Bolsa Chica Science Symposium: Past Successes, Future Challenges

By Thomas Anderson

On Saturday, April 30, Amigos de Bolsa Chica held a Science Symposium to take an in-depth look at what's been happening at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in the 10 years since the first phase of the Lowland Restoration Project was completed on 2006. Bolsa Chica Science Symposium: Past Successes, Future Challenges took place at the Huntington Beach Central Library from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Jennifer Luchessi, Executive Director of the State Lands Commission, started the program with praises for Amigos de Bolsa Chica’s 40+ year commitment to preserving, protecting and restoring the Bolsa Chica. Amigos de Bolsa Chica is the group that first brought all the federal and state agencies together for what has turned out to be a very long ride. "You can only protect nature if you love nature,” she said, and Amigos is “an inspiring example of advocacy."

California Fish and Wildlife Biologist and Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve (BCER) Manager Kelly O’Reilly spoke next, extolling many success stories since the first phase of the restoration was completed 10 years ago. 69 species of fish have been counted, and there are now 107 acres of eelgrass – prime habitat for juvenile fish – in the full tidal basin (FTB). The 367 acre FTB is now a State Marine Conservation Area which means no fish can be taken. Green sea turtles and sea lions are now seen frequently. Western Snowy Plovers continue to be doing well; 113 fledged in 2014 and 129 in 2015. Ridgway’s Rails began nesting at the BCER for the first time in 2014. Reddish Egrets are more common since the restoration, and they’ve been see courting, nest-building and with fledglings. This represents an expansion of their range. Also appearing to have expanded their range is the White-faced Ibis which is also now breeding at Bolsa Chica. With six species counted, there is more diversity in bats than previously recorded. However, there are still many challenges. California Least Tern populations continue to be erratic, not just at Bolsa Chica, but statewide. This is primarily due to predation by coyotes, falcons, ravens, and hawks. King tides are now regularly all but inundating the tern islands in the muted tidal area that had been created in 1978. There is much erosion around the tide gates in that area as well. With the increase in houses around the reserve comes the increase in problems with dogs which are prohibited from the Reserve.

Chris Webb, Coastal Scientist and Senior Engineer with Moffatt and Nichol spoke next. He explained Bolsa Chica’s massive hydraulic system, past, present and future. When the restoration project that had been completed in 2006 was designed, it was known that the newly constructed tidal inlet would slowly fill with sand and need periodic dredging. While it is unlikely to completely close, the constriction at the tidal inlet prevents the low tide in the FTB from being as low as the ocean’s low tide. This has had an impact on the newest muted tidal areas ability to drain as designed: the pressure-sensitive gates are not opening and closing as planned. Moffatt and Nichol is looking into solutions to this problem. Deeper dredging of the inlet would help the flow of tides in and out of the basin, but this is impeded by the pylons supporting the Coast Highway and oil operations bridges. They are also looking at using grading and fill to change the angle of the muted tidal areas by mere degrees to increase the volume of tidal flow that would help the tide gates open and close more effectively. The best option would be to complete the restoration of the 252 acre future full tidal basin that was in the original restoration plan. This would create more volume of water flowing in and out of the Reserve, and this volume of water would keep the inlet open to a much greater degree. Further restoration, however, is contingent upon continuation of oil operations in that area, and as yet there is no sign they will cease.

Charles Galbraith, who had been scheduled to give presentation called “Recovery of the Ridway’s Rail: Captive Propigation and Reintroduction,” was unable to attend due to a family emergency. Fortunately, Vic Leigzig was able to give his PowerPoint presentation. The recently renamed Ridgway’s Rail is a subspecies of the Rail family unique to California’s coastal wetlands. Its population had been decimated by the destruction of 90% of their habitat; there are now 21 small groups living in Southern California. In Orange County, the primary population had been about 200 pairs of birds at Upper Newport Bay. To help revive the species, Galbraith and others established a captive breeding program. Rails were hand-reared in pens at marshes in San Diego County. 72 captive bred and banded Rails had been released at the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, and by 2016, 624 pairs were counted in the 21 wetland groups. 7 pairs were counted at Bolsa Chica in 2015. These birds are not banded and are likely to be offspring from the Seal Beach birds.

Rachel Woodfield of Merkel & Associates, Inc. spoke next about monitoring the long-term biological and physical effects of 10 years since the tidal inlet opened. Restoration added tremendous complexity and uniqueness to the Bolsa Chica. Echoing Chris Webb, Ms. Woodfield said the tides are not low enough to allow the hoped-for increase of Cordgrass habitat. While it was introduced to areas in the Reserve in 2007, it is simply under water too much to thrive and spread. Mixed vegetation is the most diverse in the pocket wetland, which is also the most-used area by birds, and Pickleweed dominates the muted tidal areas. One acre of Eelgrass was planted in 2007 and there are now well over 100 acres. 165 species of birds have been counted in 21 surveys and populations are steady or increasing. The ten most numerous species are Western Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitcher, Northern Shoveler, Elegant Tern, Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, American Coot, Northern Pintail, and Ruddy Duck. Benthic species (worms, clams, crabs, and other tiny organisms), which are the primary food of migrating shorebirds, are plentiful in the mudflats. Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, an endangered species, is well-distributed throughout the reserve. In 1986 there were 143 sparrow territories, and there are now 200-300 territories. This is primary habitat for fish reproduction, and 66 species of fish have been counted in the Full Tidal Basin. 12 species of elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, skates) have also been counted.

