August 9, 2005 - California Ed.

With a stroke of the President's pen, Hawaii recently became host to the world's largest marine sanctuary. In California, however, the situation is more complex. With a rapidly growing population and booming seaside development, coastal policy involves much more than saving the whales.

Imagine a public health policy that failed to address hundreds of California's favorite public places that turned toxic every time it rained. Now imagine that the side effects from neglect can include diarrhea sinus infections, liver damage and staph infection. If it's tough to visualize, it shouldn't be. Every year, millions of gallons of untreated sewage and urban runoff flow into the ocean after storms. With such serious potential effects, one might think that policymakers would be looking at the issue. They are, but the problem is much broader and comprehensive than most will admit.

Chad Nelson, Environmental Director at the Surfrider Foundation, offers an analogy: "Imagine if the local kids' park in your town had a sewage spill and had six inches of sewage floating in the park," he says. "What kind of public outrage would that inspire? The reason it doesn't happen is that we have a sort of zero social tolerance for that. But if we close our beaches for a couple of days for a sewage spill, it doesn't make the paper."

Obsolete pipes and drains

Small spills are often ignored, but the larger spills do make the headlines. In January 2006, Santa Monica Bay reportedly suffered a two-million-gallon sewage spill after a pumping facility lost power. In 2004, about 2.3 million gallons of untreated sewage spilled out into the waters off San Diego when a treatment plant's pipes were flooded with rain water. Both spills resulted in significant beach closures and public outcry, but not much has changed.

The aging infrastructure in our old coastal cities is partly to blame for the situation. California Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña of San Diego uses her city to illustrate the point: "The city of San Diego has a report every day of a broken water pipe. Why?" she asks. "Because the city's policy was unfortunately turned more toward growth than maintenance. As we expanded and sprawled and put in new houses, offices and industries, we didn't go back and maintain those pipes in the older neighborhoods. Now they're breaking and leaking water and sewage."

The million-gallon spills were the largest to occur in a decade. They happened during record-breaking storms, but it's not just wet weather that creates problems. California's heavily urbanized, industrialized coast is actually its own worst enemy when it comes to clean water. "Southern California has some of the worst urban runoff," says Nelson, and all coastal development contributes. "Seawalls and beach issues are really significant, but for some reason they're not getting as much traction."

"Too much hardscape"

In most of the state's coastal cities, urban runoff comes from storm drains under sidewalks that are directly connected to the sea, sending out unfiltered and untreated water and debris to the ocean. Everything on these cities' streets (oils, tire rubber, solvents, etc.) will eventually be swept into a storm drain and directly into the ocean. "There's too much hardscape," explains Saldaña. "As long as we're driving cars with leaky oil pans or with break pads that wear off, you can't go for a walk on the beach without seeing the result of stuff that runs down after a rainstorm."

Water, water everywhere…

To encourage the electorate to pay attention, many analysts have emphasized the economic impact of clean water. "We need to transform the conservation discussion," argues Saldaña. "We're not talking about protecting pretty bugs and birds. We're talking about keeping water clean for fisheries so people can eat the fish that are caught. We need to do it so people can swim in the water safely without contaminating their bodies. These are economic impacts. If you have sick people and dirty water, then you suddenly have folks that can't go to work, and they can't function in our workforce or schools."

Clean water and pristine beaches are especially important in southern California, which has historically relied on tourism to propel its economy. But what about the central coast and northern California? One solution for preserving their ocean environments might be to set up marine sanctuaries, such as that recently declared by President Bush for the northwest Hawaiian Islands, or the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, established in 1992.

Save Our Shores is the group that lobbied for and orchestrated fundraising (via a bake sale, so the story goes) to set up the Monterey Bay sanctuary. Laura Kasa, the organization's executive director, thinks that such a strategy could work for California's waters on a broader level. The group has adopted an interactive approach, working to maintain relationships with fishermen in the harbor, for instance. "I think it's important to deal directly with the fishing industry," Kasa says. "You have to treat people with respect and seek to first understand their position before pushing your own agenda. We try to listen to them and try to see their side of things. We also try to present the information we've discovered in ways that they will find useful." This attitude may explain the group's success. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is entering its fourteenth year and the group is working on legislation to protect other coastal areas.

Overall, California has recently passed some insightful environmental legislation protecting the coast, such as the Marine Life Protection Act and the California Ocean and Coastal Protection Act, but it still has a long way to go. "We sort of learned a little too late that coastal development had all of these implications for water quality," Nelson states. Still, with the many people moving to the state every year, there are economic and environmental reasons for Californians to hope it's not too late.

About Erik D. Aker

Erik D. Aker is a professor of humanities and freelance journalist based in San Diego, California.