By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Photo by Keith MayOne recent summer day, I took a short tour of Aliso Creek. I emphasize "short": the chronically polluted waterway runs some 14 miles from isolated canyons in the Santa Ana Mountains through several South County cities to the whiter-than-white sands of Aliso Beach. I walked about 100 yards.
Starting on the sand at Aliso Beach with the ocean at my back, I walked toward historic Aliso Creek Bridge (built in 1926). The first 25 feet or so of creek water looked like lemon-lime Gatorade. A little further inland, it was Brisk Iced Tea. Finally, directly under the bridge, it was Nestle Quik chocolate milk.
If only it was chocolate milk. The steady stream of water flowing from a drainage pipe above looked, smelled and, um, tasted clean. But where that water hit the creek, a sulfurish foam bubbled up. A whiff of that foam collected on one finger had the odor of petroleum. A few minutes later, my finger turned pink. An hour later, it was bright red.
The skin discoloration shouldn't have been a surprise. A July 31 county report concluded that urban runoff dumping into the creek from storm drains in Aliso Viejo, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest and Mission Viejo violates state safe-swimming water standards—at some spots by a factor of 100.
That's not what's weird: considering the rapid development along Aliso Creek, it's bound to be a mess. What's strange is that Aliso Beach—the beach into which Aliso Creek offers up the toxic secrets of inland life—is testing clean for the first time in years.
According to Larry Honeybourne, head of water-quality testing for the county Health Care Agency, Aliso Beach has pretty much met state clean-water standards for about a year—the exception being after an April sewage spill and any time after rainfall; beaches automatically close for 72 hours after it rains.
"It's been kind of interesting down there," Honeybourne admits. "We've not seen the kind of problems we've seen with sewage spills in the past, and we haven't seen a lot of water-quality violations there."
Which begs these questions: If Aliso Creek is polluted from top to bottom—and everybody agrees that it is—why is Aliso Beach testing clean? Is it time to declare Aliso Beach healthy?
Honeybourne said lifeguards report the character of Aliso Beach has changed since the pier there was torn down in 1999. The sand and wave action seem different now. He surmised that recent high water-quality marks might have something to do with that, as well as steps cities such as Laguna Niguel have taken to reduce the urban runoff that enters storm drains emptying into Aliso Creek.
But he conceded that no one in county government knows for sure why a beach once ranked among Orange County's dirtiest is suddenly testing crystal clean.
Environmentalists question the accuracy of the county's water testing. They note that water samples are collected at five points along the beach—but not at the Aliso Creek mouth. Then, too, it could be that the small amount of polluted water dribbling from the creek isn't enough to flunk the beach on any given test day but harms the beach over time—a kind of poisonous Chinese water torture. And don't forget those 40 days out of the year the county doesn't test: when it rains.
"Everyone thinks about what's coming out of the creek every day, but it could be that all the environmental damage occurs during those 40 days of rainfall," said Mark Gold, executive director of the Santa Monica-based, nonprofit, clean-water group Heal the Bay.
Whether the water tests clean, there's anecdotal evidence that the beach is a mess. Scale the hills overlooking Aliso Beach, and you'll notice a thick, algae-colored plume that extends from the creek mouth 50 yards into the ocean before turning downcoast the length of the beach. Local poo fighters call this "the dead zone."
"They've made a desert out of my ocean," says Roger von Butow, a longtime critic of overdevelopment and government inaction when it comes to Aliso Creek and Aliso Beach. "It's dead out there. A continual poisoning of the beach is going on."
Mike Baker of Dana Point Dive N' Surf confirmed von Butow's assessment. "I don't know anyone who even dives there anymore; the water's pretty dirty," said Baker. "It's basically dead out there because of the pollution. You don't dive there—definitely not."
Von Butow doubts Aliso Creek will ever get clean. Despite a joint effort between government agencies and water districts to improve the creek, the tens of millions of dollars it will take to get plans off the drafting board have not been secured. Meanwhile, the pollution keeps coming. Land along the creek banks is 75 percent developed; building plans already in the pipeline will bring that to 82 percent by 2015.
No one's even started to talk about how to handle the additional urban runoff, and von Butow hints at a conspiracy of silence involving powerful tourism and development interests: "This is Jaws meets Chinatown."