The Santa Barbara City Council funded a study to find solutions to the problems of the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge’s 29-acre lake, which has poor water quality and frequent odors.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

Despite its scenic beauty and bevy of recreational opportunities, the Andrée Clark Bird Refuge, located in eastern Santa Barbara by Highway 101 and Cabrillo Boulevard, has had odor issues, poor water quality and declining wildlife habitats since the 1930s.

As City Councilman Bendy White put it at the council’s meeting on Tuesday: “This is just one of those Rubik’s Cube elements in our city that we have not been able to figure out.”

After decades of struggling to address the lake’s deteriorating state, however, the city moved forward this week with funding for the first steps in a new strategy to revitalize the area.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to provide $151,000 to fund a new study for the lake and prepare conceptual design plans for the course of action that ultimately comes out of the study.

“Our goals with a project at the bird refuge are to decrease those odor events, improve our water quality, improve the bird and aquatic habitat, and improve aesthetics — while maintaining flood protection and in a cost-effective approach,” said Cameron Benson, the city’s creeks division manager.

The entire salt marsh is 42 acres of open space, including a 29-acre lake and recreation spaces.

It was originally dredged in the 1920s to provide a year-round water feature in the city and improve the habitat of water birds.

According to the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the lake suffers from low dissolved-oxygen levels, cyanobacteria blooms, the drought, and too few storms to flush it out.

The lack of flushing and the lake’s shallow depth — ranging from only 2-to-5 feet — have rendered conventional improvement techniques ineffective, Benson told the council.

The city’s Creeks Division began closely monitoring the lake’s water quality four years ago. Jill Murray, the creeks division’s water quality research coordinator, told the council that a program intended to increase the amount of dissolved oxygen in the lake failed due to the little room the lake’s shallowness provided.

The rotten eggs smell often emitted from the lake, Murray explained, comes from hydrogen sulfide created when the water runs out of dissolved oxygen. Another frequent odor, an earthy or fishy one, she said, is generated by algae blooms that form from the buildup of nutrients deposited in the lake.

Studying restoration alternatives will be Anchor QEA, a planning, engineering and science firm that will also prepare conceptual design plans for a project.

Anchor’s work would specifically include biological surveys, hydraulic modeling, flood-zone mapping, coastal-process modeling, structural engineering, and topographic and bathymetric surveying, according to the Parks and Recreation Department.

Aside from leaving the refuge as it is, one alternative is to modify the lake’s weir at Cabrillo Boulevard to increase flushing, as well as restore a dune habitat on the other side of Cabrillo Boulevard to protect nearby volleyball courts from lake water that would eventually flow into the ocean.

A weir is a barrier that alters a water body’s flow characteristics, and the lake’s weir would serve as its valve to the ocean.

That option would cost roughly half a million dollars, Benson said, though any plan’s cost would vary depending on the details.

Another alternative incorporates the latter, but also partially dredges the lake for more depth while filling in parts to reduce its surface area.

That option would also include adding more recreational features to the refuge, like a trail circling the lake, and would cost somewhere around $2 million.

Benson said that the Parks and Recreation Department already has money set aside for a significant project at the refuge, and part of the planning process includes looking for grant funding.

With Anchor’s work slated to begin next month, the city is planning two public meetings to gather the public’s input.

Final concept design plans are expected next May, Benson said, which will be followed by writing grant applications and acquiring the many requisite permits and approvals.

Construction itself is expected to begin mid or late 2019.

Whether or not the final project will be a permanent solution — or even one that only needs to be applied infrequently — would become clearer with the results of Anchor’s study, Benson said.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at sgoldman@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.