Their approach can sound, at times, very technocratic. Environmentalists value rare habitats more highly than less-rare habitats. To create rare habitat, they plan to create more wetlands, rehabilitating the old asphalt parking lot, as well as land from an illegal, chemical-laden private golf course — controversially built near the marsh by billionaire Jerry Perenchio. Then, the scientists plan to lower the marsh's slight elevation to sea level and introduce more species.
But before creation comes destruction. A temporary dyke must be constructed to cut off the channels from the main lagoon, allowing workers to drain the channels and reshape them with bulldozers.
Suzanne Goode says this will be done with the utmost caution. "We have to pump the water out [of the channels], pump it into tanks, disinfect it, and pump it into the ocean," before beginning the massive earth removal. "That's $2 million right there. It's a high-stakes environment."
"We're trying to minimize impact to as many species as possible," Ambrose says. "The workers will try to not kill as many as they can. Some of those fish and a few invertebrates, they'll be killed, sure. And then the birds will be displaced. And the plants will be killed."
After a pause, he adds: "My view is the long-term view. There was nothing there before 1983. It will recover. The above-water part will be just as good. Below-water will be way better."
The plan does not have a single architect. It grew out of meetings — Abramson estimates more than 100 over 20 years — with such groups as the Malibu Creek Water Council and the Malibu Lagoon Task Force. The participants eventually drew up a list of priorities, such as replacing the asphalt parking lot and buying Perenchio's golf course.
Remarkably, Perenchio had hidden his wife's secret, nonpermitted, 10-acre pitch-and-putt behind a towering stone wall in downtown Malibu for 21 years, lying to the Coastal Commission that it was a jogging path while pouring lawn chemicals onto the greens. Rich denizens of Malibu Colony next door kept Perenchio's secret, and local lore has it that some of them relished the idea of outwitting the powerful Coastal Commission.
All the while, Perenchio's multimillionaire son, John Perenchio, was a sitting member of the board at Heal the Bay.
Activist Roy Van de Hoek discovered the existence of Perenchio's golf course while perusing a detailed aerial postcard of Malibu. When the embarrassed Coastal Commission sought to award Perenchio an after-the-fact permit to quell complaints, a political uproar ensued and the Coastal Commission was castigated in the media.
Through Wetlands Action Network, Hanscom and Van de Hoek sued under environmental laws. In a settlement, Perenchio was forced to bequeath his choice land to the state — once he and his young wife are dead. The deal will add acreage worth millions of dollars to the Malibu Lagoon restoration.
At the time, Hanscom and Van de Hoek were already established wetlands activists. They helped fight a widely reported eco-war to prevent Playa Vista, the largest mixed-use development in the history of Los Angeles, near Playa del Rey. Although the luxury minicity was constructed, a coalition of some 100 groups managed to preserve hundreds of adjacent acres of the Ballona Wetlands and much of the protective uplands along the Westchester bluff.
After that, the two were a natural fit for the Malibu Lagoon "stakeholder groups" — smart, knowledgeable and tireless — and they became fixtures at meetings in the late 1990s.
Van de Hoek, with his white beard and long, white ponytail, looks like a park ranger on his way to a Phish reunion; Hanscom looks like a librarian. Few would guess that Hanscom has caused as many problems for developers as almost anyone in the city. They are both so calm, so even-tempered.
What set them against the restoration is a matter of much disagreement.
Hanscom says that in 2004 — even as she and Van de Hoek were suing Perenchio over his illegal golf course — she started to hear about committees and meetings to which she, Van de Hoek and a few others hadn't been invited.
"All of a sudden, things started changing behind the scenes," she says. "And we started hearing there was this technical advisory meeting, this science committee ... meeting without us."
Mark Abramson, who has shepherded the lagoon project as long as anyone, first at Heal the Bay and now for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation, has a different story: He says Van de Hoek asked to be on the technical advisory committee but was rejected because he was unqualified. Although Van de Hoek has extensive experience with, and knowledge of, wetlands and holds undergraduate degrees in environmental biology and geography, he doesn't hold a doctorate.
"I can tell you this," Abramson says, "when we would not let Roy be part of the technical advisory committee, that's when they started fighting this project. To me, it's an ego thing."
Van de Hoek says Abramson has gotten his wetlands confused — that Van de Hoek had applied to be on the science advisory committee for Ballona Wetlands while fighting the Playa Vista development, and was rejected.
"Mark went to Cal Poly for landscape architecture," Van de Hoek says. "What he knows is design and layout — aesthetics. He's not a fish biologist. I am."
After the pair complained, Abramson told Hanscom and Van de Hoek that they could attend a technical advisory meeting — but couldn't speak. The meeting was, unsurprisingly, a bit technical, and Hanscom didn't understand the implications.
"Marcia, they're gonna dredge this place," Van de Hoek whispered. But Hanscom was unconvinced: "It doesn't sound like that. They're not saying those words."
Goode insists that after that, Hanscom "was well aware of every step we were taking. I don't know why she changed her mind" and ultimately sued to stop the restoration.
After the technical advisory meeting, Hanscom asked Abramson to meet her at the lagoon, to spell things out.
"You're not really gonna take out this vegetation area here, right?" she says she asked at one spot.
"Well ... yeah," she recalls Abramson saying.
"What about this one?"
"Well, what do you think?" Abramson said, visibly annoyed. "Of course we're gonna take it out. We have to."