Next up was Michael Horn from California State University, Fullerton who spoke about his long-term monitoring of the Elegant Tern as an indicator species. These terns live up to 20 years, lay one egg, provide long parental care, utilize single prey, feed near the shore (so there is a strong and important ocean-land connection), and have small breeding range. There are only several known concentrated breeding populations: Gulf of California, San Diego Bay, Bolsa Chica, and the Los Angeles Harbor. They wander as far north as Oregon after breeding, and they winter in Central America to Peru. Five fish (sardine, anchovy, pipefish, lizardfish and squid) make up 70% of their chicks diet. This prey has fluctuated greatly over a 21-year period. A crash in the sardine population has caused that prey to disappear from their diet while the presence of pipefish, lizardfish and squid has increased. The terns find all of these fish on the surface layers of the water and are very effective at catching millions of fish for their offspring each season. Last year, 8th graders from Sycamore Middle School counted 5, 878 tern nests at Bolsa Chica after the birds had departed, making the Elegant Tern the fifth most numerous bird at Bolsa Chica.

During the lunch break, a wide variety of student projects from the classes of Daryth Morrisey (Vista View Middle School), Thomas Pfeifer (Segerstrom High School), and Tanya Murray (Coastline College) were presented by highly professional poster sessions in the library hallway. Attendees were able to engage the students in explanations of their projects and research. After the lunch break, Nick Rousseau and Christine Elowitt from Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena produced a general reinforcement of the studies produced by Fish & Wildlife and Merkel & Associates. Using data from three satellites that had multi-spectral sensors for Landsat data, they confirmed that since 2002 there has been and 146% increase in water and 164% increase in vegetation at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

Joana Tavares from the Amigos and Morgan Brown from the Bolsa Chica Conservancy next spoke about Citizen Science opportunities within each organization. Citizen Science is a critical collaboration between volunteers and monitoring programs that support various governmental agencies’ research and information collection. Amigos FLOW program assists the California Department of Public Health in its monitoring of harmful algae in the ocean and wetlands, while the Conservancy’s Waterways Without Waste documents trash in the ocean for county agencies. They are also monitoring a non-native isopod that has slowly invaded Huntington Harbor and is hastening erosion in some areas. The completeness of this monitoring could not be done without the involvement of non-governmental agencies like the Amigos and the Conservancy.

Next was a panel discussion about the Bolsa Chica’s future. California State Controller Betty Yee, whose office the State Lands Commission is a part of, spoke first about a new source of funding that, if realized, should secure funding for Bolsa Chica’s ongoing maintenance and sustainability issues. More details will be announced in August. Bob Hoffman, formerly of the National Marine Fisheries and now with Merkel & Associates, has been with the Bolsa Chica restoration efforts as long as the Amigos. He spoke about the need for a permanent source of funding for dredging and maintenance, and how the recent dredges of the inlet have been redesigned to be more frequent while taking less sediment. David Pryor, formerly a California State Parks Biologist and now a consultant for the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, said that the healthiest, most robust ecosystem requires looking at all the edges – the dunes, the mesa – for restoration as well. Jennifer Luchessi returned to explain that State Lands currently manage four million acres of wetland and tideland throughout the state. Mineral resource management generates $150 million in revenue for the state, while only $15 million is set aside for maintenance projects. She said her office is looking for new sources of funding with new language that will convince the legislature that this is about more than just maintenance but long-term sustainability. Bob Westerman of California Resources Corporation, the oil operations company within the Bolsa Chica, spoke about his company’s commitment to working with Bolsa Chica management as closely and responsibly as possible, and his expectation that CRC will be long-term partners with the community. He explained how the price of oil determines the future of oil operations in Bolsa Chica: An increase in prices could be a source of revenue for the maintenance of the wetlands, while the cost of moving the oil wells determines the feasibility of the completion of the 252 acre future full tidal basin.

The day ended with a special tour of the closed areas of the Reserve guided by Kelly O’Reilly. Fifty-tree symposium-goers boarded a bus and headed for the area behind the full tidal basin. In addition to seeing nesting Canada Geese, American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, several newly hatched Western Snowy Plovers resembling cotton balls with legs were seen scurrying about the mudflats. The tour also provided an excellent opportunity to closely observe the muted tide gates which are having trouble operating properly due to the aforementioned low tide issues. The tour was a very effective way to witness all the glories and successes of the Bolsa Chica restoration as well the current and future issues of its sustainability.

Many thanks to Shirley Dettloff who coordinated with the library for the event; to Dr.Victor Leipzig for moderating the symposium and organizing the speakers; to Barry Nerhus, Jerry Donohue, and Joana Tavares who assisted Vic and organized the bus and the audience; and to Rachael and David Lloyd who, with the assistance of Terri Bidle, Tami Olsen, and Jennifer Robins, prepared excellent snacks for the morning break and a banquet of sandwiches for lunch.