Saving the South Coast: Heal the Bay

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

The huge human population of southern California lives there in large part because of the mild desert climate and warm, inviting coast and ocean. The 4000 square miles of Los Angeles County alone hold a population of over 10.5 million. Several feature articles in this book discuss the results of historic, persistent abuse by government and development forces on the natural resources of the region. These abuses continue (seawalls, attempts to develop wetlands, fierce pollution problems) but dedicated, enlightened individuals and groups have learned to fight back with education, activism, and when all else fails, lawsuits. One of those dedicated groups iS Heal the Bay.

One of the most important natural resources in Los Angeles County is 266-square-mile Santa Monica Bay. The Bay and its environs provide habitat to about 5000 species. The 50-mile bay shoreline, while featured as an amenity for the people of L.A., was at the same time being used as a dumping ground. That coastline, consisting of 22 beaches and 9 communities, attracts a whopping 45 million visitors every year. As of 1985, the enormous Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant dumped millions of gallons of barely treated wastewater and sludge right into the Bay.

No wonder that in 1985 a small group of people discovered bay dolphins full of tumors, a large patch of virtually dead bay, and increasing complaints by swimmers and surfers of stomach flu, sinusitis and other illnesses. This small group led by Dorothy Green founded Heal the Bay, organized to bring the City of Los Angeles to task. They signed up members, held rallies and testified before regulatory agencies. The group also joined the Environmental Protection Agency lawsuit against the city. The weight of local public opinion and the lawsuit compelled the city to comply with the Clean Water Act and rebuild the sewer plant to treat water to a much higher standard. Today, the dead zone in the bay shows signs of life and swimming is safer, demonstrating that the problems of human impact on resources can be reversed. The battle remains far from over, and Heal the Bay continues to fight for a clean environment. Their next big battle is to clean up non-point pollution. This refers to runoff from the built upon surface of the city. The 5000 miles of channels, gutters and drains, devised to keep urban Los Angeles from flooding, dumps 30 billion gallons of runoff annually into the bay from 70 outfalls. The untreated runoff carries a brew of at least 160 toxic chemicals including motor oil and automotive fluids, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, animal wastes and human viruses. Presently the only response to this untreated mess is to advise no swimming near flowing outfalls and avoiding the water for 72 hours after a major storm.

Heal the Bay started the movement to clean up the Bay. The Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project continues to develop a comprehensive plan to ensure the long term health of Santa Monica Bay. In addition to developing the Bay Restoration Plan, this coalition of environmentalists, governments, scientists, businesses and the public conducts studies on the overall health of the bay and the impact of pollution on humans and resident species, and establishes educational programs for schools, groups, and municipalities about pollution prevention methods.

The work of healing the bay, now in its second decade, still must deal with huge public and bureaucratic obstacles. As just one example, in a recent report, Heal the Bay states that the local Water Quality Control Board in charge of enforcing clean water laws continually fails in its enforcement. The report says in part:

Only 14 penalty actions have occurred over the last six years, totaling a mere $578,000 in fines.

Over 99.5% of discharger violations do not result in the imposition of penalties.

The report concluded, “This is not aggressive enforcement and does not serve to deter future violations of the law. Penalties issued by the Board do not capture the economic benefit from noncompliance, as is required under federal and state enforcement policies. In essence, it pays to pollute if you are doing business in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. The Regional Board writes of or substantially reduces penalties if a business simply agrees to comply with the law. Enforcement response is slow and, when violations continue, the Regional Board rarely escalates its response.” The report goes on to outline serious non-enforcement of oil and chemical spills, illegal runoff violations, sewage spills and septic tank problems.

Despite the still dire conditions, those working hard to clean up and protect Santa Monica Bay have made great strides. They reversed the ugly human trend towards fowling the nest, created water safer for swimming, healthier wildlife, and held government agencies accountable. The goal in the next decade calls for a completely clean and safe environment for humans and wildlife alike.

Information in this article came from Heal the Bay and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project.

Update: For updated information and current reports on the successes and projects to clean Santa Monica Bay please check the following websites Heal the Bay & Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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