The Anus of Aliso Viejo

Aliso Creek once ran only after storms. But years of development along the creek-which runs from Modjeska Canyon in Cleveland National Forest to Aliso Beach in southern Laguna-have created a constant flow of urban runoff. By the time the slime empties into the Pacific, it includes pesticides, herbicides, dog shit, people shit and stuff you really don't want to know about. So when Orange County bureaucrats and officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers strolled into town on March 17 for a community workshop on their $1.2 million study on ways to improve the Aliso Creek watershed, Laguna residents were looking for blood.

Several expressed doubts that multimillion-dollar proposals to widen, lengthen and re-slope the creek would ever get funded. Representatives from the environmental group Surfrider Foundation expressed resentment that the government plans to retrofit the creek-which helped make Aliso Beach the second dirtiest in the U.S.-rather than treat water upstream or clamp down on those dumping crap into it.

The government suits were unable to assure the crowd gathered in the Laguna Beach City Council chambers that the study will be completed as planned by March 2000, that all the affected agencies will pay for projects called for in the study or that those projects would solve the water-quality problems. “The more we get into the study,” county project manager Larry Paul admitted, “the more we find out we don't know.”

For those demanding an iron-fist approach to polluters, Paul noted: “There is no smoking gun. You can't prove whose debris or whose bad water is in that creek.” For that reason, he said, educating the public alongside the creek must coincide with efforts to improve the watershed. “The practices we have as homeowners, of residents of this watershed, are such that it is causing a lot of this degradation, so we need to make that a focus of our attention,” Paul said.

But Wayne Baglin, a former Laguna Beach city councilman who sits on the state Regional Water Quality Control Board and is chairman of an agency that operates three local sewage-treatment plants, doubts mere education is the answer. Dogs will continue to crap in the streets, waste-treatment plants will back up, chemicals will be sprayed on lawns and golf courses, and smog-spewing cars will travel the new toll roads. And planners, developers and elected officials will still do their part to develop along the channel like there's no tomorrow.

“I don't hear anything . . . that is going to protect our kids who are out there [in the ocean] right now,” said Baglin. Worse, he believes agencies such as his Aliso Water Management Agency will back out of the watershed project once they learn of the steep price tag.

But there's another possibility. Thanks to “good ol' President Nixon,” Baglin said, individuals and government agencies can crack down on polluters if someone would only enforce the federal Clean Water Act. And when it comes to Aliso Creek, there is a smoking gun. The county tested water flowing from a pipe at Aliso Parkway into Aliso Creek and discovered “substantial, significant pollution coming out of that pipe,” according to Baglin. (Would that pipe be what ancient Romans would have called the anus of Aliso Viejo?)

Someone asked if anyone has ever been fined for polluting the creek. No, answered Baglin. “My problem is for the past few years, the political climate in California has been to appoint to boards people who do not believe in fining other public agencies,” he said. “I think that under Governor Gray Davis, you're going to see a major turnaround with the appointments he puts on boards, and we're going to see fines being placed against sewage-treatment agencies and cities. Things are going to be happening in the next few years that never happened during the-and I'm oversimplifying it-Republican years.”

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