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Turning the Tide
Santa Barbara Magazine
by Russ Spencer
Spring 1999

The scene at the Coral Casino got pretty surreal when people began throwing $100 bills at Jean-Michael Cousteau. He had just raffled off two signed first editions of his father's book The Silent World for $5,000 each, but more was needed to pay for sophisticated DNA testing that would pinpoint the sources of pollution in the South Coast creeks. Cousteau challenged the friendly crowd by slapping the first hundred down atop the podium, and now people where flocking forward, cash and checks in hand. Before long, a pile amounting to almost $6,000 rose before him, fluffy and green like a currency salad.

Was this an environmental fund-raiser or a revival meeting?

Santa Barbarans have always been evangelical about the environment. But the fervency with which the effort to clean up our ocean water has taken over the country is unprecedented. Pollution of the oceans is a global crisis, but it hit home in Santa Barbara last summer, when visitors and residents alike were shocked to find beaches closed, the waves contaminated. Writer Hillary Hauser and mariculturist Jeff Young organized Heal the Ocean to work on the problem and three months later threw the Coral Casino fund-raiser. A standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 paid $50 each to get in, bought more than $4,000 worth of T-shirts, and with a $10,000 contribution from Ian Schrager Hotels, the night netted more than $50,000.

Outside on Butterfly Beach, three surfers caught waves in the sunset. Cousteau, looking like Poseidon with his long white hair and flowing beard, could see them from the podium. He had moved to Santa Barbara twenty years before to find an ocean that hadn't been ruined like the Mediterranean, and he wasn't about to move again.

"If Santa Barbara can't do it, nobody else is going to do it," he declared. "The world is watching Santa Barbara perhaps more closely than you think."

The worst kind of tragedies don't fall like a gauntlet. They happen slowly, insidiously, barely noticeable at the start. In early 1969, the blowout of UNOCAL's Platform A just off Carpinteria woke Santa Barbara County residents, and the world, to the dangers of oil development. But there was no way to see the buildup of fecal coliform bacteria. Surfers got rashes and sore throats and once in a while hepatitis. A mariculture operation off Hendry's Beach had to close because its oysters were tainted by sewage. But only a few people were paying attention.

In the mid-1990s, concerned by reports of ocean pollution in other countries, a few scientists in the Environmental Health Division of the county's Department of Public Health asked for money to monitor the ocean water off our shores, but the Board of Supervisors consistently voted against them. During budget hearings in fall 1995, the Surfrider Foundation turned up the heat, but the supervisors narrowly rejected an ocean water testing program.

A year later, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental organization based in New York City, embarrassed Santa Barbara County in front of the world. The NDRC's scathing report lumped us in with five other "beach bums" worldwide, including Puerto Rico and Mississippi, slamming the county for promoting the beauty of its beaches, reaping the economic benefits of more than a million tourists a year, but neglecting the simple decency of checking the water in our ocean to make sure it is clean.

Even then, the board of supervisors hemmed and hawed. Finally, an ad hoc group called CURE (Clean Up Rincon Effluent) announced that if the county didn't take action, they would put up $12,000 of their own money to pay for ocean monitoring on the Rincon, a world-famous surfing break. CURE's Joel Smith, son of legendary outdoorsman Dick Smith, now admits they didn't have the money. But at that point, he says, they were desperate. They would have tried anything to get the county to budge.

With their backs against the wall, the supervisors came up with the money, and the ocean monitoring program finally began. Almost immediately, ocean lovers found many of the county's beaches, from Rincon to the Guadalupe Dunes, being closed for pollution dangerous to swimmer's health. The dirty truth was finally out.

Under the new protocol, seventeen beaches were checked every Monday, a county environmental health worker wading knee-deep into the surf and collecting 100 milliliters, about a half cup, of the water swirling around his legs. Results came back after three days, and if the water sample failed to meet standards, the beach was checked a second time. If it failed again, it was closed. Many beaches were closed during the height of the tourist season. Between September 1996 and September 1998, East Beach was closed almost half the time. Arroyo Burro (Hendry's) and Rincon were either closed or on advisory nearly half the time, as was Arroyo Quermada, which lies downstream from the Tajiguas landfill. Distant Jalama State Beach, which seems like a pristine natural refuge, turned out to be heavily polluted by a cattle operation along Jalama Creek. Even beaches with no nearby creek or sewage-plant outfall, like Carpenteria State Beach, suffered regular closures and advisories. The problem was not only undeniable, it was frightening.

Then came Hillary Hauser. On assignment for this very magazine, working on a story about surfboard shapers, she stopped in to see Clyde Beatty at his surfboard shop near Stearns Wharf. What she should be doing a story on, Beatty chaffed, was the abominable ocean pollution problem. Hauser, who grew up on the beach at Fernald Point and swims in the ocean every day, took his advice to heart. On August 9, she published an essay on the subject that took up two pages of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Equal parts impassioned personal treatise and fervent call to arms, Hauser's article became the catalyst that Santa Barbara County had waited for. That night Hauser's telephone began to ring off the hook , and it didn't stop for weeks. The response was so intense that she canceled a vacation trip to New York. Three days after the article ran, Hauser and Young formed Heal the Ocean, usefully umbrellaed by the nonprofit Jean-Michael Cousteau Institute. A few days later, Heal the Ocean had a telephone number, letterhead, bumper stickers, and a bank account.

