Up Sick Creek
How new developments in Laguna Beach will (and won't) deal with the pollution from Aliso Creek
Nine years ago, in a Weekly article titled "The Anus of Aliso Viejo," Matt Coker described the pollution levels in Aliso Creek, which flows from Modjeska Canyon to the ocean at Laguna Beach. It was, he said at that time, "a constant flow of urban runoff . . . pesticides, herbicides, dog shit, people shit and stuff you really don't want to know about."
Since then, not much has changed. Well, sort of. According to South Laguna Civic Association board member Mike Beanan, who gets in the ocean every week and swims underwater to see the damage for himself, "Dry-weather flow has gone from about 1.5 million gallons a day to 5 million gallons a day. . . . Hundreds of sea lions have died, and we've lost a lot of our kelp forests."
Aliso Canyon, through which the creek flows, is the site of ongoing developments by the Athens Group, a self-described "full-service real estate development company specializing in the development of upscale resort communities, luxury resort hotels, golf courses and related recreational properties." With the help of several million dollars in taxpayer money, it previously developed the Montage Resort & Spa and Treasure Island Park, where mobile homes once stood until Merrill Lynch bought the land and upped the rent, as chronicled by our own R. Scott Moxley, once again, nine years ago.
Now the Athens Group want to do more development on the Aliso Creek property, practically across the street from the Montage, and are presenting that project as environmentally sensitive. A "fact sheet" provided to media reads, "Our vision is to create a place for people to step back in time and get back to nature. We envision creating a natural and cultural sanctuary, a place to dwell, a refuge." Among the proposed developments:
• 250 acres designated as open space;
• A new inn, spa and series of cottages designed for a total capacity of 72 guests;
• A storm-water-quality management plan;
• Modification of the existing golf course and construction of a new practice facility; and
• A new subterranean parking structure with 507 spaces.
On May 10, Athens held an open house for the public to see the canyon and look at the group's plans; members of the public were free to take either the guided tour, or just walk anywhere they wanted. An article in the Laguna Beach Independent by William Hagle describes the crowd as mostly "polite" and "awed by the natural beauty," and it describes Athens vice president John Mansour talking about his intentions to protect the hillside and sensitive areas.
Last Monday, residents of Laguna Beach packed council chambers at Laguna Beach City Hall for a scoping hearing, technically an optional part of the process that Athens representative Jim Montgomery says he felt was appropriate "to solicit comments about environmental impacts, alternatives and objectives." Kevin Grant, project manager for the consulting firm PMC, hired by the city to prepare an environmental-impact report (EIR) on the project, told the crowd it was not his job to oppose or advocate a project, but to provide public disclosure of likely environmental impact.
As Grant's associates took notes on two giant note pads, 44 locals (estimated median age: 65) took turns at the microphone to express what they felt should be included in the EIR. Some comments seemed frivolous, like those of a red-faced gentleman who offered self-deprecating jokes about his golf game before complaining that the new course had holes that were too short for him to play without endangering others. Many of the rest were aesthetic: The new buildings will be too tall, block views, increase traffic. Others suggested that the proposed practice area be moved closer to the actual course, rather than using land farther up the canyon.
Far more noteworthy—"surprising" would be somewhat of an understatement, "shocking" only slightly hyperbolic—than what was said at that meeting, is what wasn't. Despite the fact that many locals clearly aren't happy about the concept of turning Aliso Creek into a backdrop for yet another South County resort spa and golf course and have legitimate concerns about the Athens Group's track record, none of the speakers managed to contradict the company's central claim that it will ultimately improve the quality of the creek. In fact, some of the people most involved in trying to clean up Aliso Creek say that this could be one of the rare examples of real-estate development in Orange County actually helping an endangered ecosystem.
* * *
Three days earlier, local activists Michael Hazzard and Roger Butow took the Weekly on a short walking tour of Aliso Creek, or at least the public part of it leading out of the golf course and into the sea.
Butow, a 60-ish ex-Marine with a showman-like quality, is a self-styled expert on watersheds, having attended, by his count, "over 100 watershed conferences and workshops." He used to give "Toxic Soup Tours" of pollution hot spots in and around Laguna and South County, until it became too dangerous to do so; nowadays, he says, he'll only give the full tour if we wear rubber gloves and boots and get a Hepatitis A vaccination first. He has with him a T-shirt for his organization, the Clean Aliso Creek Association—whose acronym, he says, has kept him from appearing on certain TV broadcasts.
Armed with pictures of a clean creek from the '20s, he invites his guests to compare these shots to the current reality. Swirling ponds of bubbling algae pervade, looking especially nasty, while wooden and concrete boundaries around the creek frequently appear either decaying or slapdash—walls are held together with railroad ties the same way someone might attach a flier to a telephone pole using staples.
