Malibu Lagoon restoration controversy: Science wins (for now)

Our guest blogger is scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson, author of Don’t Be Such a Scientist:  Talking Substance in an Age of Style.

On Monday night the Malibu City Council held a marathon meeting to hear from the two sides of the dispute over the planned Malibu Lagoon Restoration Project. It’s become the most bitterly controversial issue in the 20 year history of the celebrity-filled city. It’s an ugly and unfortunate conflict, which can be seen symbolically in the fact that only one of the scores of resident celebrities has gotten actively involved — Pamela Anderson, who has climbed on the “don’t disturb nature,” theme of the opposition team. Celebrities generally prefer to engage with non-polarizing issues such as combatting diseases where everyone is on the same side. With this one they don’t want to lose friends over a few birds and snails.

OUTBURST AT MALIBU CITY HALL. An enraged opponent of the restoration of the Malibu Lagoon shouts so angrily the City Council members are forced to call in the Sheriff. It’s a classic head vs. the heart conflict. The opponents are deeply impassioned, but unfortunately for them their arguments are devoid of science, which proved to be their downfall.  Source:  Malibu Patch.

At the start of the meeting over 100 people submitted comment forms. The meeting ran past 11:00 p.m. The project is set to start June 1 and will involve digging out the west side of the lagoon in an effort to improve flow, which should reduce oxygen depleted zones, sedimentation and eutrophication. It’s already a done deal — mandated and run by the state, not the city, and is the result of ten years of meetings, planning and public involvement. But last year a group of homeowners near the lagoon, at the 11th hour, after all the permits had been cleared, decided they didn’t want the intrusion, so they hired a local activist who rather skillfully managed to “frame” the issue against the environmental groups supporting the restoration by locking onto the age old environmental slogan, “Stop the Bulldozers,” suddenly making the enviros sound like a bunch of developers.

I got involved in January when I finally could no longer take the amount of lies and distortions being propagated against the project. I’ve been involved nationally in the attacks on evolution and climate science through my two feature films, so I couldn’t ignore the sound of the same anti-science voice cropping up in local letters to the editor which were not being answered by the project supporters. I convinced the environmental groups to scratch together the funds for my production team to build a website ( and I shot a short video in which I had 5 of the key restoration supporters address 5 of the main distortions: that the lagoon doesn’t need help (it does), that the process has not been transparent (it has been), that the restoration doesn’t need bulldozers (it does), that the funding could be used for other things (it can’t), and that scientists will get rich off the project (painfully unfunny). Just trying to set the record straight, which I think it has with some of the residents who were starting to be swayed by the disinformation being spread.

The Monday event was mostly an opportunity for the opponents to vent their objections. In the end the City Council voted on several motions that would have resulted in sending a letter of opposition to Governor Jerry Brown. None of the motions passed because two of the four Council members said they couldn’t support an attack on such a science-based project by opponents who failed to present any science to make their case. Which was true — the opponents were deeply passionate and emotional, but devoid of any science. Their lack of success eventually resulted in the above outburst of frustration by one of the most vocal members of their group.

The source of frustration for the “speaker” (shouter?) is the perceived threat of the lagoon alteration to surfing. The lagoon empties onto Surfrider Beach, the most famous beach in surfing history and the place where “Gidget” rose to fame in the 1960’s. The wave that breaks along the point is one of the most beautiful and reliable in the world, leading to it’s popularity and to it’s designation last fall as a world landmark. Local passions run very, very deep about “the wave” at Surfrider (which actually breaks into three surf areas known as first, second and third points), and this accounts for the depth of his passion. To outsiders it might seem like he’s a madman, but to virtually every local resident there is a feeling of, “we feel your pain,” which you can even hear in the voice of City Council Member Pamela Ulrich towards the end of the clip even as she’s calling for the Sheriff (she’s actually on his side). And being a rabid surfer myself, I don’t see his performance as being at all that insane. We’re talking about “THE” wave here.

But the problem is the lack of science presented. Hydrography, sediment transport and physical oceanography are all enormously complex scientific disciplines. I know, I took some physical oceanography courses in grad school and tried to incorporate some of it in my research on invertebrate larval dispersal. It’s not as simple as, “dig a channel here and everything will be permanently fixed.” The result is the discussion of a very complex scientific issue in a public forum by people who don’t even begin to have an understanding of the science.

