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Feb-05-2013 11:16printcomments Spotlight: An Interview with Roger Butow

Kate Buckley’s Laguna Beach Blog talks to Roger about the greatest ecological challenges currently facing the coastal community of Laguna Beach.

Roger Butow
Roger Butow

(LAGUNA BEACH) - Roger Bütow The Salem-News ODD MAN OUT enviro-columnist - In depth Interview by Kate Buckley of

Roger Butow was born in 1946 and raised in the LA Harbor area. He moved to Orange County in 1966 when he joined the US Marine Corps. Roger then acquired a BA from Cal State Long Beach in 1972. He’s lived and worked in and around Laguna Beach ever since in the field of commercial and residential construction. In 1998, Roger began his parallel track professional career as a consultant, addressing state and federal environmental compliance review processes. He’s a rare mix of cross-trained builder, writer and consultant, and brings his extensive construction experiences into his eco endeavors. Roger has tremendous field and technical expertise in successful watershed restorations, plus wastewater, urban runoff, water quality monitoring and assessment, as well as improvements of existing or proposed adverse hydrologic conditions. He’s built everything from commercial spas to award-winning private residences, plus provided peer review and consultant analyses for water districts and delivery vendors, private companies, single family homes, multiple unit subdivisions and upscale corporate resorts. Roger’s personal mantra is “21st Century Solutions to 20th Century Water Problems.” 

Roger, how did you come to be involved in environmental consulting and activism?  

Two things happened almost simultaneously that led to my personal eco-epiphany and altered my life forever:

(1) I became aware of the growing double whammy of urban runoff pollution and chronic sewage spills that Laguna Beach was experiencing. Together, they represented (to me) an unacceptable and avoidable contamination of where I find personal spiritual communion with the Cosmos–the Pacific Ocean. I thought “Hey, I can get this thing turned around, reversed and solved in a few years. Done deal.” Wrong! I thought I’d give community service a whirl as my contribution, not knowing how insidious and how addictive cutting edge change can be. Laguna was experiencing a sewage spill that closed sections of our local beaches on average of about once every 3 weeks in the late ’90s. Then I discovered that the two main contributors (sewage spills and urban runoff) were creating such hazardous health and safety issues not just in Laguna, not just countywide, but everywhere that monitoring and reporting took place in my native state of California. I started my first eco-group, Clean Aliso Creek Association…the acronym, CACA, pretty much summed up how debilitated Aliso Creek was (and still is by the way). CACA was filed as a FBN by me with the County Recorder, partially as a joke but also as a humorous way to confront a serious problem.

Within a few years the alliance I subsequently co-founded, the Clean Water Now! Coalition (set. 1998), had made a significant difference through awareness, demonstrations and media saturation. We were the only group to ever administer constant beach cleanups for the Coastal Commission beginning in 2001. We stopped our programs as of January 2013 and have moved on as Clean Water Now. Laguna has slowed way down on spills and urban runoff is now being addressed countywide. It was an exciting time of positive changes made possible by grass roots organizations and like-minded fellow travelers. We feel that the CWN! Coalition was pretty successful considering we were self-funded unlike those large non-profits. We were “The Little Engine That Could.”

(2) The repeated destruction/heavy damaging of the Aliso Creek Beach pier was exacerbated by Mother Nature pounding and ripping it apart in the 1997-98 El Niño. I, along with many others, hated that concrete monstrosity of a pier–it looked like a Scud Missile Launch pad, and didn’t belong aesthetically. It also messed up the sand bars and natural break. Even the US Army Corps of Engineers felt it unworthy, too fiscally risky to rebuild by the County in 1998. So I created a working group, got the OC Board of Supervisors to reverse their vote and not fund a $15-20 million dumb rehab via personal lobbying and public confrontation, including a massive letter writing campaign. It was becoming a fiscal black hole anyway, constant shoring and maintenance costs to prop up a really bad idea. Now it’s great, you can see the Pacific uncluttered or defaced, and Tex Haines (Victoria Skimboards) holds his World Skimboard Championships there! I became somewhat of a technical expert on a wide range of related eco-issues within my water warrior clan, and eventually realized that I could move from “Outrage to Outreach,” could have an extended, indefinitely longer impact by becoming a consultant myself. I basically moved from the Problem side to the Solution side of the equation.

What do you see as the greatest ecological challenges currently facing the coastal community of Laguna Beach? 

Urban runoff is such a challenge, it continues to haunt coastal communities with fragile ecosystems like ours. As a professional analyst, I think that urban runoff, not over-harvesting, has been the main factor that’s lowered marine life, especially near tidal zone populations and degraded oceanic habitat. The ocean has such enormous volumes of toxins from our yards, our city streets and of course CalTrans-controlled Coast Highway, that every rainy event is cause for alarm. Urban runoff has changed the chemical composition of our entire So Cal coastline. I wish that skimmers and surfers would stay out in protest, but the lure of the storm-sized waves draws them in.

Our creeks (Laguna Canyon and Aliso) carry carcinogenic-laden flows constantly from inland communities, but it’s those big rainy pulses that create flushing  and scrubbing similar to a toilet. In fact, your toilet water during personal use has fewer toxic constituents than our urbanized streams. Our streams been turned into concrete channels with not much biological advantage or high value habitat and have become sloughing conveyor belts of pollution. In fact, I believe that the 38 sq. mile Aliso Creek Watershed is now irreparably damaged. It’s about 80% impervious surface by now—the bubble, the point of no return potential according to experts is at 25%. Many locals say they can fix it. Over-development makes that highly unlikely. This matter requires an extreme top-to-bottom makeover, and in these economic times the estimated $100+ million to restore it just isn’t going to happen. The inland political will isn’t there either.