But there are signs of life in the creek: fish darting around, seeming perfectly at home, even under the noxious swirls. Isn't that a sign of viability? Not so fast. "Many people are seeing fish in here, and they think that means it's a viable, healthy, living stream," Butow says. "Carp are low-oxygen species. They can practically live in a post-nuclear condition. They are not high-oxygen-demand fish, and they're really not a marker of a healthy ecosystem. If anything, their preponderance indicate[s] they're probably the only fish species that can live in this kind of environment."
The kind of fish Hazzard is concerned about is the steelhead trout, once thought extinct and still protected under the Endangered Species Act. Hazzard is a former stream-team coordinator for Trout Unlimited, the 50-year-old cold-water-fisheries restoration organization, and a current "commander" of the Steelhead Militia, an organization based out of Saddleback College founded to protect the steelhead. He became an environmental activist following a swim in the Upper Oso reservoir to retrieve an outboard motor. "I went from four pages of medical records to [having] sores the size of a dime," he says. "I broke out in hives, later sores the size of a quarter [that] ate down to the muscle tissue, stayed open for six months, lost 70 pounds. It looked like I had full-blown AIDS." And that's when he says he called the county to report the sickness and was told "you can't get sick in the waters of Orange County."
After that, he says, he called Santa Clarita water management; the call was misrouted and went out to the sewage-treatment plant, which supplied the water for the reservoir. "And when I told the guy where I was, his response was, 'Oh my God, you're still alive?'" Hazzard recalls. "And that's when he said, 'You've got to tell your doctors what's in this water,' and that's when I started turning the corner and getting better. It took me five years to fully recover."
While we observe the dark-colored fish, which Butow dubs "cockroaches of the creek," something else comes into view. It appears to be a fish of a different sort, silver rather than black like the carp, lying on its side, motionless—possibly dead, or at least starved for oxygen.
"Hazzard, I think that might be a steelhead!" exclaims Butow. Hazzard proves himself a dedicated militiaman: Despite the stench of the water and Butow's warnings about both the pathogens and toxins contained within, Hazzard steps into the creek to get a closer look. He's almost there when the seemingly dead creek denizen stirs back to life and flees, which apparently is "what a steelhead would do."
Butow sees the fish come to a stop farther down, but Hazzard refuses to "chase it around."
The Laguna Beach Independent quoted the Athens Group's Mansour saying of the steelhead, "That's a rare fish. We're not planning for it."
As Hazzard rinses off his wet legs, Butow opines that, "These guys would flip out, especially if we found it!"
At the scoping hearing three days later, Hazzard stated he's 99 percent sure it was a steelhead, citing OC Weekly as having been there with him. He also revealed that as a result of stepping into the creek, a cut on his toe became infected and swelled up, but he's fine now.
Legally, Hazzard says, the Athens Group needs to make alterations in the creek bed to allow for the steelhead, which would require a 1602 permit ("Notification of Lake or Streambed Alteration") from the Army Corps of Engineers. "It would be easy if they just work with us," he says, "and they'll have to work with us because we're not going away."
You might think that Butow would be wholeheartedly against the Athens project, especially to hear him talk about how he dreams of a "super-El Niño" to wash away all human development in the area.
But you'd be wrong. Butow believes that Athens' plans to elevate the floodplain with concrete structures are "the only way to redevelop this site." Though he'd rather see zero human presence whatsoever, he believes the current developers to be about as good as one could expect, saying, "Since the state, county and/or Laguna Beach couldn't afford to purchase the old resort when it was for sale, there is no other solution." He derides many of his fellow environmentalists as "idiots [who] wouldn't know a watershed from a waterspout. Thus most current criticism/input comes from resentment and ignorance. Ask them to define water quality, and they haven't a clue."
As far as he's concerned, the problem is farther inland and has been since the city of Mission Viejo was developed. He reckons the area controlled by Athens accounts for about 1 percent of the total creek pollution.
"I'm not saying these people are wasting their time," he hastens to add. "They can make that 1 percent more effective!"
* * *
"We do not feel that [Athens] are good environmental stewards, and they are gonna need a lot of monitoring," says Penny Alia, an activist with the Sierra Club and the Laguna Beach Surfrider Chapter. Approximately a decade younger than Butow, she's tanned and fit, looking like someone who hikes into nature on a regular basis.
Alia is conducting a tour of her own. Butow doesn't consider Alia to be as knowledgeable as he on watershed issues, saying she's "an example of one of my students turning on me." To this, she laughs and responds, "Roger's everybody's mentor, in case you hadn't noticed!"
But we are not here to focus directly on the water, but rather another area whose fate is entwined with the creek's: Hobo Aliso ridge. Also owned by the Athens Group, it was scheduled to be included in part of the Aliso Canyon EIR, though locals and council members at the scoping hearing sounded off resoundingly in favor of separate EIRs, given how different the areas are.
The dirt needed to elevate the floodplain is going to come from scouring the ridge, and that doesn't sit too well with residents. As Alia drives us down a narrow residential street, she points out that this is one of only two outlets to the main road and that "they are scheduled to export at least 3,000 truckloads of dirt that'll have to come down these streets."