Fortunately the current Mayor of the City of Malibu, John Sibert, is himself a scientist — a former chemistry professor at Yale and Cal Tech. Which becomes the stumbling block for the opponents of the project. On Monday night he and another Council member, Lou Lamonte, simply put their foot down in a way that you wish the U.S. Congress were able to with other attacks on science, by basically saying, “No science, no argument.” Which had to be frustrating, but them’s the rules in a civilized society.

As it stands now, digging of the lagoon will begin June 1 unless one of the two “Hail Mary” ploys of the opponents pans out — they filed a lawsuit for an injunction to stop it (not likely to go anywhere) and have written a desperate letter to the Governor begging him to stop it. But do you think Governor Moonbeam would go against the environmental groups? Not likely.

For now, science wins in Malibu.

Randy Olson blogs at The Benshi.


10 Responses to Malibu Lagoon restoration controversy: Science wins (for now)

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Good news. The dredging protestors are like the Cape Cod wind farm opponents- rich and spoiled, believing that their view and their convenience are more important than anything else. I’m glad the City Council was not won over by grandstanding bimbos, especially since so many other Malibu residents are savvy environmentalists.

    The exception is the way they build their houses, which are essentially movie sets. Even after the 1993 Malibu fire (I lived there at the time), practically all of the rebuilding was done with two by fours instead of steel or masonry. The houses will burn or get eaten by termites again, too.

  2. George Ennis says:

    Very powerful messaging using the KISS principle, Keep it Short and Simple.

  3. FishOutofWater says:

    I would love to see the science on the effects on the currents, the sand bars, the species living in the lagoon and the surf. I watched the opponents video next to yours on Youtube. So far I haven’t seen any scientific analysis from either side.

    Saying that sediment transport is complicated does not cut it. How’s this going to affect the surf? Where’s the numerical modeling?

  4. Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Randy, remember the rule: if it isn’t “it is”, it’s “its.”

  5. Richard Brenne says:

    For some reason I was most drawn to the picture of Randy at the top of this post. . .

  6. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #3: Here’s a search page with what look to be the relevant links, FOoW. It was sort of peculiar that Randy’s site didn’t seem to include this material, being science-based and all. I couldn’t find them on the site of the agency that the sponsored Randy’s site, either. I would be less concerned about this if I hadn’t seen public agencies engage in logrolling of environmental projects that were in fact not so environmental, EIR consultants having become little more than paid liars. I should hasten to add I’m not aware of any such thing going on in this case.

  7. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Free Speech’, in my opinion, has degenerated in most of the West into the freedom for the rich and powerful to lie, manipulate and above all else, foment fear, hatred and paranoia in the masses, in order to get their way. The MSM in this country is monocultural, presenting ideologically identical opinions on all controversies, exclusively Right or far Rightwing, devoid of conscience in regard to misrepresentation, and increasingly disposed to character assassination and the ‘politics of personal destruction’. Yet they still have the unspeakable gall to portray themselves as ‘truth-seekers’ and their verbal sullage as ‘free speech’. A society where frantic hatemongering demands acquiescence and respect as ‘free speech’ is, I would assert, morally insane and intellectually moribund.

  8. David Armstead says:

    It is unfair to label the oposistion in this fight as rich and spoiled. The guy in the video is quite the opposite. he barely has two sticks to rub together and has several kids to feed too. It is true that Randy’s video has little science to back his side. The fact is the same group in 1983 redesigned the lagoon and moved and destroyed 1000’s of cubic yards of dirt to create what is there today. If you visit the lagoon you will see that there is plenty of life there which will be destroyed to try this again. The State of California has no money for everyday services yet they want to spend over 7 million on a redo of the lagoon. It seems silly when the money can be used for much better things. Don’t attack what you do not know, this is not rich vs poor, not everyone in Malibu is rich. It was a small beach town before all those rich celebrities moved in and I wish they would all leave.

  9. AlC says:


    I went to your Website, had a great time reading it and watching the videos, ordered your book.

    Back to the topic at hand…
    Trying to be somewhat of a scientist, and seeking a reply from a knowledgeable person…

    One of the opponents has referenced this study from SCCWRP which seems to show that most of the nutrients in the Dry Season come from septic seepage and urban runoff rather than sediments.
    Is this information relevant, and if so, how strong an argument is it against the project?

    Sediments as a Non-point Source of Nutrients to Malibu Lagoon
    (See table at the end)

    Or is the intent of the project to have open up the lagoon to flushing action from the ocean such that sediments and nutrients don’t build up, and septic seepage and urban runoff are flushed out to see?

  10. AlC says:

    Last word “sea” in previous post.
    Although the original wording might have an interesting implication…