Malibu’s Epic Battle of Surfers Vs. Environmentalists

Local politics take a dramatic turn in southern California over a plan to clean up an iconic American playground

Water and sediment flowing from Malibu Creek and Lagoon impact the waves at Surfrider, especially after winter rains. (Keegan Gibbs)
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Glas, for her part, was fairly shocked by what she saw as a misunderstanding of the scientific issues. So she co-founded a website, TheRealMalibu411, and tried to explain the complex environmental plans. “Stephenie and I wanted to leave the emotion out and just deal with the facts,” Woods said. “If you make a claim, bring the facts on the table. Let’s put your facts with our facts.”

The emotions, though, were front and center, along with invective hurled at Glas because of her visible role as an advocate for the cleanup. One local called her a “man chick”; others said she was a liar. You might think a person who fought fires for a living would brush off the insults, but to hear Woods tell it, she was upset. And as she devoted more of her free time to the cause, typing late-night e-mails and online comments between intense, often dangerous shifts at work, she became increasingly distressed.

Then, one day this past February, Glas drove up the coast to Oxnard and purchased a handgun.


Malibu Creek originates on the flanks of 3,111-foot Sandstone Peak, the highest point in a range of mountains that sequesters Malibu from the rest of Los Angeles. The creek descends through rolling foothills into what was once a sprawling wetlands with a large estuary and lagoon. In prehistoric times, the Chumash Indians built a village near the creek mouth, where shallow waters teemed with steelhead trout. “Malibu” is a mispronunciation of the Chumash word Humaliwo, “where the surf sounds loudly.” Like other coastal wetlands, the Malibu Creek and Lagoon managed floodwaters and served as a giant natural recycling system, chan­neling rainwater and decomposing organic materials. Jackknife clams, tidewater goby fish, egrets and thousands of other species thrived.

By the time modern development kicked into high gear during the westward expansion of the early 1900s, the ecosystem was gravely misunderstood. “They didn’t know what the wetland function is,” Suzanne Goode, a senior environmental scientist with California’s Department of Parks and Recreation, told me one afternoon last summer as we stood on the edge of Malibu Lagoon. “They saw it as a swamp that’s full of bugs and maybe doesn’t smell good, and you can’t develop it because it’s all wet and mucky.”

When workers in the late 1920s carved the Pacific Coast Highway through the wetlands, tons of dirt sloughed into the western channels of Malibu Lagoon. Soon after, a barrier beach buffering the lagoon was sold off to Hollywood celebrities such as Gloria Swanson and Frank Capra, who plunked shacks into the sand to create a neighborhood known as the Malibu Movie Colony. This development was one of the first to choke the path of the creek and gobble up wildlife habitat.

At the same time, municipalities throughout Southern California began tapping the Colorado River and the San Joaquin Delta system, allowing the booming population to grow lawns and flush toilets. Much of this extra, imported water made its way to the ocean. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, a wastewater treatment plant upstream from Malibu Lagoon released up to ten million gallons of lightly treated San Fernando Valley sewage daily. As of the 1989 North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which aimed to provide funding to manage wetland habitats for migratory birds, 91 percent of the wetlands in California—and half of those in the United States—had been obliterated.

The lagoon cleanup plan was designed to enable the wetlands to purge itself naturally. To that end, the westernmost channels would be drained of contaminated water, and bulldozers would dredge the excess sediment from that area. The machines would then remove invasive species and regrade a portion of the lagoon to allow water to circulate more easily. Eventually the native plants and animals that had been temporarily relocated would be returned.

In the Malibu Lagoon controversy, which had hijacked local politics by 2011, the dissenters were maybe 150 to 200 people—a small percentage of the city’s nearly 13,000 residents—but they were vocal. At one city council meeting, a surfer and real estate agent named Andy Lyon, who grew up in Malibu Colony, launched into an explosive tirade about the threat to the surf break. He shouted into the microphone as council members struggled to regain decorum; they eventually summoned the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “I don’t care! I’m going to surf!” Lyon yelled as he left City Hall. From then on, a sheriff’s deputy was assigned to the meetings. “It definitely got people’s attention,” Lyon later told me of his public speaking style. In last spring’s city council election, four candidates campaigned on an anti-cleanup platform; of those, a 28-year-old named Skylar Peak, who had vowed to chain himself to the bulldozers alongside his surfing buddy Lyon, was elected.


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