It’s too shallow to swim in (not that you would want to), it’s too salty to drink (assuming you could ignore the scum), and the dock is disconnected (covered in bird droppings, too). Yet, the Campus Lagoon is more than a pretty face covered in algae and guano – it’s home for wetland wildlife and a work in progress.

The lagoon, a u-shaped shallow pond between the UCen and the ocean, is a favorite subject of campus photographers looking for that perfect sunset shot of this campus by the sea – it’s not the sea, of course, but it’s close enough for a brochure. UCSB even uses the lagoon as a backdrop for its graduation ceremonies but, for good reason, the festivities are always on the Faculty Club’s lawn, well upwind from the lagoon.

The smell: an odor freshmen often compare unfavorably to rotten eggs, a pungent aroma that’s caused decades of freshmen to call that scenic backdrop “the bog of eternal stench.” Three years ago, a candidate running for Associated Students president as “Mad Cow” vowed to, through some power not previously granted to A.S. presidents, pave over the lagoon and forever banish the stench. It’s a product of death, decay, algae blooms and bird droppings.

Wayne Ferren, the director of the Museum of Systematics and Ecology, helps to oversee the lagoon. He said the worst of the smell has nothing to do with the lagoon. The culprit, he said, is the plastic dock the rowing team keeps in the lagoon – seagulls perch on the dock and salt it with guano, creating a scent that even college administrators can’t ignore.

“The chancellor and his gang wanted it moved for commencement,” Ferren said. “What’s causing the odor, the dock, was near the commencement green, so they moved it down and it hasn’t been moved back.”

The dock is beached in the shallows near San Miguel Residence Hall, ignored by the gulls and only visited occasionally by pelicans. Ferren said he’s hoping to convince the rowing team to remove the dock for the three-quarters of the year when the team isn’t using the dock. That would take care of part of the smell – the rest of it is trickier to deal with.

The lagoon is what biologists like to call “nutrient rich”: full of dead plants, raccoon poop and other miscellaneous biomass washed into the lagoon through the eight storm drains that feed into the lagoon. The rotting slurry makes a fine meal for the lagoons dominant form of algae, enteromorpha intestinalis.

“It forms these big masses – it is called intestinalis because it looks like intestines, these big strings floating in the lagoon,” Ferren said. “The quantity is perhaps more than you might expect because of all the nutrients in the water.”

UCSB is currently working on ways to make the storm drain runoff slightly less nutrient rich and is planning on installing an organic filtration system, Ferren said. The efforts are part of an ongoing project to repopulate the lagoon and the land around it with species native to California. The restoration project, Ferren said, will help with some of the smell, but not all of it.

“The lagoon is always going to have some natural odor to it because of the system that we have,” Ferren said. “I like to think that it’s much better than it has been.”

“I do want to stress that it’s not all that bad,” he said.

Before the ’70s, UCSB didn’t pump water into the lagoon year-round and it was a better habitat for shorebirds. However, the lagoon would dry out without rain, producing a damp, decaying salt marsh and an odor that could only be described as “profound.” After years of complaints, the school decided to flood the lagoon year round with leftover water from the Marine Science Institute on the lagoon’s east shore. Fully filled, the lagoon is still a habitat for shorebirds like snowy egrets, great egrets, great blue herons, green herons, black-crowned night herons, ducks and, of course, seagulls. There’s also a thriving population of small fish running the gamut from killifish to long-jawed mud suckers.

Then there’s the contributions of students. Several students are involved in the restoration efforts, helping to manage and clean the lagoon. Other students are, unofficially, involved in screwing up the lagoon by throwing trash and larger objects into it.

“Last year we took out maybe a dozen bikes, some chairs, some tables,” Ferren said. “We had a big lagoon cleanup effort. We went in with hooks and lines, pulled out everything we could find, loaded up a couple of trucks and took ’em away.”

Two years ago some students, inspired by the lagoon’s scenery and a low budget, filmed a spoof of the “Survivor” television series on the lagoon “island” (it’s not really an island, more like a bulge from the shoreline by Campus Point).

“I’m not sure we’d repeat that experience again,” Ferren said. “We had trouble with access issues, but the final blow was when they wanted to spray paint the vegetation green. We were in a California dry period and it wasn’t green enough for them, so they wanted to use a vegetable dye – insisting that it was harmless – but I couldn’t somehow bring myself to approve the spraying of the vegetation green. They also had problems because they were supposed to be on an island but the whole time they were here it was foggy. I never did see the film.”

Despite bicycle flotsam and student jetsam, Ferren said the lagoon isn’t the wasteland or polluted puddle some people think it is – it’s perfectly healthy and it’s only going to get healthier.

“There’s a bright future ahead for an improved management structure, an improved habitat and improved water quality,” he said.

The Campus Lagoon will never be tap water, though, or even the ocean.

“I would say that the water quality is not as bad as some people may think it is – but we don’t have any studies determining what the bacterial counts are,” Ferren said. “Personally, I wouldn’t suggest that anyone swim in the lagoon.”