A Wave of Memories, Part 4

A final installment of Mark’s memories of Heal the Bay, with the “Baywatch” babes

Pop culture  HtB’s involvement in popular culture has always been memorable.  From “Baywatch” to KTLA’s Coastal Cleanup Day specials, we ended up in the more popular media in a lot of ways.  Who could forget “The Solution,” a benefit CD with Bad Religion, Blink 182 and Black Eyed Peas contributing tracks?  Evidently nearly everyone — it didn’t sell much.  In the movies, we had our star turn in the thriller “Cellular” starring Kim Basinger, Jason Statham and Chris Evans.  The kidnapping occurred on the pier during a Heal the Bay “benefit.”  The band was supposed to be Incubus, but they had a conflict.  HtB also showed up on an exploded bus billboard in “Speed” and a billboard in the John Cusack end-of –the-world  saga “2012.”  And I lost track of the number of fishbone HtB cameos in TV shows, from “thirtysomething” to “Hannah Montana” to “Modern Family.”

Malibu  So much work.  So much contention.  Yet there is no way to walk away from fighting for that incredible coast. One memory: “Surf Doctor” Jeff Harris setting up a PSA shoot at Malibu Lagoon with Mel Gibson.  The focus was on the impacts of Tapia’ summer discharges on Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach.  I have never seen anyone more agitated in my life.  The guy was being stalked by the paparazzi  — helicopter overhead and guys behind bushes.  This was a real “Conspiracy Theory” They were out to invade his privacy.  On the good news side:  the Regional Board ordered Tapia’s discharge out of Malibu Creek from April through October, a major boon to Surfrider’s water quality because the lagoon berm breached less frequently.

Bravery  I’ll always remember the courage of the volunteers that gave Heal the Bay everything they had even when they were fighting cancer.  Jean Howell and Bob Hertz for Speakers Bureau.  Joe Crocker, our first board treasurer.  And of course, Dorothy.

Heroes  Finally getting to see my idol, Jacques Cousteau, speak about saving the oceans. It was at a Marina del Rey chamber of commerce lunch. I took Mark E Pollock.  It was surreal. Cousteau was wearing a powder-blue leisure suit and he stood on bright green Astroturf.

Science!  I’ve always been partial to hiring very strong technical staff for the science and policy department. At one time, we had four doctorates (all UCLA Environmental Science and Engineering grads):  myself, Mitzy Taggart, Craig Shuman and Shelley Luce. One Shelley story stands out. She was our science and policy director and she applied for the executive director position for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission. I encouraged her to apply, but I was majorly concerned about losing such a valuable staff leader. The search committee included David Nahai and myself. We thought that the lead candidate, the highly experienced and extremely bright Nancy Sutley, would get the job in a heartbeat. After all she had recently left the state Water Board and Cal-EPA assistant secretary position. For some reason, Nancy wasn’t on her game during the interview, and Luce blew us away and got the job, where she’s flourished ever since. Sutley became Mayor Villaraigosa’s deputy Mayor for energy and environment and is now serving in the Obama adminsitration as the director of the President’s Council of Environmental Quality. It worked out for the best for all of us.

Smart propositions  The fight for clean stormwater led to the successful Prop O (Los Angeles) and Measure Y (Santa Monica) funding measures.  For the $500 million Prop O, I remember enviro groups and engineering firms pulling together under the leadership of Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry to make it happen.  And the measure passed with over 76% of the vote! Now that was a fun celebration.  Of course none of this would have happened without then Chief Legislative Analyst Ron Deaton’s decision to draw up the measure and go for it.  The Measure V success was a little different.  Craig Perkins convinced councilmembers like Bobby Shriver and Richard Bloom to push for the ongoing stormwater funding measure to reduce Bay runoff pollution and reduce flood risk and increase local water supply.  The integrated approach and ongoing funding was great.  The decision to make me campaign chair and plaster my ugly mug all over direct mail campaign pieces was really uncomfortable.  Measure V only passed by 100 votes.

