News @ the Beach

Faculty Member Whitcraft and Students Working to Preserve and Improve Wetlands

Christine Whitcraft, associate professor of biological sciences, is an expert in coastal wetland ecosystems, and points with pride to work with the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy.

Beginning in 2012, the conservancy provided funding to support Whitcraft’s work in coastal wetland restoration. Other support came from the California Sea Grant and the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program which provided more than $250,000 for restoration efforts.

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The university is conducting a capital campaign with a goal of raising $225 million.  One of the capital campaign’s three pillars is “A Greater Community” and Whitcraft feels her restoration projects support that pillar.

Together with fellow biological sciences’ faculty members Bengt Allen and Chris Lowe, Whitcraft works to help the conservancy restore and maintain three coastal marshes—Talbert, Brookhurst and Magnolia—located along Pacific Coast Highway between Newland Avenue and the Santa Ana River.

“Marshes like these perform a number of important natural functions,” said Whitcraft. “Their landforms and plants help control tidal flow to inland areas and they’re an ideal environment for a host of creatures. Wetlands often serve as nurseries for commercially important fish as well as nesting sites for a variety of birds.”

However, decades of coastal development cut off normal tidal flow and severely degraded the wetlands which is why the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy undertook multi-million-dollar restoration efforts.

Whitcraft and her students collected data on plants, invertebrates, sediment properties, fish and sea grass. “With National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funding, we began studying how California halibut live in their newly restored wetlands habitats. We had students tracking fish 24 hours a day at one point,” she recalled. “That is when the conservancy realized we had a lot of knowledge about the system and we were asked to stay on as restoration consultants. The American Restoration Recovery Act funds paid for three years of work with the conservancy as their consultants.”

The 2012 conservancy grant supported CSULB students and their research including seven master’s theses. “These addressed some of the biggest questions in wetlands ecology with a focus on restoration,” she said. “How do we, as humans, impact the wetlands? How can we bring back the wetlands from that impact?”

Whitcraft believes what she has learned can be applied to wetlands all over the world. “Living in urban Southern California is just a test case for the rest of the world because all coasts someday will be urban,” she said. “We are learning about the pressure and stress placed by humans on wetlands. That is applicable worldwide. How do we apply restoration to fix these impacts?”

In addition to work in Huntington Beach, one of Whitcraft’s special interests is the Colorado Lagoon in Long Beach. “One of the few remaining wetlands in Southern California has become a 13-acre lagoon thanks to human activity,” she said. “It is in the middle of a neighborhood with Marine Stadium and a golf course next door. The lagoon once collected runoff from 18 storm drains in a time of leaded gasoline and street runoff. All those pollutants settled in the sediment. It was about 20 years ago when citizens organized to restore the lagoon led by the Friends of Colorado Lagoon of which I am now president.”

Progress has been made. Non-native species have been removed and a low-flow diversion system installed. When it rains, the runoff flows around the lagoon. A dredging effort removed 75,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment.

“I bring what I learn back to my students in the classroom then I bring them out into the field to perform research,” she said. “Cal State Long Beach offers a fantastic connection to the community. Most of our students are local.  We introduce them to the fact that they live in a community with wetlands and that being scientifically literate about that community is essential to being a good citizen.”

A second link to the community is the support offered by Whitcraft’s research to area municipalities and agencies such as NOAA and the Department of Fish and Wildlife through CSULB’s graduates.  “I serve on eight scientific advisory boards which represents my support for the community,” she added.

The third tier of community connection is the link between her research and the Long Beach community. “I live down the street from the Colorado Lagoon and I’ve always looked for ways to give back to my community,” she said. “Before this research, that commitment was less focused with occasional service such as working for a food bank. Now I have the skill set to better serve my neighborhood.”

Whitcraft wants her students to complete their wetlands research with the ability to filter what is valid and what is not. “I want our students to value expertise,” she said. “That means knowing a little about statistics and a little about graph reading but it also means developing a sense of place. I ask my students to perform service learning with CSULB’s Center for Community Engagement. They give back to the community while learning career skills at CSULB.”

Whitcraft sees her wetlands commitment continuing.  “At the most basic level, someone pays me to go outside and play in the mud,” she laughed. “It’s what I did as a kid and what I do now.”