CSUN is Leading the Charge in Mapping of the Wetlands
By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer
Article First Published on 08/30/2008 in the Daily News
PORT HUENEME - Armed with maps and high-tech compasses, the young scientists stared out into the vast tan landscape.
Just a century ago, this swath of coastal land was teeming with small creeks and streams, moist soil and dozens of animal species.
But today, a large section of Ormond Beach's wetlands is more dry than wet. Ringed by factories, the wetlands' dirt hills and dry grass mounds are the final resting place for a graffiti-covered train on a forgotten railroad.
"It's just a remnant of what it used to be," professor Shawna Dark said to her team of students.
The wetlands' poor condition only makes Dark, a geography professor at California State University, Northridge, and her students more determined to complete their mission.
The group is working on CSUN's Southern California Wetlands Mapping Project, to produce the Southland's first comprehensive map of the rapidly disappearing marshy plots of land that Dark says are vital to the region's ecology.
"Historically, wetlands were seen as wastelands, swamps," Dark said. "They were associated with malaria and vectors and even the earliest settlers made it their mission to quickly develop over these areas."
The result: Southern California has lost 95 percent of its wetland areas.
Groups such as the California Coastal Commission and the Nature Conservancy, working with the CSUN group, have ramped up efforts to buy plots of wetlands in an effort to conserve and restore these areas over the past few decades.
Rich Handley, a Nature Conservancy land manager in the Los Angeles and Ventura area who is responsible for overseeing the Ormond Beach wetlands, said in this area alone he has discovered colonies of at least seven endangered species.
"California snowy plovers, brown pelicans, northern harriers and Belding's Savannah sparrows - many of these are species endemic to the wetlands of Southern California," Handley said. "A lot of times this is referred to as the hidden gem of Oxnard. It's something we need more people to be aware of."
California state law protects wetlands and requires any loss due to construction to be made up elsewhere through restoration.
But Francine Diamond, chairwoman of the L.A. Regional Water Quality Control Board, said that until now agencies have relied on outdated federal maps and databases of regional wetlands, making it difficult to determine how many wetlands actually exist and how the law is being enforced.
"This study is looking at our region in detail and what they have found is that we have more wetlands that are not included in the federal database," Diamond said.
For a region that has been struggling with issues of drought, the discovery of additional wetlands means there are likely untapped sources for drinking water and unused natural water purification systems that Diamond said are invaluable.
"It has been discovered that the economic value that includes water recycling, flood protection, and water-quality improvement is valued at more than $400 million annually. And that doesn't include recreational and tourist value."
Supported by California Proposition 50 funds, the CSUN project will map out small and large wetlands from Point Conception down to the San Diego/Mexico border.
The chance to use GIS (geographic information systems) and GPS (global positioning systems) gadgets and trade classroom lectures for bayside exploring is a geography student's dream assignment.
"This is exactly what I want to do," said CSUN geography major Matt Hogan.
Still for many of these students this mission is not just about ecological benefits.
"This project has opened my eyes. It's valuable work that helps a lot of people," said graduate geography student Patricia Pendleton.
As she stood staring at the estuary blanketing the coast of Ormond Beach, Pendleton could not help but think of the rest of her absent science team.
About two dozen inmates-turned-scientists from Mule Creek State Prison have partnered with the CSUN students, through the state's Prison Industry Authority, to input raw data collected from the field into the mapping system.
Pendleton admits it was a culture shock for her to work with the unlikely teammates. But once she got past the initial introductions she discovered that they shared her passion.
"I was shocked to see these people who taught themselves all the things I learned in school - and some even know more than I do," Pendleton said.
"It really impressed me."
Pendleton said many of the inmates are serving life sentences, and will never get a chance to enjoy the restored wetlands they are helping to save, but she thinks in some way it brings them comfort.
"This gives them something to do, to contribute to society."
Dark also believes the mapping project will help bring more awareness to muddy lands that have been overlooked for centuries.
"Part of this is to educate people about what happens when you put a large housing tract on top of mountains, like so many areas of the San Fernando Valley where they put tract homes," Dark said.
"Historically there may have been small creeks or streams that ran through those areas. People need to know there is a lot of impact that comes when people develop in the urban wildlife interface."