Fishy business  During the height of the state and federal government’s natural resources damages lawsuit and the EPA’s Superfund enforcement actions, Heal the Bay undertook a fish contamination study on white croaker sold in local markets.  Staffer James Alamillo led the effort along with chemist Rich Gossett, and we found that locally sold croaker was highly contaminated: one fish had a concentration of DDT over 30 parts per million!  Talk about hazardous to your health.  As a result, the study was used by the government in its enforcement case.  Heck, the polluters even hired renowned UCSB  ichthyologist Milton Love to redo our study.  Since the contaminated croaker was largely found at Asian community markets, the Center for Biological Diversity actually sued those markets for supposedly knowingly selling croaker after the release of our study,  a Prop 65 violation.  We never predicted that litigious outcome, and we even got deposed on the case.  Due to the threat of third party litigation, the local white croaker fishery ended up closing down.

No seismic shift  Even an earthquake last year during a joint Heal the Bay-NRDC plea to the EPA office of water for more protective beach water quality standards couldn’t shake up the status quo in Washington D.C.  The recently released draft criteria are weaker in many ways than the 1986 criteria despite the completion of dozens of studies in the beach water quality microbiology and epidemiology fields.

Ballona  The fight for the future of Ballona has gone on for over 30 years. I remember the proposal from former councilwoman Pat Russell that would have destroyed the wetlands. In response to public uproar, Ruth Galanter got elected as the Save Ballona candidate. Poring over reams of Playa Vista EIR documents and design specifications for the freshwater treatment marsh was enormously time consuming and tedious. But the turning point was the environmental group debates leading to the state purchase.  Areas A and B, the main wetland, were for sale and California had the bond money to buy it. Governor Davis’ days were running out because of the recall, so those in favor of the wetland purchase had to act fast. Environment Now hosted a series of meetings where the environmental community was split between buying the wetlands for the exorbitant price of $150 million, or opposing the purchase. The opposition didn’t want to pay more than $8-10M for the wetlands. The opponents were concerned that the extra revenues would enable Playa Vista to finish their development (Phase I was largely completed at that point.) After heated discussions, some of us (NRDC, Heal the Bay and Friends of Ballona to name a few) expressed our strong support for the purchase. I remember saying, “30 years from now, our kids won’t care what we paid for Ballona Wetlands. They’ll just care that they exist and they are preserved.” Luckily, this sentiment prevailed with Mary Nichols, the Secretary of Resources at the time.

The Staff of Life  Watching Alix Hobbs grow from an 18-year-old receptionist to Programs Director to the Associate Director of the organization. Seeing Meredith McCarthy go from a Coastal Cleanup Day coordinator to the Programs Director and a force for greening L.A.  Admiring the growth of a couple of UCSB Bren graduates into the water quality director, Kirsten James, and the coastal resources director, Sarah Sikich They’ve become environmental leaders locally and in Sacramento.  Receptionist Gabriele Morgan greeting me every day, usually with a bad pun or a political joke. Callers to Heal the Bay have been heard the soothing tones of Gabriele’s voice for a long time.  I’ll miss her voice, but not nearly as much as her biting commentary. Matt King, the best communication director in the business, constantly drawing on obscure film, news and sports references.  Kudos to Vicki Wawerchak, who has progressed from being a Key to the Sea educator to ably running our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, a community asset beloved by children and parents alike. I’m thankful for having a decade of Karin Hall as Heal the Bay’s No. 2 – helping to build the aquarium, keeping the board engaged and managing staff.  Lee Myers sharing stories of the trials and tribulations of raising three kids while healing the Bay.  And James Alamillo, Big Game James, my closest friend on staff, providing innovative ideas and providing a quick critique, and always there in an emergency or when you want to kill some time talking about sports. I will miss you guys!

WEFTEC Flexes Its Mussels

Sea shells find a second life at the world's largest water quality convention.

Today’s guest blogger is Matthew King, communications director for Heal the Bay.