Two weeks later, a lively demonstration in front of the County Administration Building attracted 200 and earned prominent press coverage. On September 10 the Independent ran a cover story of its own, focusing on pollution at the Rincon.

By the end of September, the county government had responded to the mounting pressure by forming Project Clean Water, setting aside $150,000 to pay for laboratory upgrades and increased testing. County Administrator Michael Brown, a former surfer, assigned three of his best men to make sure things happened, among them Rob Almy, an avid surfer who heads the county's Flood Control District and Water Agency. John Torell was pulled out of the county auditor's office to head the group. Torell knew nothing about water pollution. He never even goes to the beach. But with his caustic directness and New York attitude, he offers something even more valuable: the ability to cut through bureaucracy and make things happen.

The county quickly set up a telephone number the public could call to get beach closure information, 681-4949, and another to report pollution or dumping in creeks, (877) OUR-CLEAN. A new Project Clean Water website was added to the county homepage, with crosslinks to beach closure information. Following the News-Press's lead, the Independent also began carrying beach closure information.

As part of Project Clean Water, the county organized a group of sixty "stakeholders" representing all parties interested in ocean clean-up. Many of the groups had been working on the problem for years - the Urban Creeks Council, CURE, Surfrider Foundation, Community Environmental Council, Environmental Defense Center. Others - farmers groups, homeless advocates - had never expected to be dealing with polluted water problems. Even the grand jury was called out. The stakeholders meet once a month, but the more than ten subcommittees meet at least weekly, working on issues including dogs at the beach, beach signage problems, septic tanks, wetlands restoration, stenciling of storm drains, public outreach, and creek (don't call them homeless) encampments.

As Joel Smith puts it, "If I suddenly have some free time, it makes me nervous, because I think I must be missing a meeting."

Storm drains, septic tanks, sewage plants, and the Tajiguas dump are all being targeted for cleanup by Heal the Ocean, but Project Clean Water is focusing first on the most glaring problem, contaminated creeks. From checking seventeen creek mouths once a week, the workload grew to sampling the water at ten places along seven key creeks five days a week - seventy samples to be taken and tested each weekday "this used to be an eight-to-five operation," says Gerry Winant of the county's ocean-water testing program at the public health lab off San Antonio Road. "Now we have teams here till midnight every day."

To supplement the county's simple tests, the $50,000 raised at the Heal the Ocean fund-raiser was to pay for special DNA testing at a UCLA lab that can more specifically identify the bacteria entering a creek, tracing the waste to humans, dogs, cows, horses, deer, or rotting debris and compost. At UCSB, assistant professor Patricia Holden's lab is carrying out DNA testing of its own, "fingerprinting" sources of pollution at locations along the most polluted creeks, including Mission, Rincon, Arroyo Burro, Sycamore, and Jalama.

Initial test results have given no easy answers, found no "smoking gun." Instead, a complex web of many small problems has come to light, including polluted storm drains, leaking septic systems, street runoff, homeless encampments, bacteria from agricultural and cattle operations, even dog feces on the beach.

In late January, the county launched its Save Our Shores (SOS) public relations campaign, using a barrage of radio, newspaper, and television advertising to wake the public to the severity of the problem. It will be a daunting task to persuade citizens to stop dumping in creeks and clean up their septic system, but Torell is optimistic. "This is not the tree huggers against the chamber of commerce," he says. 'This is economic, social, political survival. If we bill ourselves as a beach community, and you can't use our beaches, how does that look?"

Heal the Ocean declares simply, "The ocean can no longer be used as a dump." They vow to attack the problem on five fronts: septic systems, storm drains and creeks, municipal sewage plants, harbor dredging, and pollutants leaking into the sea from Tajiguas Landfill on the Goleta coast. In early February, Heal the Ocean, with help from CURE and the Rincon Homeowners Association, commissioned a $9,000 effort to study the feasibility of hooking all houses on the Rincon to sewage lines. Upgrading the sewage plants and stopping the leaching from Tajiguas are particularly thorny problems, requiring bureaucratic action and potentially costing millions. In April, the state will tighten its beach bacteria standards, no doubt bringing more beach closings in the coming summer - translating into more awareness, more ire, and hopefully , continued action.

The problem may seem insurmountably large. But cleaning up the 100 miles of coastline in Santa Barbara County is a finite goal - big, but not too big, and from an aesthetic point of view, as inspiring as a hundred Cousteau pep talks. And as Cousteau says, if Santa Barbara can't do it, no one can. With the wealth here, and wealth of environmental experience, and with economic vitality at stake, cleaning up our ocean water would seem more duty than dream.

You can bet that if anyone begins to ease off the throttle, Hillary Hauser will be right behind them with a whip and a bullhorn. She's not going away. This is her home, and the beach is her passion, the ocean her place for renewal and contemplation. "It's like your mother is lying o a gurney and bleeding to death and everyone just wants to talk about what to do," she says. "It's like screaming in a dream and no one hears you. We have to stop. We have to turn this thing around."