Aliso Creek Since the first orange groves were established on Aliso Creek it has been chronically polluted with dangerous contaminants. The Creek runs westbound from the Santa Ana Mountains in South Orange County to the Pacific Ocean where it empties its contents at Aliso Creek State Beach in Laguna Beach. The pollution has escalated with the rapid urban development along the creek and its many tributaries.
These pollutants have caused much harm to beachgoers, marine and aquatic life, and to the tourism industry of the communities that stretch the coastline. In the summers of 1999 and 2000, a half mile of Hunnington Beach, which lies North of Laguna Beach, was closed due to dangerously high bacteria counts in the water. The beach closure crippled the tourism of the fabled ?Surf City?. Similar problems are destined for Laguna Beach and the other communities near these river mouths. Beach closures are a common occurance in Laguna Beach and Dana Point to the South.
Most frequent surfers will tell you of becoming ill at one time or another from the beach.
The pollution of the creek has been substantially escalating with every year of new development along the thirty-four square mile area that Aliso Creek drains. In the past ten years the population of the endangered tidewater goby, which used to inhabit the Aliso Creek mouth have disappeared. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has expressed hope that new cleaning methods could once again provide a habitat for the exiled creatures.
The State orders these beach closures when bacteria levels reach a certain unhealthful point. The most prominent and dangerous bacteria in the Aliso Creek waterway is fecal coliform. How the fecal coliform gets there is still under much debate. Frequent sewage spills from the archaic sewage system of Laguna Beach may be the contributor, while others argue that its urban run-off in storm drains from the municipalities that are upstream from the coast. In both situations the exact travel of the pathogens is unknown.
In 1987 the Water Quality Act was passed, which held municipalities responsible for pollution of their stormdrains, and forced violators to be fined up to $1000 a day. This act also had ?No Dumping, Drains to the Ocean? stenciled on 28,000 stormdrains across the county. It also required monitoring of bacteria levels on most of the counties waterways, harbors and beaches.
These changes did little to solve the problem, but rather monitor it. So in March of 1999 the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a cleanup abatement order to seven cities upstream from the creek mouth. They were required to determine the sources of pollution on their stretch of creek and to monitor them extensively. In March of 2001 the Water Quality Control Board issued another mandate, telling the creekside communities that they must bring the quality up to swimming safe standards. Past In March of 2001 Laguna Niguel, the city upstream from Laguna Beach started using experimental Clean Creek technology to clean up its share of the creek. The system extracts water from the creek, filters it, then lets it sit in a tank that allows ultraviolet rays to kill off the bacteria in the water. The water is then returned to the same spot in which it was extracted as not to disturbe the aquatic life of the creek. Initial tests have shown that the bacteria levels have subsided to below standards. This shows that it can be done, but at a high cost. The water quality budget for Laguna Niguel jumped from $20,000 to $500,000 with the implication of these methods.
The high cost of these processes are the cause for opposition. The strongly republican demographics of the area make surplus funds hard to come by. Also many people living well upstream have less concern than those who live on beaches with deprecating value due to the pollution.
Many people feel that when costly filtration systems are not necessary, but rather changing human habits and educating them. The main suspects of high bacteria levels are animal waste, over-watering and fertilizing of lawns, and grass-clippings. Some people have called for initiatives to make car washing (which causes cleaning agents to be flushed down storm drains) illegal, and to limit the amount of water which people are allowed to use on their lawns.
Other potential methods include a new plan to build natural wetlands along parts of the creek to use the natural vegetation to filter out bacteria. Several cities along Aliso Creek have already started building them, but it will be several years for them to grow enough vegetation to make an effect.
New findings have surfaced showing that these methods may not be enough. A study by Sunny Jiang, a professor at UCI found that out of twelve river mouths in southern California four tested positive for human adenoviruses. Of these, only one test for high bacteria counts. This is shocking because current standards only monitor for bacteria, and the study proves that there is no corralation between bacteria counts and viral counts. The study also found that the human waste was making its way to the creeks. Adenoviruses are a group of human viruses which include hepatitis A and can live in seawater for up to one hundred and thirty days.
The Water Quality Control Board has increased its standards and enforcement thanks in part to several activist groups in the area. The most prominent of which is the Clean Aliso Creek Association or CACA. CACA was formed by Roger von Butow, an activist from Laguna Beach. Over the past fifteen years von Butow and CACA have lead the fight in getting Aliso Creek cleaned up. He organized awareness groups and put together a video that documented the problem.
?Nothing lives more than a couple of days in Aliso except mutants. It no longer carries sand to replenish the beaches, it no longer carries the woody pulp to assist riparian communities, and it kills the marine life when it emerges. Steelhead trout no longer migrate upstream, crawdads & freshwater shrimp are gone, the urban runoff has covalent chlorine (bad for aquatic life forms), not to mention the toxic soup of chemicals...Humpty-Dumpty--once a watershed dies, restoration is overwhelmingly problematic. If nothing changes in the next year or two, I'd say it will be toast.? To conclude at this time what needs to be done to alleviate the problem is impossible. The direct cause of high fecal coliform levels is unknown and likewise no one is sure of how human waste is leaking from the sewer systems. More investigation is needed. Construction of natural wetlands to filter out bacteria is possibly the best solution to the matter but cannot fully fix the it itself. Local awareness of the urban runoff problem needs to be made and funds must be allocated to research the issue. Furthermore I believe the State Water Quality Board should be able to set up some small institution to better monitor and work on prevention of contaminants instead of leaving it up to individual municipalities to do it themselves who in many cases are under funded and under motivated.