Beautiful Lake Wilson
Photo by Keith MayDeep in the bowels of Aliso Viejo, near the corner of Moulton Parkway and Niguel Road, obscured by overgrown brush, there's a large pond of dirty, smelly water that's come to be known as "Lake Wilson." That's Wilson as in Tom Wilson. Former Laguna Niguel Mayor Tom Wilson. Now Orange County Supervisor Tom Wilson.
"He's the one who voted to develop all these housing projects and still is on the Board of Supervisors," explained Roger von Butow, a man of many hats. Von Butow's the founder of the Clean Aliso Creek and Beach Association (yeah, they call it CACA), the leader of the Clean Water Now! coalition of local environmental groups, a builder by trade and, well, a man of many hats.
Leading a recent afternoon "Toxic Soup Tour" of four contaminated spots Clean Water Now! is monitoring, von Butow wore a camouflage hat at the first stop. He inexplicably donned a straw hat and a Nebraska ball cap at subsequent tour stops.
Come to think of it, considering von Butow & Associates' colorful banter and the horrific sights along the way, the tour had more than multiple head coverings in common with the Gong Show. However, if you gonged Lake Wilson and the other dirty pools, they wouldn't go away. Each illustrates—in garish color and with sepulchral smell—a simple fact of life in Orange County: the profitability of each residential and commercial development depends in some degree upon free sewage disposal in the Pacific Ocean.
What was most striking about the sites we visited was their anonymity. Thousands of commuters whiz by within yards of these poop chutes every day without realizing the pipes are there, sending disease-bearing urban runoff from homes and businesses to the Pacific Ocean. It gives a new meaning to a banner that was hanging on a Moulton Parkway light pole in Aliso Viejo: "Closer to the Beach: Aliso."
The first tour stop was J03P02. That's not the nickname von Butow and his buds have for the large pipe that dumps polluted water from Laguna Niguel's Kite Hill into Aliso Creek—they'd be more partial to "The Anus of Aliso"—but what that pipe is called on official county maps. Quick-witted bureaucrats call it "J03" for short.
This is the pipe that prompted the California Regional Water Quality Control Board/San Diego Region to slap the county, the city of Laguna Niguel and the Orange County Flood Control District with a cleanup and abatement order. "The discharge of urban runoff with high coliform bacteria levels threatens public health and creates a condition of pollution and/or nuisance," read the Dec. 28 order. Failure to clean up the runoff by Feb. 11 could yield fines of $500 to $5,000 per day against the government agencies.
J03P02 is just a slippery slope down from the intersection of Alicia Parkway and Aliso Creek Road. Someone had obviously been there before us. Spray-painted on concrete walls on either side of the pipe were the words "Mimi's Place" and arrows pointing to the aperture that was shooting out sewery-smelling water.
"I think maybe an incensed citizen is delivering a message to their mayor," said von Butow, referring to Laguna Niguel Mayor Mimi Walters.
Included in the trash resting on an island of silt a few yards from the pipe was an OC Weekly key chain. Ironically, that fits in perfectly with our new marketing motto, "OC Weekly: Polluting Orange County for going on five years."
From Laguna Niguel, the tour moved to Aliso Viejo, home to Lake Wilson. Along for the ride were three folks who saw von Butow the night before on KOCE/Channel 50's Real Orange public-affairs program. The Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer that carried them to Lake Wilson had yellow police tape dangling from the trailer hitch and bumper stickers on the back of the car that proclaimed, "No Jets at El Toro," "It's a Child, Not a Choice" and "Prevent Truth Decay: Read the Bible." The car's owner must have the most interesting mail in Orange County.
"Welcome to Creekside Park," states the sign outside Lake Wilson. But what's on the other side of an open chainlink fence leading to the park isn't so inviting. It looks like what we in the San Bernardino of my youth referred to as "the wash"—badlands that filtered mountain runoff into a cement flood-control channel.
"Hey, Roger, wonder where the shit in the water's coming from?" asked Mike Beanan of Clean Water Now! and the South Laguna Civic Association as he pointed to two VW bug-sized piles of manure at the end of the path leading into the park.
After battling hanging vines and branches for a few dozen feet, you come upon Lake Wilson, a murky brown lagoon whose surface and banks are home to trash, plastic balls, foam cups and plastic wrap. Known as "Dairy Fork," a pipe about 8 feet in diameter brings runoff from Lake Forest, and two pipes on either side of it in the 5-foot-diameter range feed wastewater from Laguna Hills and other South County areas to the pond.
"You know these retention basins they talk about as solving the water-quality problem?" asked Beanan. "This is a retention basin, otherwise known as a toxic hot spot."
But the worst was yet to come: the water flowing out of a pipe near Glenbrook Park in Aliso Viejo was moving as fast as that from an open fire hydrant. The green water forming in a pond outside the pipe featured a milky surface scum. Paint fumes were evident. Sure enough, in the brush on a steep hill above the pipe rested a paint roller and leaves covered with white paint.
The final tour stop was a large pipe near the corner of Moulton and Glenbrook that carries runoff from the new city of Laguna Woods (ne Leisure World). The water here didn't look any worse than anywhere else we'd visited, but von Butow said tests show it to be among the most contaminated the coalition has encountered. He calls this place "Polio Pond."
Part of the reason may be farther up the creek, near where children from a hillside Aliso Viejo neighborhood have built a jump for dirt bikes. The creek is dammed with logs, branches, leaves, shopping carts and a baby stroller.
The accessibility children have to all the pipes bothers von Butow, who warned that the cities and county could be liable if someone gets deathly sick from the tainted water or injured from the slippery, unfenced banks and channels.
Despite the dangers, Beanan does not believe cleaning up the toxic hot spots is insurmountable.
"This isn't a difficult problem," he said. "It's a plumbing problem. We want to be at the forefront in the state in solving the problem—and be treated accordingly."
Beanan, who is chairman of the city of Laguna Beach's recently formed Ocean Water Quality Advisory Board, is willing to work with anyone to achieve that end. Later that day, he met with members of the new Laguna Woods City Council, which has pledged to work with the coalition.
"Who else is going to do it? Not Supervisor Wilson, who got elected with developer dollars," Beanan said. "We're trying to beat the drum and raise awareness so someone greedier than us and smarter than us will step in and take this on."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.