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Chemical found in park water

Restoration projects may become more expensive due to presence of selenium, an element toxic in high amounts.

October 28, 2008|By Brianna Bailey

The discovery of high levels of a potentially toxic chemical element has put a kink in efforts to restore Big Canyon Creek Nature Park.

Recent water testing uncovered high levels of the element selenium in the creek and freshwater marshes in the nature park. Selenium is a chemical element that occurs naturally.

Trace amounts of the substance are part of the cellular function of most animals, but large amounts can be toxic to wildlife. High levels of selenium at Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in the San Joaquin Valley caused migratory birds there to die in large numbers in the 1980s. Selenium also caused deformities in bird embryos and hatchlings at Kesterson.

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Plans for restoration at Big Canyon Creek include restoring a freshwater pond in the area. State wildlife officials had been hopeful that the pond could become a habitat for the Western Pond Turtle, which is listed as a threatened species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

The pond poses a particular problem now that selenium has been discovered in the area, said Newport Beach Assistant City Manager Dave Kiff, who spoke at a City Council study session Tuesday about Big Canyon Creek.

“The problems is where you have a freshwater pond and the pond acts as a sink and the selenium builds up,” Kiff said.

Officials are looking at a number of ways to keep selenium levels low at Big Canyon Creek, the easiest and cheapest of which would be to do away with the freshwater pond all together, something that wouldn’t likely sit well with the California Department of Fish and Game, which wants to create more habitat for the Western Pond Turtle. The Wildlife Conservation Board of the Department of Fish and Game has committed to funding about half of the restoration efforts at Big Canyon Creek.

“That habitat is something they find important and this whole idea of having the habitat for the turtle,” Councilwoman Leslie Daigle said.

Several council members voiced skepticism Tuesday about creating an environment for the Western Pond Turtle at Big Canyon Creek, especially with the discovery of selenium in the area.

“I’m concerned we’re creating a habitat for something that isn’t there today ... and we’re creating an unnatural situation that we don’t know the impact of,” Councilman Don Webb said.

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