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Jan-07-2010 23:09printcomments

How To Build An Environmental Activist

The first installment in a continuing series.

1998: In The Beginning...

Aliso Beach in South Laguna
Photos by Roger Butow

(LAGUNA BEACH, Calif.) - In early 1998, my introduction into the world of environmental issues began with two seemingly unrelated subjects that eventually merged to both outrage me and set a match to my eco-zeal.

I had never been involved with, nor interested in any community problems let alone ecological ones. Never spoken at a public hearing, never written a letter to the editor either.

First, I became aware that a legendary waterman and close friend for almost 30 years had gone swimming at Aliso Creek Beach the morning after a 440,000 gallon sewage spill just upstream of the creek mouth (beach).

That day, due to inept emergency response procedures overnight, the spill was not professionally contained.

There were none of the official bright yellow and red warning signs posted at the final Point of Discharge (POD), at the public beach.

These signs forbid the public from entering the ocean because of the highly infectious or contagious nature of human waste viruses and pathogens in sewage.

Hepatitis A is one primary example of a virus commonly found.

Cal/EPA mandates that these signs should have been prominently placed up and down the coast for hundreds of yards from the creek mouth. They stay up, the public restrained, until the OC Health Department sampling and monitoring analysis indicates it’s safe to go back in.

A former Navy frogman and the co-founder of the LB Chapter of Surfrider, my friend, Briggs (Corky) Smith[1], would have stayed out had he known. Within 48 hours, he got very sick, developed boils and rashes, flu-like symptoms, etc. that lasted days. Once he discovered what he’d been exposed to, he filed litigation against the two culpable public agencies responsible: South Coast and Moulton-Niguel Water Districts.

Corky’s research revealed that they had a long history of chronic spills in the creek that were intentionally unpublicized and went mysteriously unpunished by Cal/EPA[2]. He sensed complicity at enforcement local levels or at minimum a deaf ear and blind eye.

Corky eventually forced (or should I say embarrassed) them into upgrading their waste pipes and pump stations adjacent to the creek to avoid future spills. He was awarded attorney fees, although no punitive or compensatory personal damages were granted. Worse, Cal/EPA was controlled by then Governor Pete Wilson appointees.

Where a significant fine, known as an Assessed Civil Liability (ACL), should have been handed down at a public hearing, none was ever discussed, proposed or imposed. Everyone knows, whether it’s a speeding ticket or an avoidable health and safety violation, “Deterrence Drives Compliance.”

The second issue was the Aliso Creek Pier, which in the El Niño of 1997-98 had become damaged beyond repair, not for the first time either. The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) never wanted this stubby concrete monstrosity to be built there in the first place.

Erected in 1971, this 572 foot long protrusion was plain ugly, it resembled a scud missile launch ramp and the toxic soup in Aliso Creek kept a constant drip feed of carcinogenic substances and high bacterial concentrations mixing in at the pier’s ocean terminus. Obviously, unknown to the public, any fish caught there were unhealthy for consumption.

It seemed crazy, our OC 5th District Supervisor Tom Wilson’s desire for a pork barrel project, to tear it down and spend $5+ million of taxpayer money to do so, throwing good money after bad while we were still recovering from our bankruptcy.

The enormous building that housed a fast food stand and bathrooms blocked a great viewing corridor, and the food stand was largely unused for 8 months or more per year.

Having skimmed that beach on a home-made board without a pier back in the early 60’s, I joined a small lobby group who successfully blocked the rebuild on both logistical and fiscal grounds.

Seeing that the other Supervisors wouldn’t go along, Wilson reversed his previous position and withdrew his plan.

First the pier was immediately demolished as a swimming and navigation hazard, then the left-over stub was only just recently removed in anticipation of new bathrooms and snack stand back in a corner of the parking lot. Drivers and beachgoers alike now have a classic So Cal look, an unobstructed historic scenic corridor.

These two efforts led me to form my own Non-Governmental Organization (NGO): The Clean Aliso Creek & Beach Association. I even registered it as a Fictitious Business Name with the County.

Being a smart-ass, in a “South Park” scatological lapse, I thought the shortened acronym CACA would get people’s notice in a humorous, yet dramatic way. It described what was in the creek perfectly.

In speech class, they always say first you get someone’s attention, THEN you educate them. CACA is Spanish slang for feces, but also a generic word for something repulsive.

And Aliso Creek was certainly that, so what the heck, a chuckle followed by a concerted effort to clean it up.

I even had a few hundred t-shirts printed up with the logo on the back at my own expense, sort of walking, anti-pollution billboards.

Informative hyperlinks:

[1] OC Weekly">Beach Blanket Stinko - Corky's fight to keep our ocean clean

[2] OC Weekly: Whose Poop Is It Anyway?

Prior articles on from Roger Butow:

Also: New Column: 'Odd Man Out' Will Clear the Air Over Environmental Staff Report



Launched in 2010, Odd Man Out is the creation of Roger von Bütow, a professional environmental consultant. Written exclusively for the Salem-News, it's intended as the next evolutionary step on the path of an eco-warrior.

Roger is a Southern California native who spent his formative years as a racial minority: A blonde-haired, blue-eyed surfer on the mean streets of the LA Harbor area. Running from gangs eventually trained him for his high school and collegiate track and cross-country career. Going to college part-time, disqualified for a student deferment, when his draft notice arrived in a fit of machisimo he joined the USMC in 1965, eventually attached to the 3rd Marine Air Wing.

