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Wetland area that was damage by California oil spill could take years to recover

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The oil spill off the Southern California coast is threatening fragile coastal ecosystems. Crude oil spewed from an underwater pipeline is now showing up on shorelines as far south as San Diego, roughly a hundred miles from where the leak began. NPR's Nathan Rott visited a polluted wetland that could take years to recover.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Talbert Marsh is nestled beside the Pacific Coast Highway, just south of Huntington Beach. It's a low-lying strip of still water just a hundred yards from the coast. And on a normal day, you'd hear the squawks, trills and chirps of shorebirds over the steady hum of traffic. Now...

(SOUNDBITE OF SCRAPING)

ROTT: The sounds of cleanup provide the ambience, with crews scrubbing sticky tar off of skiffs and dragging long yellow containment booms and popcorn-white lines of absorbent material over the marsh's oil-covered shores and into its oil-covered waters.

JOHN VILLA: There's a couple of pie-eyed grebes (ph) swimming in the contaminated water.

ROTT: John Villa is the executive director of the nonprofit conservancy that owns this 127 acres of wetland, and he says there is oil throughout all of it.

VILLA: You can see it right there. It's also on that rock, so it's all through here.

ROTT: Crude oil entered through an inlet to the ocean, and a seven-foot-high tide pushed it over shores and rocks like the one he just pointed to. Pillars for a small bridge over the inlet are stained black six feet above the water's surface. In the first days, Villa said, there was so much oil in this wetland that the fumes from it made his eyes water. Cleanup crews have removed a lot of it, and a sand berm over the inlet is keeping more oil from intruding, but the damage is severe.

VILLA: So it's going to be a long-term cleanup.

ROTT: Years, he says, if not more - it took some of the wildlife and vegetation in this marsh a decade to recover from an oil spill that occurred here in 1990, and a clock now is ticking.

VILLA: And we get anywhere between 88, 90, 92 different species that come into our marsh.

ROTT: But many of them aren't here yet.

VILLA: We were really lucky. We hit a sweet spot. It was right after nesting season and just before all the migratory birds come down, so that's why there's not a lot of birds in the care center being treated right now.

ROTT: Only about three dozen oiled birds were recovered in the first week of the spill, 10 of which were already dead. The spill in 1990, which happened during the migration, saw roughly 1,500 animals treated and more than 3,000 birds killed. Joy Zedler (ph) has spent more than 50 years working on wetlands and their recovery, most of that in Southern California. And she says that while birds and wildlife attract a lot of the attention during oil spills like this, and rightfully so, there are overlooked benefits of marshes and wetlands that also deserve public attention.

JOY ZEDLER: There's a small amount of Earth that is wetland really less than probably 9%, and yet wetlands are responsible for up to 40% of global ecosystem services.

ROTT: That means providing habitat and food absorbing climate-warming emissions like methane, filtering water, cleaning it.

ZEDLER: They also reduce flooding.

ROTT: A 2014 study found that wetlands provide over $26 trillion in services globally every year, but wetlands are critically endangered. Humans have drained them for agriculture, paved over them to build. In California, more than 90% of the state's wetlands have already been destroyed. Oceanside places like Talbert Marsh usually end up as high rises or resorts. Zedler spent most of her career trying to rehabilitate fragile wetlands like the kind that have now been polluted near Huntington Beach.

ZEDLER: You're talking about processes that take decades to a half century, a century to recover.

ROTT: That is why the spill is so troubling to ecologists. Full recovery may not happen in our lifetime.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Huntington Beach. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.