What are the best ways for private citizens, business, NGOs and government to address these concerns–either separately or collectively? 

You’d be surprised how well “bombing” works! No, not physically explosive and destructive bombs but large numbers of regular citizens demanding a redress of grievances at hearings. The price of liberty is constant vigilance, the price of a healthy environment is no different. Someone (Poet Gary Snyder?) once said “Find a place you love. Sink in your roots. Take responsibility from there.” We need to all do our share, whether direct or indirect lobbying, speaking at a public forum, signing a petition, writing a letter, or technical or logistical support skill. It sounds hokey, but it takes a village of brave, caring, engaged and passionate people to effect change, to draw attention to concerns and remedy them. I didn’t believe that in 1997. I profoundly believe it now.

Roger, one issue that was brought to my attention recently was the resuming of dumping toxic waste into the waters off Emerald Bay in North Laguna Beach (the “Dredge Barge”). This was first brought to the public’s attention in 2007 by our mutual friend, Buck Baker. I know you were personally involved in the analysis/assessment of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), can you tell us a little about the history of this matter? 

Buck’s an old friend and neighbor of mine. When he discovered this issue in 2007, he tried for several months to get me to investigate it, maybe stop it. Finally, I did look into it (the EIS) and even a veteran like me was shocked. My research indicated that the City of Newport Beach (CNB), the County of Orange and those wild and crazy guys at the USACE had gotten regulatory permission plus federal, County and CNB funding to dredge Upper Newport Bay–Back Bay, as we call it. But it was worse than I suspected: Not only were they permitted to dredge the contaminated sediment, deposit it just north of Laguna’s City Limits about 3 miles out (Federal, not state waters), but were granted the right to move the dump site about a mile or two closer to Laguna than originally agreed upon. Now they were dumping just off Emerald Bay. Worse, they were allowed to additionally deposit the dreaded dredging from Dana Point Harbor!

They refused to dump further out due to cost restraints, they had 2 better candidates 12-14 miles out and had been crafty: They didn’t notify Laguna Beach, no notifications in media or public hearings locally for an area in the dispersion zone (Laguna). All meetings took place in the CNB. My theory was that this intentionally omitted Laguna and our vibrant activist community. You can’t critique, you can’t change or petition, you can’t stop what you aren’t made aware of.

It’s obvious, as you saw Kate, that a lot of the fine sediment doesn’t drop straight to the floor of the ocean but drifts visibly towards us, staining the water terribly. Study up on what’s at the bottom of harbors, what’s sloughed off by boats and equipment, the list of long term impairment beasties is overwhelming. Additionally, the dredge barge tugboat captain & his company were $682,000 by the EPA for dumping inside that 3 mile limit a year or two prior to Buck & I getting active. The captain had GPS–maybe he was drunk or something–but what an ecological mistake! However, it barely rated a few lines in the OC Register. That was just one of the smoking gun clues I found in media archives. This is why it is essential not to leave it to our public agencies; concerned private citizens must demand accountability. 

And where do things stand now? I was recently hiking with Buck and some friends in North Laguna and we watched the barge dumping even closer to shore than before. It seems like this would be cause for great concern to our community.

Kate, it’s a nightmare that doesn’t seem to ever be over–with no signs of relenting. Buck, Max Isles & I went into Laguna Beach City Council back in 2007 asking for help. LBCC members Jane Egly & Kelly Boyd formed an ad hoc committee for it, but then refused to name me or any local watchdog to it, and brought it back to Chambers.  In my opinion, LBCC’s Jane Egly then “green-washed” it, and said the dredging and dumping posed no hazard. Funny thing was, Kelly Boyd admitted that he never caught or ate fish taken from the Catalina Channel—thus failing the “Erin Brockovitch” test. Anyone studying a prevailing tidal flow chart can see that the surface water runs right toward North Laguna and Heisler Park, a supposedly highly-protected State Marine Reserve. And now they’ve moved even closer–they’re dredging the CNB main harbor area, an area that has decades of built-up sediment holding substances now illegal or forbidden by EPA. No one will ever convince me that the toxic cocktail they’re slurping up bodes well for any living, animate life form.

What can concerned parties do about this?  

Try to accomplish what Buck and I couldn’t, and more power to you–call me when you’re ready to roll. Mobilize as many concerned citizens as possible to appear at the LBCC while on live television, corner the Council and demand that they revisit this fiasco ASAP, insist that they reopen the depositional issues and have a trial by media. I believe this dumping potentially violates a lot of regulatory compliance processes, and believe this was orchestrated to intentionally avoid the citizens of Laguna’s input and refusal to let it happen. Convince the Council that legitimate environmental watchdogs with credentials need to be on any investigation committee and have some delegated power.

Thank you for sharing this with us, Roger. Clearly you’re very passionate about the health and sustainability of our beautiful community and ocean, what is it you most love about Laguna Beach?  

Mostly that it’s not the mean, violent streets that I grew up on, the ones in Wilmington, Harbor City and San Pedro. The ones where house windows have bars, but where I did learn to fight for a cause, a purpose.  And I love the fact that there’re people still fighting here to keep Laguna Beach from becoming Santa Monica or La Jolla or Venice or some other trendy yet vacuous idea of a coastal paradise. I don’t necessarily like all of these activists or agree completely with their individual agendas, but feel their hearts are in the right place and are making a stand. This is the last funky So Cal beach town in my opinion. What’s happened to Huntington Beach on PCH is scary if you grew up around here. I can’t drive through there without deep disgust–those towering high rise hotels…

Describe for us a favorite day spent in our beautiful village.  

Any day spent with the most astounding, the most incredible woman I’ve ever met…she knows who she is.

Thank you, Roger. I appreciate your commitment to our beaches and oceans–what would Laguna be without them?

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