to advocate the preservation of the Bolsa Chica and encourage public acquisition and planning to restore it to its natural marsh state surrounded by open space. The Amigos worked to educate us on the importance of wetlands. In 1979, they filed their first of many lawsuits to obtain, among other things, a determination that the “1973 Land Trade” - an agreement between Signal Oil Company and the State of California, violated the California constitution, which prohibits the conveyance of tidelands to private parties.

The Amigos continued their legal battles, until in 1989 they agreed to settle their lawsuit out-of-court with the Coalition Plan. The Coalition Plan called for over 1100 acres of open space, including 600 acres of tidelands to be deeded to the State, no navigable entrance or marina, no commercial development, $25 million for restoration, a nonprofit conservancy and an interpretive center. While fewer than originally planned, it allowed for 200 acres of wetlands to be developed for housing.

The Bolsa Chica Land Trust was formed in 1992 with the vision to bring into public ownership the entire 1700 acres of the Bolsa Chica wetlands and mesas. They formed the Bolsa Chica Stewards to restore original plant growth on the wetland mesas.  They also worked to educate us on the importance of the mesas to the wetlands. As the Amigos before them, the Land Trust lobbied federal, state and local officials and used the political process and the courts to achieve their goals.

In 1996, the Land Trust challenged the Coastal Commission's approval of a plan that would allow developers to build 900 houses in the wetlands and
2400 houses on the mesas. They also challenged the approval of filling Warner pond and bulldozing the mature eucalyptus grove on the lower bench. The Court of Appeals ruled to protect the wetlands and Warner Pond, as well as the eucalyptus grove from relocation. In 1997, the State of California purchased 880 acres of wetlands from the developer. In 2000 the Coastal Commission voted to limit development on the upper bench of the Bolsa Chica Mesa.

There is still work to do, but because of the work that has been done, there are over 1200 acres of wetlands in public ownership at Bolsa Chica. And, the tides are turning. In 1987, the Amigo's application to participate in the Huntington Beach 4th of July parade was denied because the word “wetlands” in their banner was considered too political, while in a recent city election, 19 out of 20 candidates were in favor of protecting the mesas.

The Amigos de Bolsa Chica continues to focus on public education and wetlands restoration and to work for an interpretive center and further
public acquisition of lands. Meanwhile, the Bolsa Chica  Land Trust, in addition to its education and restoration efforts on the mesas, is well into a fundraising campaign - Push for Purchase - for the public acquisition of the remaining privately held wetlands and mesas. They are nearly halfway to their goal of raising $1,000,000 for seed money to obtain grants.

Bolsa Chica Restoration
by David Carlberg, Past President of Amigos de Bolsa Chica
One of the largest coastal wetland restoration projects in Southern California history was completed in 2006 in Bolsa Chica. With the state's purchase of 880 acres of Bolsa Chica in 1997, over 90 percent of the Bolsa Chica lowlands, amounting to over 1200 acres, had become under public ownership.  Preliminary engineering studies for the restoration began as early as 1998 and included the analysis of such things as wave impact, grading contours, shoreline morphology, hydraulic and water quality modeling, and numerous other aspects of the restoration.

The entire 1200+ acre lowland was not to be restored in the first phase; only about 630 acres were involved immediately. The goal was to provide as wide a variety of feeding and nesting habitats for as wide a variety of bird species as was possible.  About 367 acres were contoured for full tidal flow.  A part of this area was designed to expose mud flats at low tide to support probing birds, the edge of which provides feeding for wading birds, and part is permanently flooded with deep water to accommodate diving species.   Another 266 acres was designed as muted tidal wetland to support pickleweed, which is needed by the endangered Belding's Savannah Sparrow. About 20 acres of nesting grounds for endangered California Least Terns and threatened Western Snowy Plovers were created.  Nearly 250 acres at the south end of the Bolsa Chica lowlands, were set aside for future restoration. Another 140 acres include a number of Seasonal Ponds that are presently heavily used by coastal birds and will be retained permanently as such.


The Bolsa Chica State Ecological Reserve is one of the most popular birding spots in the county.  Since the ocean inlet into the newly restored Bolsa Chica wetland was opened in August of 2006, bird and fish populations have increased each year. On the last survey taken during 2011, 160 bird species and 60 fish species were identified in the newly restored wetland. Many of the bird species are nesting in Bolsa Chica, and most of the fish species are represented by juvenile forms, indicating the wetland is serving the critical role as a fish nursery.


Sea & Sage Audubon Society
PO Box 5447 • Irvine, CA 92616 • 949-261-7963