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ALISO CREEK ESTUARY RESTORATION PROJECT

Background

Laguna Ocean Foundation has received a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy to develop a Restoration Plan for the estuary at Aliso Creek. The Aliso Creek Estuary Restoration Project takes the first step toward restoration of the Aliso Creek Estuary. The projectís objective is to develop a Conceptual Restoration Plan to restore the lagoon to a healthy and functional estuary that supports coastal wetland habitats and a wide range of fish and wildlife species. The project has received broad support from multiple agencies and organizations including the County of Orange Fifth District Supervisorís Office, State Senator Pat Bates, State Assemblyman Allan Mansoor, the City of Laguna Beach, Friends of Harbors Beaches & Parks, Laguna Canyon Foundation, Laguna Greenbelt, Laguna Blue Belt, South Laguna Civic Association, Surfrider Foundation, Orange County Coast Keeper, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Endangered Habitats League, the Institute for Conservation Research, Transition Laguna, Victoria Skimboards and others.

Aliso Creek drains a large, mostly urbanized watershed in South Orange County. The Creek once drained to the Pacific through a broad, expansive estuary with extensive wetlands. The creekís estuarine habitat has suffered degradation through modification of its hydrologic regime (from urbanization of the watershed) and physical modification of the mouth of the creek and its banks. The Aliso Estuary has extremely high restoration value, due to its key geographic location between two regionally significant ecosystem reserve systems: the terrestrial greenbelt, comprised of over 15,000 acres of preserved natural habitats in the San Joaquin Hills, and the bluebelt of the coastal and offshore Laguna State Marine Reserve established through the Marine Life Protection Act. The Aliso Creek estuary is the only location where a viable habitat linkage between these two systems can be developed. It is also the only location between San Mateo Creek (to the south) and Newport Back Bay (to the north) where the possibility exists to link protected freshwater and coastal ecosystems.

The principal obstacle to restoration of the Aliso Estuary is lack of a Restoration Plan. This projectís goal is to develop a feasible Conceptual Restoration Plan developed by professional restoration ecologists with the support of local landowners, local agencies and the support of a broad community of stakeholders with interests in coastal resources and the Aliso Creek Watershed.

Project History

Laguna Ocean Foundation developed the project over a three-year period of focused interactions with wetland resource specialists, landowners, representatives from State and Federal resource agencies and other stakeholders. The project was recommended by the Wetlands Managers Group of the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project (SCWRP) and was approved by the SCWRP Board of Governors for inclusion in its 2013 Work Program in November 2013.

Status of Project

Laguna Ocean Foundation has hired a team of professional consultants to perform the principal tasks of developing the conceptual restoration plan. The lead consultant, ESA, a multidisciplinary firm with offices in Los Angeles, has begun the initial step of gathering data from previous studies related to Aliso Creek, its watershed and the lagoon. The team will also interact with landowners and local agencies to learn about existing constraints and opportunities at the site and how those factors might influence the restoration plan. Through these preliminary efforts, supplemented by original data collection and analysis, the team will develop an understanding of current physical, hydrological, biological and water quality conditions of the existing lagoon and its upsteam influences.

An important step in the design process is defining restoration objectives. This task will be performed by a panel of experts, drawn from the fields of estuarine ecology, hydrology, coastal geomorphology and water quality, with special expertise in the small, coastal drainage systems of southern California. The scientific panel will develop recommendations and fundamental design parameters to guide development of the conceptual plan. The technical team will then perform several forms of analysis, including modeling of potential restoration scenarios, to further define design parameters and desired characteristics of the restoration plan. Design considerations will include assumptions on future climate change and sea level rise scenarios, as well as a range of potential changes in the watershed upstream.

The emerging concept plan will be shared with stakeholders and the general public through a series of interactive presentations. The first public presentation is anticipated to occur in January 2016, at which time the team will share the projectís restoration objectives and the direction of design efforts. The Preliminary Conceptual Restoration Plan will be presented to the public in the Fall of 2016. On both of these occasions the design team will describe the assumptions and analyses of the overall design process and solicit public input. The Final Conceptual Restoration Plan is anticipated to be released in late Fall of 2016. The exact time and location of these public presentations will be widely publicized and announced through Laguna Ocean Foundationís website.

Throughout the entire design and planning process, Laguna Ocean Foundation and the California Coastal Conservancy will oversee and direct the efforts of the technical design team to ensure that the Conceptual Restoration Plan succeeds in meeting the expectations of the Coastal Conservancy grant, Laguna Ocean Foundationís mission, and other supporters and funders.

Actual restoration of the Aliso Creek Estuary will require formal approval by the County of Orange (as the landowner) and several regulatory agencies. Project implementation, could occur as early as 2018, but requires early identification of funding sources. Funds for construction and long-term management of the restored estuary are likely to come from a blend of private donations from individuals and organizations, as well as public agencies.

For questions about the project, please contact Laguna Ocean Foundationís project manager, Ed Almanza, at (949) 499 9704 or superpark@igc.org.

Laguna Ocean Foundation thanks its funders for this project Ė the California Coastal Conservancy, South Laguna Civic Association,
The Ranch at Laguna Beach, and an anonymous donor.