In my past life as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, I covered way too many film and TV trade shows. Heavy on the glitz and light on substance, these promotional confabs left you exhausted from sensory overload. The studios pulled out all the stops: Jumbotron video banks, hip-hop performances, prancing bikini babes, fog machines, you name it …

As you might imagine, attending something called the Water Environment Federation’s 84th Annual Technical Exhibition and Conference is a bit tamer. But what the world’s largest water quality conference and exhibition lacks in wacky, it certainly makes up in wonky.

Held this week at the Los Angeles Convention Center, WEFTEC 2011 features a dizzying array of the latest technologies and equipment involved in water treatment and sustainability.  I had been kindly invited to check out the conference by Alec Mackie, who serves as VP of the Los Angeles Basin unit of the California Water Environment Assn.

Staring out at the endless sea of UV filtration systems, contaminant and nutrient removal services, data monitors and old-fashioned infrastructure like pumps and pipes, I immediately thought of Mark Gold, Heal the Bay president and self-admitted water geek . With 20,000 participants spread over three giant exhibition halls, this was a veritable Versailles of wastewater. Gold must be in heaven, I thought. Unfortunately, I’m neither an engineer nor a scientist. I felt like a Stranger in a Strange Land.

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Go With The Flow

Transparency has cost the Bureau of Sanitation.

About six months ago, the city of Los Angeles’ Bureau of Sanitation (BoS) started setting up dozens of meetings with the public and the environmental  community on the city’s wastewater system upgrade plan and the need for a major increase in sewer service charges. After all, the BoS had frozen fee increases 14 out of the last 20 years. And it’s held the line the last three years at height of the recession, but wastewater infrastructure waits for no one.

BoS sought to demonstrate that the sewer infrastructure and its four sewage treatment plants (Terminal Island, Glendale, Tillman and Hyperion) are in danger of falling apart. The deteriorating pipes and plants pose a significant risk to public health and safety. Emergency repairs on the infrastructure may cost the city infintely more than replacing it. The delayed maintenance also exposes the city to costly litigation, enforcement and penalties.

Heal the Bay was founded in 1985 on the issue of decaying sewer infrastructure.  Some Santa Monica Bay bottom-dwelling fish had tumors and fin rot, and there was a dead zone seven miles out in the middle of the Bay where Hyperion dumped its1200+ tons of sludge every day.  Also, million gallon sewage spills were commonplace.

After the city rebuilt Hyperion and major sections of the sewer infrastructure, the dead zone went away, the massive sewage spills decreased in frequency, and the Bay began to heal.

However, in the late 1990s, the frequency of sewage spills started to rise again.  Then Santa Monica Baykeeper sued the city and the end result was an agreement to repair and replace much more of the sewer infrastructure.  Just as important, the city ramped up its sewer inspection and repair program.  The end result was a more than 80% drop in sewage spills.  The days of students walking through raw sewage-filled streets on their way to school were a thing of the past.

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Seismic Shift at the EPA?

The D.C. quake led to evacuations that snuffed heated negotiations at the EPA over new beach water quality criteria.

I flew out to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, to help voice environmental community concerns about the direction of the National Beach Water Quality Criteria due out in 2012. The NRDC’s Steve Fleischli, a longtime friend, joined me for the meeting with Stoner and about a dozen Office of Water staffers in the EPA East building. Other enviros from Surfrider Foundation, Heal the Bay and New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action joined by phone.

We remain upset with the direction of the EPA draft criteria for a number of reasons. At a workshop in New Orleans earlier this year, and in a number of subsequent conference calls, EPA Office of Water staff made it clear that the proposed rules would be nearly identical to the 1986 criteria, marking almost no changes in 25 years. In some ways, the criteria will be even weaker than the 1986 version, despite more than two decades of new studies.

I had the privilege of taking the lead for the enviros in the meeting. I explained that EPA was considering an approach to beach water quality regulation that would be far less protective than California’s and would compound existing weaknesses in the 25-year-old criteria. Because I’ve spent those same 25 years working on beach water quality issues as an advocate, scientist, public health professional and legislative sponsor, I was pretty wound up.

