HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- The ocean flowed into historic wetlands yesterday for the first time in more than a century after bulldozers peeled back the last layer of an earthen dam.
Environmentalists who worked for 30 years to restore the massive Bolsa Chica area cheered and sipped champagne as the salty water poured into the fragile ecosystem that had been tapped as an oil field for decades.
The event capped a two-year project that cost more than $100 million and shunted a portion of the scenic Pacific Coast Highway onto an overpass.
Officials said it would take at least six hours for the ocean water to fill the 387-acre basin. The area had been separated from the ocean since 1899, when a duck-hunting club diked ponds to make it easier to catch their prey.
The eight state and federal agencies involved in the project call it the largest and most ambitious restoration of coastal wetlands in the history of California, where 95 percent of saltwater marshes have been given over to development.
The Bolsa Chica wetlands project is at the cutting edge of a new and evolving science, said Shirley Dettloff, a member of the conservation group Amigos de Bolsa Chica and a former member of the California Coastal Commission.
``Not many wetlands have been restored in the world, especially in an oil field," said Dettloff, who has fought for the wetlands for 30 years. ``Even we locals sometimes forget that this was the second-largest functioning oil field in the state of California . . . since the 1930s."
The degraded wetlands are already home to 200 species of birds, including six endangered and threatened species, said Marc Stirdivant, executive director of Bolsa Chica Land Trust.
Tidal flows and ebbs will fill and drain the basin twice a day, restoring a natural rhythm that should replenish the fragile ecosystem and could attract more species.