Every once in a while, Santa Barbara’s picturesque Andrée Clark Bird Refuge turns into a gloomy swamp worthy of a horror movie.
An algae bloom of the pond’s nutrients emits a rotten egg odor that can waft for miles.
For those not in the know, it’s a common question uttered in the area: “What’s that smell?”
Santa Barbara officials are about to fix that problem. The Santa Barbara Historic Landmarks Commission voted 5-1 on Wednesday to approve the transformation’s design.
“Right now we have odor events,” explained George Johnson, the city’s Creeks Division supervisor. “We hope to flush those nutrients out and then get cleaner, clearer water quality.”
The project proposes to improve water quality and restore habitat for aquatic and avian wildlife.
Crews plan to replace a broken weir and weir gate, remove 74 non-native trees, reshape portions of the lagoon shoreline and the mouth of the lagoon on the beach side, next to the East Beach volleyball courts, and lower the sand berm at the beach to allow better circulation of the water.
Ice plant near the volleyball courts will also be removed and replaced with native vegetation.
The 29-acre lake was created in 1920 and has emerged as one of Santa Barbara’s most scenic sites. It’s a home to birds — including seagulls, ducks, swans and egrets — along with turtles and frogs, and an array of vegetation.
It’s a lunch sport for many, and a place to shoot photos and paint scenes. It’s also a retreat with some short, flat walking trails.
The city plans to replace non-native vegetation with native landscaping. A portion of the grass along East Cabrillo Boulevard will be removed to install more native plantings. Officials also plan to build “turtle-basking rocks.”
The refuge now largely sits as a stagnant body of water that only drains and regenerates during heavy rain storms, which is one of the reasons behind the stench. Crews plan to install a concrete weir with gates that open and close to allow the refuge to be drained.
Johnson said the new gates and the bioretention basin that will be installed near the Santa Barbara Municipal Tennis & Pickleball Courts, at 1414 Park Place on the north side of Highway 101 off of Old Coast Highway, will reduce the amount of nutrients in the basin.
He said the changes will improve water quality and “it will be better for the birds and, hopefully, reduce the odor events.”
The city also plans to replace some of the fencing near the corner of the refuge. Instead of a chain-link fence, a galvanized mini-mesh fence that makes it more difficult to penetrate will be erected.
“We have homeless issues back in this area and we are trying to keep the area a little bit undisturbed,” Johnson said. “Homeless camps are not good for water quality or the wildlife.”
City Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon said she is thrilled the plan is moving forward.
“The deteriorating water quality at the Bird Refuge has been an issue for decades,” said Sneddon, an environmental geology instructor at Santa Barbara City College.
“This restoration project will improve the wildlife habitats, the water quality, the odor issues, and long-term flooding risks, while also restoring the perimeter with native plants and pathways for the public to enjoy.”
Commission chairman Anthony Grumbine was the lone dissenting vote. Although he supported the overall project, he said he did not like the look of the proposed fence near the new weir, which would include a cable rope at the edge of the bank.
The California Coastal Commission must still give the project final approval.