About 50 minutes into today’s meeting, as I was attempting to make a key point, the ground started to move. Then the chandeliers started to sway.  The rock ‘n’ roll continued for nearly a minute, with some folks moving away from the light fixtures, others diving under the desk and still others crowding the door jamb.  There I stood, making a stand for greater health protection for swimmers and surfers during a 5.9 earthquake.

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Flushing Out a Capybara

A capybara, far from home in a Paso Robles sewage plant

The best sewage story ever? What could possibly beat a wild capybara emerging from the murky waters of a California sewage pond? Rodents of unusual size have a wide following. (Exhibit A: the classic Rob Reiner film “The Princess Bride.”)  And capybaras are prized as a Peruvian delicacy (Exhibit A: My food critic brother Jonathan Gold). But I’m pretty sure that the rodent in question didn’t escape from anyone’s vermin ranch.

Also, what the heck was the capybara doing in the wastewater pond to begin with?  I know the animals love water, but Amazonia is a long way from Paso Robles. And the Amazon’s pristine waterways seem a lot more appealing than poorly treated Central Coast sewage.

The settling pond photos look like something from before the dawn of sewage treatment technology.  And they are!  The plant was built in the 1950s and has not been modified since then to provide nitrogen removal.  The 3 million-gallon-a-day plant definitely needs a major overhaul and Paso Robles is considering joining the 21st century on wastewater treatment (an estimated $50M for adding filtration and denitrification).

Meanwhile, be on the lookout for rodents of unusual size in Paso Robles.

This Decision Sucks … Literally

The DWP has been given an unjustified extension to continue harmful once-through-cooling at its coastal power plants, such as its Scattergood facility.

In a defeat for the health of our local oceans, the State Water Resources Control Board voted 2-1 Tuesday to grant LADWP an additional nine years to phase out harmful once-through cooling at its three coastal power plants. The Water Board voted for the extension despite the fact that California’s energy agencies determined that DWP’s compliance plan and extension proposal did not provide enough information to justify an extension from the previously approved 2020 deadline. The nine-year extension was practically pulled out of thin air by board chair Charlie Hoppin, and Fran Spivy Weber supported the move. The extension will result in the ichthyocide of approximately an additional 30 billion larval and adult fish, with local energy plants allowed to continue the practice of sucking water – and animal life — out of the sea to cool themselves. It was definitely horrible news for local fish populations. Board member Tam Doduc was the lone voice for holding DWP accountable until it could provide adequate information to substantiate a compliance deadline extension.

In addition to extending the temporal impacts of sucking the life out of the ocean, the water board set a horrible precedent for the other California coastal power generators.

By approving a long-compliance extension despite the lack of a compliance plan approved by state energy agencies (California Energy Commission, Public Utility Commission and Cal-ISO), the board decided to award the extension for the following reasons:

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Malibu Septics: Round Two

Malibu Lagoon

Water quality in Malibu Creek and Lagoon, and Surfrider Beach is too important to gamble with. The MOU must be strengthened and Malibu must to be held more accountable for implementation.

Tonight, the Malibu City Council will vote to approve a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and the state to move the civic center’s wastewater management into the 21st century. Malibu fought to become a city when L.A. County tried to jam a massive sewage treatment plant in pristine Corral Canyon down their throat. For the last two decades, the tradition of fighting for septics over sewers has been a city obsession.

The MOU vote tonight will greatly weaken the Regional Water Board’s order prohibiting land disposal of sewage (leach fields) by 2015 in commercial areas and 2019 in the civic center’s residential areas. Since the State Water Board upheld the Regional Board’s order last December, Malibu and the Regional Board have been meeting regularly to weaken it.

Malibu opposed the original order, but they didn’t sue over it because the State Board was willing to modify its terms. One of the order’s big issues was the inclusion of residential areas like Malibu Knolls and Sweetwater Mesa, which likely had no water quality impacts on the highly polluted Malibu Lagoon and Surfrider Beach. If those were the only changes, then a simple MOU modifying the order would have been universally supported. But this is Malibu, so nothing is ever simple.

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