Abramson has a vague recollection of going to the lagoon with Hanscom but says it doesn't stand out. "I went through there with lots of people," he says.
Horrified, Hanscom called Goode, who told her, "Don't worry, phase 2 will never happen. It's too much, we'll just do this other part" — referring to phase 1, a relatively modest plan to replace the asphalt parking lot with natural soils.
"I may have said something like that" to Hanscom, Goode says. "I couldn't see how we would ever get the money and pull it off."
For a time, it seemed like Goode was right. California's fiscal climate caused a multiyear delay in phase 2. Some say that as the project lost momentum, it lost touch with its constituency — and with stakeholders who might have defended it.
But another growing problem was that wetlands were being restored elsewhere — some with unintended, negative consequences.
One example is the far-off Owens Valley, the area "raped" by William Mulholland and Harrison Gray Otis, its river water stolen and diverted into the new Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 (made famous in the film Chinatown). The verdant valley was turned into a dust bowl. In 2006, it was restored in a $39 million river-rehabilitation project, the largest of its kind in the Western United States.
But now, the river unexpectedly has become overrun with bulrushes and tulles, which the scientists failed to foresee. Much of the choked river has become unusable by boats, even slim kayaks.
Scientists were wrong about two other restorations well south of L.A., at Bolsa Chica and Batiquitos wetlands. Redesigned by experts, the wetlands were supposed to cleanse themselves and require dredging only once or twice per decade. Instead, they are filling with sand and must be continuously re-dredged.
It's enough to create concern about how much scientists have really learned about Mother Nature since the 1983 Malibu Lagoon restoration.
"These lagoons are very dynamic," says UCLA Professor Dave Jacobs, a geologist and biologist. "Floods are actually what maintain them. Episodic floods effectively play the role of the bulldozer in many of these systems, removing the sediment."
Hanscom says she heard that the plan was going forward last fall via a Facebook message from a Malibu Times reporter, asking her if she knew about an item on the California Coastal Commission's agenda regarding a Malibu Lagoon restoration project.
Oh, shit, thought Hanscom. It's happening.
The plan on the agenda included removing, for good, the dirt path and wooden bridges now used by thousands of nature lovers each year to birdwatch or see a living wetland. Project planners say the walkways limit wind flow and create pinch points that trap sediment.
"People love to walk across the bridges," Goode says. "But if you were to inherit a wetland, the last thing you would do is put a pathway through it."
Under the restoration, visitors will be allowed only to walk the periphery, where "enhancements" would include a shady canopy, a picnic area and signs explaining everything. A bird blind would be constructed so people can watch birds through a sort of peephole made of plants, letting humans get close to birds without disrupting them.
An artist's rendering of the path is reminiscent of the garden at the Getty Center. It's clean. It's orderly. There are separate walking lanes for surfers and for school groups. And the humans are separated from the animals.
If UCLA's Walter was disappointed with the 1983 restoration, he isn't any happier now. .
"Because of its unique natural and social attributes, there is really nothing wrong with the present park design and practice," he wrote in a letter to the Coastal Commission. "In fact, it seems optimal. The existing access trail with its bridges is of exceptional value. No other plan will provide the close interface between people and wildlife that can be observed every day."
Walter agrees that you would not purposely design a wetland with a walkway slashing through it. But people have been using the path for decades, and the birds seem to have gotten used to it. With surfers just offshore, the chaotic mix has reached a sort of equilibrium, allowing people to get much closer to the wildlife than elsewhere.
"The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Foundation is interested in aquatic habitat, and Marcia seems to be focused on the supra — the bird habitat," says Chad Nelson of Surfrider. "It's a difference in goals."
"Fundamentally they treasure the way the lagoon is," Ambrose says. "The above-water stuff is really nice. But I've done the studies in the water. And it's not what it should be."
"They're very passionate about trying to protect the environment, and have ideas not well-based in science," Ambrose says. "There's not a lot of common ground
Zuma Jay Wagner, who runs a surf shop on PCH, has proposed a middle ground in which a substantially less invasive renovation would be pursued. But amidst the acrimony, Wagner says, neither side listens to him. He believes Judge Goldsmith in October "is gonna step in and say, 'You guys come to terms.' Then they'll be grabbing my homework."
Across the street from the lagoon, Shlien sits outside Malibu Kitchen café, in a shopping center that itself is a former wetland. The café parking lot is where her confrontation with Suzanne Goode took place.
"I've given away a lot for this," Shlien says wistfully. "I've given my pride, my time, my own money ..." In fact, she has given more than $8,000, dwarfing the $100 and $200 checks written by many locals.
Asked how certain she is that her side is right, she promptly replies, "One hundred percent. My heart knows. No scientist can tell me, when I go to the lagoon and that when I witness all this life feeding on life, 'Oh, it's dirty, you just can't see it.' I think that science — it's not overrated, but there's a system in this country of telling people they don't deserve to feel what they're observing.' "
Her eyes begin to tear up. "Well, what makes them more right than me?"
Her boyfriend, Bryant, a sun-kissed surfer, walking one recent day down the lagoon path that the restoration would remove forever, talks about the inevitability of a 100-year storm hitting the area — and turning whatever man has done into a new configuration, and yet another version of Malibu Lagoon.
In such a drastic storm, he says, a surge of water will come coursing down Malibu Canyon, "and destroy the berm, flush things out, change the face of the lagoon."
"It's gonna happen," he says. "It could be this winter."