Restoration and Protection of a Higher Caliber: Delving Into the Fascinating History of the Huntington Beach Wetlands

Restoration and Protection of a Higher Caliber: Delving Into the Fascinating History of the Huntington Beach Wetlands

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “wetlands” are areas wherein water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year – including during the growing season. Water saturation (hydrology) largely determines how the soil develops and the types of plant and animal communities living in and on the soil; furthermore, wetlands may also support both aquatic and terrestrial species. Wetlands vary widely because of regional and local differences in soils, topography, climate, hydrology, water chemistry, vegetation and other factors including human disturbance – in fact, wetlands are found from the tundra to the tropics and on every continent save for Antarctica.

Tidal wetlands in the United States, as their name suggests, are found along the Atlantic, Pacific, Alaskan and Gulf coasts, and are closely linked to our nation’s estuaries where sea water mixes with fresh to form an environment of varying salinities. Enter the Huntington Beach Wetlands, an area protected by the California Department of Fish and Game which is part of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, a coastal wetland boasting a number of endangered species. Meaning “little bag” in Spanish, the area was part of a historic Mexican land grant known as Rancho La Bolsa Chica, which is about 3 miles outside downtown Huntington Beach with boundaries being Warner Avenue to the north, Seapoint Avenue to the south, Pacific Coast Highway to the west and residential development to the east.

The history surrounding the wetlands and Bolsa Chica is long and varied, tracing roots back some 8,000 years when the earliest peoples of California, the native Indians, used cog stones for religious or astronomical purposes. When Spain colonized California, Spanish officials created vast land grants called “ranchos,” such as the aforementioned Rancho La Bolsa Chica, which was separated from another popular rancho named Rancho Las Bolsas in 1841. Prior to 1899, there had been a natural ocean entrance to what would become known as the wetlands where the East Garden Grove Wintersburg Channel, then a small stream, is now located, but in 1899 the Bolsa Chica Gun Club was formed by a group of wealthy Los Angeles and Pasadena businessmen, changing the landscape quite dramatically.

This duck-hunting club, which catered to politicians and celebrities such as Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, built a two-story structure on a mesa overlooking the Pacific Ocean – in this one act, the Gun Club was responsible for damming off Bolsa Chica from direct tidal flow with the ocean. It wasn’t until 1920 that the Standard Oil Company entered a lease agreement with the Gun Club Board of Directors that would allow them to extract oil in between and around the Bolsa Wetlands. This contract specified that the initial bonus of $100,000 and subsequent revenues would be split 50/50 between the Bolsa Chica Gun Club and the Bolsa Chica Land Trust; upon receipt of this money, it was then to be invested into “good, interest-bearing securities” according to a Board of Directors meeting on July 11 in 1920. 

In January 1921, in order to protect their newly-acquired capital, the Gun Club assembled an investigative committee to complete a legal report that assessed the land title’s specifics with regard to “protection from outside parties encroaching upon their tide and marshlands for oil drilling.” Further, the organization also wanted to inquire as to whether it should pursue a specific title that would more clearly define their rights with regard to oil drilling. 

Following the 1940s – when it was feared that Japan would attack California after the Pearl Harbor incident and the U.S. military constructed two bunkers at Bolsa Chica to defend the coastline – most of Bolsa Chica was acquired by Signal Landmark, with plans for a massive real estate housing development in Huntington Beach and marina set into motion in the 1960s. State officials objected, and in 1970 the developer set aside 300 acres alongside Pacific Coast Highway to create the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve – this action satisfied officials, but not members of the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women, who decided to create a new group, Amigos de Bolsa Chica (“Friends of Bolsa Chica”) to save and preserve more of the wetlands. With Amigos founded in 1976, the 20-year battle to save the wetlands began.

By the time the 1990s rolled around, the Amigos and the developer – which was, at this point, called Hearthside Homes – entered a joint agreement to create the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, its mission to educate the public about the importance of wetlands. However, the size of Hearthside Homes’ development decreased over the years; in 1992, the Bolsa Chica Land Trust was formed by individuals who believed an upland habitat should provide nesting, shelter and food for egrets, herons and raptors that also called the wetlands home. 

In 1997, the Amigos’ long-awaited goal of preserving the wetlands was realized when the state of California purchased 880 acres of Hearthside Homes holdings, and restoration came seven years later at a cost of $147 million, which opened an inlet to the Pacific for the first time since being dammed back in 1899; the project was completed in 2006. Today, an additional 56 acres of uplands still remain in private ownership and is being considered for development, with ongoing hearings being held with the California Coastal Commission.

The effort to preserve the Huntington Wetlands, in southeast Huntington Beach in particular, began with the formation of the Friends of the Huntington Wetlands in December of 1984. This group, comprised initially of southeast Huntington Beach residents who witnessed the rapid conversion of farmland to residential homes in the 1970s, was concerned about the degraded historical wetlands as the last remaining acres of open space along PCH between the Santa Ana River and Beach Boulevard were developed; after all, at this point, saltwater marshes along the entire coast of California were disappearing at an alarming rate.

With encouragement from the California Coastal Conservancy and guidance from the Trust for Public Lands, the Friends of Huntington Wetlands incorporated as a non-profit organization that eventually became the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy – and as a not-for-profit group, HBWC works with local, state and federal agencies and property owners to acquire, restore and manage the coastal wetlands in the Orange County coastal zone.

Restoring and protecting the wetlands of Huntington Beach has become quite the driving force for many passionate Southern Californians who understand the importance of maintaining such delicate treasures of ecology.

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