In the process of clearing this area to get the dirt for the floodplain (and possible development there that is as-yet unspecified), Athens hasn't necessarily treated the ridge too well. The location is home to a rare plant called the big-leaved crownbeard; Alia says this is "one of the only areas on the entire planet where this plant is, and it's an endangered species" as of 1996. In 2005, Athens cleared it out, ostensibly for brush-fire prevention, which caused them to run afoul of the California Coastal Commission. According to commission enforcement officer Andrew Willis, "We would need much more than notice for something like that; it wouldn't be something we could approve." He says the city filed a nuisance abatement order after the plants were already cleared, adding that "crownbeard is not exactly a hazardous plant when it comes to fire."
Other violations with regard to the ridge, listed in Coastal Commission documents (obtained by Alia and provided to the Weekly) include "removal of major vegetation; placement of approximately 5,500 sandbags, sand/gravel berms, filter fabric over the berms and plastic discharge pipes; and grading to create building pads and roads in an environmentally sensitive habitat area."
Resolution of these issues is still pending, and perhaps as a result, Alia is skeptical that Athens has any positive environmental plans for the creek and canyon. In response to Athens' promise to improve water quality, she says, "How will they do that—did they tell you? They won't tell you much."
Joan Gladstone, community liaison for the Athens Group, initially agreed to take questions in writing from the Weekly. The e-mailed list included inquiries about the steelhead trout and the coastal commission violations. "Thank you for your interest," Gladstone responded, "however, we can't help you with this particular story."
* * *
Two years ago, federal and county agencies sought an estimated $45 million in federal funding for cleaning Aliso Creek as part of what became known as the SUPER-project—an acronym for Stabilization, Utility Protection and Environmental Restoration. Congressman John Campbell told Laguna Beach's Coastline Pilot, "I was interested in this project for years when I was in the state Legislature; now I am in a position to do something about it." Yet the fiscally conservative Republican ultimately didn't sign on to the proposal.
Laguna Beach City Council member Toni Iseman says of Campbell, "I was embarrassed for him. He didn't bring home the bacon."
Marilyn Thoms, manager of environmental engineering with the OC Watersheds, gives things a more diplomatic spin: "We have secured some of the funds: $1 million from Department of Water Resources, and another $4.6 million from the state water board. We continue to work with the federal Army Corps of Engineers to get the federal costs." She doesn't blame Campbell, but she says that the congressman ultimately didn't support it because there wasn't a lot of money to go around and existing projects took priority over new ones. The Athens Group has promised to help in the effort to obtain the rest of the funding.
Alia, meanwhile, finds the whole thing to be a Trojan Horse, calling the proposal "nothing more than a utilitarian project to rescue all the sewer pipes that are exposed." As part of Surfrider, she's been testing the seawater, right at the beach into which Aliso Creek flows, for enterococcus bacteria, which Surfrider's website calls "a valuable bacterial indicator for determining the extent of fecal contamination of recreational surface waters."
Mike Fennessey at the Orange County Health Care Agency's water-quality program, which issues advisories when bacterial contamination becomes too high, says that 104 colony-forming units of enterococcus per 100 milliliters of beach water sampled is the level at which health warnings need to be posted. In August 2004, an independent test by Surfrider measured a whopping level of 24,196 units per 100 milliliters at a storm drain by Treasure Island. Fennessey's supervisor, Larry Honeybourne, says that while Surfrider is usually reliable, their tests do not have to be lab-certified in the same way official tests are. While stating that his results from around that time show the seawater to have been "in compliance," he also points out that the agency does not test levels of bacteria in storm drains, which are commonly quite high; California has no state standards for fresh water, Honeybourne says, just seawater.
(More recent readings show just how variable bacteria levels can be: This year, the OC Health Care Agency measured enterococcus levels at central Aliso Beach as low as 4 units per 100 milliliters on April 29, and in excess of 980 on May 8.)
Generally, the agency will not mandate closing the beach for a high bacteria count unless there's an actual sewage spill, or a mysterious contagion for which it can't locate the immediate source. The guests at the Montage Resort probably don't realize what flows directly into the azure waters below them, which certainly look beautiful on a clear day.
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But will the Athens development make the creek water better, or worse? When pressed on the issue, all environmentalists interviewed for this story, as much as they may not get along with Butow, ultimately agree with his assessment that the pollution levels probably won't get worse and might even get slightly better—one specific positive step being the clearing of the non-native plant arundo, which chokes out native vegetation.
But Mike Beanan of the South Laguna Civic Association argues that isn't good enough. "Is 'a little bit better' what we aim for in life?" he asks, semi-rhetorically. "The same engineering firm that's doing the Aliso Creek Golf Course for the Athens Group—Geosyntec is their name—they did Pelican Hills for Newport Coast. And they designed a system that catches every drop of storm water, up to a 50-year storm event. And they're going to capture everything on the property, and none of it's going to go in the ocean. So we're saying, well, if you guys can do that level of sophistication, why can't you do it for the Athens Group?"
For video footage of Roger Butow and Michael Hazzard at Aliso Creek, go to blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing.