The Coastal Post - February, 1997

The Stench Of A Dying Lagoon


When a dead whale rolled up on the sands of Stinson Beach last summer, waves of stench billowed out from its carcass. The putrid aroma of rancid blubber drowned out the more subtle scent of frying grease from the town's restaurant row or the sharp tang of burning asbestos from tourist car brakes winding down the mountain road into town. Even so, the huge whale was a tourist draw until the park rangers blew it up with dynamite because they couldn't bury it.

Humans have always had a touch of vulture; however, when the Bolinas lagoon begins to die the smell will be magnitudes of strength greater than one dead whale, and no amount of explosives will dissipate it.

It is doubtful that tourists will find as much pleasure in gawking at a dying lagoon when the seals have left the recently-emerged sand islands they lounge on now. Anyone who's ever experienced a real Gulf of Mexico red tide odor, not these wimpy Pacific die-offs, knows what the lagoon will smell like, but this will last for years, not weeks.

The dying of a lagoon-sized creature is agonizingly slow, although the closing off of the channel at the delta can happen in one peak storm. Most likely it will happen over decades as siltation fills in the channels.

The Kent Island channel is rapidly filling in as the island becomes part of downtown Bolinas. The original development plan for Bolinas Lagoon in the '60s called for a hotel and heliport on the island, as well as a yacht harbor nearby with a four-lane highway around the lagoon.

That plan was so controversial that it gave rise to the public acquisition and the creation of 20-odd public agencies which have some jurisdiction over the lagoon. Aside from several studies which basically said the same thing, that without active involvement in reducing siltation and increasing tidal prism, the lagoon would turn into a meadow, those agencies haven't done much.

Currently federal monies for a much bigger study are being pursued. It's fairly obvious what the conclusion will be, but a fresh study must always be made by public agencies before they take action. And if they don't take action for awhile, then another study will be required. At their current pace, these agencies will have to issue gas masks for their meetings while the slow, oozing, bureaucratic process of the lagoon becoming fresh water wetlands, then marshy meadows, then a trailer park, occurs,. Don't think that the lagoon agencies will automatically abolish themselves when there's technically no more lagoon. First, a study will be required.

The best thing that's happened to the lagoon's tidal prism since the 1906 earthquake was after Highway One was closed because of the 1989 temblor. As part of the mitigation for pushing millions of cubic yards of cliffside into the National Marine Sanctuary, Caltrans agreed to dredge out an old dump begun back when locals considered the lagoon only a convenient low-lying area. The wetlands restoration was successful, but so expensive that Caltrans is unlikely to agree to reopen the coastal highway as rapidly the next time it seriously crumbles.

The Bolinas Technical Advisory Committee's latest report says they are looking for other deep pocket mitigators to dig out another dump or two in the lagoon.

The biggest dump of all in Bolinas Lagoon took place in the '50s when Kent Sandspit was turned into Seadrift Estates with an artificial "lagoon" lake in the center. Thousands of yards of spill was pushed directly into the lagoon's main channel, since then the artificial lake has prevented algae bloom dying off and stinking out the waterfront mansions only by liberal use of copper sulfates and other toxic chemicals. Those pollutants as well as leachate from the acres of sand septic filters on Seadrift, which were improperly monitored for years, have infiltrated the lagoon.

Maybe Seadrift homeowners, which include Senator Diane Feinstein, should be tapped for mitigation costs. After all, they are going to suffer the most when the lagoon dies, and no amount of toxic chemicals will lessen the olfactory assault.

There's farmer Warren Weber with his flagrant disregard for the health of the lagoon, using Pine Gulch creek water to spray irrigate his gourmet salad on windy days, and turning a wetlands on the lagoon into a fenced-off field.

The Bolinas Public Utilities District is being looked at in case their sewer system breaks into the lagoon, or when their proposed road drainage ditches increases the flow of septic system nitrates into Agate Creek which flows into Duxbury Reef, part of the Marine Sanctuary.

They could look towards RCA, which has also contaminated the sanctuary with PCBs dumped over the cliff and buried on the land, and football field-sized unlined burials of oil-soaked debris cleaned up from Bolinas and Stinson beaches after the 1972 Standard Oil tanker wreck.

Mostly they are salivating after federal monies for an intervention by Army Corps of Engineers, well known for their environmental sensitivity. While they are seeking $2.5 million dollars for another study, this is merely bait for a much bigger tax bite to restore the lagoon.

Meanwhile, lower cost approaches, which could be done with local intervention and volunteer work, low technical approaches which could reduce siltation from the hillsides and creeks draining into the lagoon or increase tidal removal of silt in the channels, are not being pursued. They may only be temporary fix-its, but ultimately, so are larger-scale operations with higher price tags and less local control.

The Bolinas Lagoon is a national treasure, but it should be viewed as only one of the coastal lagoons of California which are vital links in bird and marine life migrations, most of which are also endangered. Americans love to live by the ocean, but really have given very little back to coastal preservation.

As trillions of salt-water microscopic organisms, crustaceans, and fish die off, and tons of plant matter begins to decay, tourism and home values will definitely decline.