Talking Shit

Words speak louder than action in cleaning OC beaches

At two government meetings in north and south Orange County coastal towns last week, diverse groups of politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and environmentalists agreed that the time has come to keep more crap from fouling our ocean.

There was talk of locating sources of urban runoff—the toxic muck that fills creeks and rivers that flow untreated into the Pacific Ocean. There was talk of committing millions of dollars to pumping dry-weather runoff into sewage-treatment plants before flushing it out to sea. There was talk of forcing upstream cities to keep nasty shit from exiting their storm drains.

But in the end, all that talk in the Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach council chambers amounted to just that: talk. And at both the Oct. 5 Laguna Beach City Council meeting and the Oct. 7 Informational Beach Forum in Surf City, it was ultimately decided that what needs to be done first to address urban runoff and polluted beaches is this:

More talk.

Of course, while everyone's talking, more urban runoff is on its way, not only from existing sources, but also from more houses and businesses and industrial plants that are being planned, built, leased and sold.

So should any of this talk actually result in improvements to OC's creeks and concrete rivers, it may very well be to provide vastly more efficient poop chutes to send vastly more poop into the ocean.

Well, Isn't That Special?

The Oct. 5 ocean-pollution discussion in Laguna Beach did not come about because of a forward-thinking City Council. Instead, following weeks of planning, a coalition of local environmental groups hijacked the public-comment portion of the regular council meeting, trotting up speaker after speaker with rehearsed spiels that were emotional, educational and, at some points, threatening.

Many in attendance had addressed the council before and had been pretty much ignored. But things were different last week. Roger Butow, founder of Clean Aliso Creek & Beach Association (CACA), and Briggs Christian "Corky" Morris-Smith, president of Laguna's Surfrider Foundation chapter, enlisted a larger and more diverse cross section of locals to express resentment over government inaction on ocean pollution. Their presentations came in the wake of this summer's infamous beach-bacteria closures in Huntington Beach, a news hook that brought OCN television cameras and other media. And perhaps most important, the coalition of environmental and homeowners associations that has locked arms with Butow and Morris-Smith now includes Orange County CoastKeeper, the 8-month-old environmental group affiliated with Robert Kennedy Jr.'s litigious WaterKeeper Alliance.

By the time this ragtag group had finished its kabuki act, council members who had once openly despised some of the activists were now thanking them for swinging by and vowing to work with them to solve the problem, particularly at Aliso Beach, Orange County's dirtiest. "If you don't think we've taken you seriously before, I apologize for that," said Mayor Steve Dicterow. "We need creative solutions to these problems. We need to work together."

The actual upshot of it all, naturally, was more talk: a "special" meeting in November where all the participants will discuss ways to clean the waters.

OPERATION Sludge BAUGH

Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach), who chaired the Surf City meeting, tried without much success to stick it to county health officials for failing to reopen the beaches this year summer after tests showed bacteria levels had dropped to levels the state considers safe. The expert panelists he had assembled countered that county health officials acted correctly considering the day-to-day fluctuation of the counts, the widespread area of infection, and the fact that the source hasn't yet been discovered.

Baugh tried to argue that a new and stricter water-testing law closed beaches unnecessarily. But the panel turned that around to show the new law is working by identifying more strains of shit in the water that can sicken swimmers.

When Baugh said no reports surfaced of anyone falling sick during the bacteria scare, Heal the Bay's Mark Gold responded, "You're not going to see anything that says Huntington Beach has more of a case of the runs this week than you usually do."

Indeed, instead of turning this into a county punching-bag session, the meeting devolved—if you were Scott Baugh—to a unified call for ways to strengthen the bacteria-testing law. Gold noted the beach-closure regulations county health officials operate under do not match the language of the law, and he challenged Baugh to work in the Assembly to change that.

Good luck. So far this year, Baugh voted against a bill (later signed by Governor Gray Davis anyway) that establishes bacteriological standards on public beaches and against three other bills dealing with water pollution and urban runoff. (One of those bills passed the Assembly but was stalled in the state Senate by Irvine's Ross Johnson.) Baugh also missed two votes on legislation dealing with urban runoff and ocean pollution in the current session and has received a zero rating from the California League of Conservation Voters.

An aside: to ask questions of the panel, audience members wrote them on a clipboard passed around by a Baugh staffer. I asked how Baugh could represent a beach district and vote against all those ocean-protection bills. Baugh and the staffer whispered to each other, and then the staffer returned and explained that the assemblyman "sees a lot of bills" and can't remember them all, but that if I left my name and address, he'd respond in writing. I told the staffer I had copies of the bills with me, but he shook his head. I wrote my name and address for him. At press time, I'd yet to receive Baugh's answer.

All You Do to Me is Talk, Talk

The irritating kid in Phantom Menace will be in his 20s before state water-quality officials believe they can curtail urban runoff, and by then, it will have cost billions, they say. There is a multimillion-dollar county/Army Corps of Engineers study to fix Aliso Creek under way currently. They'll have recommendations on solving the problem in another five years.

Supervisor Jim Silva inadvertently provided a sobering insight to begin the Huntington Beach meeting. Hoping to emphasize his longtime interest in the problem, he underscored its apparent insolubility. He recalled that while serving as Huntington Beach's mayor, he stood in the same chambers with then-Assemblyman Gray Davis to discuss ways to stop urban runoff from polluting the ocean.

That was 12 years ago.

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