Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Citing health concerns, State Parks has put the kibosh on the notion of creating a dog beach in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy of OC Weekly.

In Santa Monica, there are two environmental issues that seem to come up every five years like clockwork: fluoridation of drinking water and dog beaches.  A few weeks ago, the Santa Monica City Council decided to mollify the dog beach supporters by voting 6-1 to study the feasibility of a dog beach in the city.  

Thankfully, the latest battle over dog beaches seems to have come to an abrupt end with state officials making it clear to Santa Monica staff that they will not provide necessary approvals. 

As the president of Heal the Bay, a scientist with a doctorate on the health risks of swimming at polluted beaches, the owner of three rescue dogs, a father of three, and the longtime chair of the city’s Environmental Task Force, I’ve been involved at every level imaginable of the great dog beach debate for 15 years.

Although Santa Monica beach water quality has improved dramatically in the last three years (thanks to voter support of Measure V), our beaches still don’t consistently meet water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Santa Monica taxpayers have spent millions of dollars cleaning up local beaches (over $2.5 million on the successful Santa Monica Pier cleanup alone), so adding a new source of fecal bacteria to our local beaches doesn’t make any sense in these financially challenging times.  Also, it makes even less sense from a Clean Water Act compliance perspective. Especially if we’re trying to protect the public from health risks.  Swimming in waters with high fecal bacteria densities is highly correlated with illness, especially stomach flu.

As a dog owner, I am a regular visitor at Joslyn Park.  Although 95% of the dog owners are conscientious and clean up after their loved ones, there’s always the 5% that acts like the Jason Segal character at Venice Beach in “I Love You Man.”  For some reason, their Phydeauxs’ feces seem to be coliform-free.  All it takes is one incontinent dog to create a health concern at the shoreline, so a dog beach anywhere near the water simply isn’t protective of public health.

My wife and I have taken our kids to the beach hundreds of times.  We’ve seen it all.  When our kids were little, burying siblings in the sand was a favorite pastime.  And of course, every kid is a pica kid at the age of one to two.  Shovels, kelp and sand all go into the mouth during those oral fixation years.  Put little kids at a dog beach and that’s a recipe for a night filled with children’s Motrin and a whole lot of diaper blowouts.

Heal the Bay took a position on dog beaches in the late 1990s and it hasn’t changed since.  We oppose any dog beach that allows canines to frolic from the surf zone to the high tide line.  Also, we oppose any dog beach located near endangered or threatened wildlife like the California Least Tern (forages in Santa Monica) or the Snowy Plover (forages, roosts and has the potential to nest in Santa Monica beaches).  The NRDC and the Audubon Society have opposed dog beaches for many of the same reasons.

Santa Monica’s beaches are owned by State Parks, so a dog beach could not move forward without the support of the state.  Santa Monica staff met with State Parks officials recently. Barbara Stinchfield, the city’s community and cultural services director, and Judith Meister, the beach administrator, summarized the results of the meeting last week in a memo

 “State Parks remains opposed to permitting any off-leash areas on State beaches. … As a State agency, State Parks maintains a consistent policy for all State parklands and this applies to the current position of no off-leash dog beaches. The concerns remain the same as those stated during the previous attempt to establish a dog beach in 2005: the risk to threatened species, such as the snowy plover, and to sensitive ecosystems, the possible threat to the safety of visitors, wildlife, other dogs, interference or displacement of recreational users, and health issues related to dog feces and dog urine in the water and sand. State Parks staff offered to continue discussions with the City about this issue; however, in light of staff reductions and budget cuts at the State level, it was made clear that there was no chance for a pilot program to move forward at this time.”

Like vampires, dog beaches seem to keep coming back from the dead.  I just hope the next dog beach proposal is for a fenced enclosure far away from the shoreline, children or sensitive wildlife.

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