Once honorably discharged, he resumed his college studies, majoring in philosophy. He dropped out in early 1972 when an opportunity to travel in Europe inexpensively for 6 months was too good to pass up. Upon returning, he and his former wife ended up in Laguna Beach, and though the marriage didn’t last his love of the place is in its 38th year.

Disgusted by chronic sewage spills and toxic urban runoff pollution that triggered constant beach closures in his area, he formed “Clean Water Now!” in 1998. Local surfers, skimmers and divers were pissed off, but there wasn’t a cohesive, unified and aggressive group response, zero leadership or activism facilitated by the Surfrider Foundation or Sierra Club regarding water quality impairment issues. You can write to Roger at:


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Holloway March 10, 2010 9:12 am (Pacific time)

The picture above showing the pier as you know was taken the last day the pier was open. I took it from on top of the snack bar. What died that day was more then a pier but a culture. As you noted, "The enormous building that housed a fast food stand and bathrooms blocked a great viewing corridor, and the food stand was largely unused for 8 months or more per year," insinuates that it was more or less a waste of space. From the early morning hours, Trudy, the snack bar owner/leaser would get up make some coffee, and make sure that the bait fridge was ready. A few old timers would show up, talk about the weather, and catch a few fish along the way. The water was so warm that year and hit 72 degrees in February and hit the 80's in early June. Tuna made their way up from Mexico and could be caught from the end of the pier. When the morning was done, local skimmers like Drew Liddle would show up and if we were lucky, he would stand on the side of the pier, his back to the water, where everyone could see and and dive 40 feet below into the water. When the pier died a link to the past died with it as the old timers lost thier home away from home, and locals were crowded out by tourists. A few show up from time to time in the winter when the crowds have disapated but gone are the sunsets from the pier and a late night stroll, a couple enjoying their first wedding day, a hot chocolate on a cold morning, a pelican resting on its way to Newport, and a time in history when nature and man became one. The pier could be looked at as an obstruction to some because it is simply man made. It's not what men build that destroys nature, it's what they do with it that defines its purpose.A few pieces of the old pier wash up from time to time and what is simply another stone to throw back into the water to some, is a treasure to others.

Oscar January 8, 2010 9:45 am (Pacific time)

I have always loved your humor and insights Roger. Can't wait to read Part II.

Roger von Bütow January 8, 2010 9:38 am (Pacific time)

Jeff: TERTIARY (Third) level of treatment would go a long way towards that goal, actually multiple goals that could avail themselves of present day technologies. TERTIARY is the achievable degree of cleansing that would recycle over 60% of wastewater in the sanitation treatment plants for potable (drinking) and reclaimed (landscape/irrigation) purposes. South OC is a classic example of numerous failures by officials to provide for long range plans to implement this. Presently, about 20 million gallons per day is barfed out of the Aliso Creek Ocean Outfall Pipe, a greater amount at Doheny Beach off Dana Point. This is SECONDARY level wastewater, and technically shouldn't be allowed any longer. It still has unacceptable levels of carcinogenic substances, heavy metals, prop 65 chemicals, etc.. Most people don't know it, but a lot of those chemicals and other beasties that go down their interior drains are neither removed or reduced, pass through these treatment facilities intact. Not only do these discharges damage marine environs, pose hazards to swimming and contaminate harvested fish, but a lot of our South OC water shortage is due to the fact that the parent (JPA) sanitation district SOCWA members are cheapskates, won't upgrade ALL South OC plants to full TERTIARY. Because these district board members have a low profile, much of this is never addressed by the media...Plus it's sort of a gross topic. Unless we want to end up like the fictional planet DUNE, the public needs to seize control from these publicly elected officials, and since the INFLUENT (incoming wastewater) is already inside the plants, then it is already captured and can be cleansed. It will take political will and money, but I think folks are on the verge of understanding that stealing water from living streams, or from your neighbors in other regions is passé. This is one of the topics I'll be researching further and reporting on. It would be interesting to see just how many other places only perform SECONDARY, just how much water is really being wasted nationally. Reservoirs can only do so much, and dams are not very long-lived and actually degrade streams eventually--Even if only used for fires, this reclaimed would have high value in a state known for fire-prone ecologies, California's State Water Resource Board (Cal/EPA) should mandate this categorically across the board. In the north, OC Sanitation is pumping tertiary upstream, injecting it back into the Santa Ana River Watershed aquifer. Not a perfect, closed cycle, but it's a bold start. All our southerly bozos need to do is liquidate (little pun) some of those hoarded millions in assets......After all, it's OUR money, OUR future needs that are important, not the water and sanitation district monarchists. there) the millions in assets they hold. That money could be spent to avoid these recent shortages, known to be imminent for decades to these good old boy districts.

Jeff Kaye~ January 8, 2010 6:20 am (Pacific time)

There has to be a better way to dispose of sewage than to just pipe it into the ocean. What kind of a world are we leaving our children? Our grandchildren? These crooked politicians are being bribed by polluters to "keep a lid on it", but the lid's about to blow off, and the sh!t is going to hit the fan. And the Man. And who pays for the "cleanup" of this doodoo? You do.

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