When it comes to Aliso Creek, Tex Haines often looks below the water's surface.
Haines, 61, who remembers coming to Aliso Beach Park when he was 6, is concerned about the amount of sand that workers shovel into the ocean to open up the creek's entrance into the Pacific.
Haines, founder of the Victoria Skimboards World Championships of Skimboarding, held every year at Aliso Beach Park, said the ocean's current already takes sand south along the South Laguna coastline where it settles atop tidepools. The shoveling by county workers only adds to the problem, he said.
He said moving the sand from the mouth of the creek can be beneficial to the public's health in the short term by keeping bacteria levels low, but the activity could be doing a lot of harm down the coast.
"Imagine someone bringing a Dumpster to load sand into the ocean," Haines said. "How many cubic yards of sand would that be?"
Haines' concern touches on one of several issues surrounding the Aliso Creek Watershed, a 35-mile area that begins in the Cleveland National Forest and meanders through portions of seven cities and county land before emptying into the ocean at Aliso Beach Park.
Orange County Conservation Corps workers are in the midst of removing 25 acres of arundo, a spiky weed-like, non-native plant along a 3.7-mile stretch of the watershed.
And this week, officials with the County of Orange and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will talk about how to address a creek that is cutting deeper into the hillside.
But it's the sand at the shoreline that has Haines worried.
Shoveling the Shore
"High tide seals the mouth of the creek," Haines said in a phone interview. "Water backs up into a big pool on the beach. As the tide drops, the creek creates a new path in the sand. When the water rushes out [as in a rainstorm] it takes all the sand."
County parks department workers shovel sand to keep the creek mouth clear at the ocean's edge, said Susan Brodeur, county parks' senior coastal engineer.
If the creek backs up, it can flow laterally — parallel to the coastline — north or south, Brodeur said.
"The moving water means better water quality for people using the beach," Brodeur said.
Crews used a bulldozer once so far this year — in April — to move sand aside to clear the mouth of the creek, according to Brodeur.
In addition, workers with shovels clear the creek mouth three times per week at most, she said.
"We have found that these minor shoveling events help keep the creek flowing straight," Brodeur said in a follow-up email. "If it is left for too long, then more intensive labor is required with heavy equipment and a larger crew to move around sand."
Haines would like to see cities take more responsibility for runoff before it heads into Aliso Creek and suggests a rock jetty that would let the stream spread out.
"Put in very low-height rock dams to retain the water and let it back up to a pool so it can be treated by a plant before it heads to the ocean," Haines said.
Curbing the urban runoff
Laguna Beach is doing all it can to address urban runoff, which can come from residents watering their lawns, said David Shissler, Laguna Beach's director of water quality.
Laguna has 24 water-diversion structures that divert and filter water. Between 13 tons and 30 tons of pollution, including cigarette butts and grass clippings, are filtered out every year, Shissler said.
"That's stuff we'd otherwise be swimming in," Shissler said.
Shissler points to Laguna's recent record as evidence that its effort is working.
"If we have a sewer spill, we have diversion units," Shissler said. "We haven't had a beach closure in several years.
"Other cities should be doing as much as we are."
Laguna Niguel, while not a direct contributor to Aliso Creek, continues to take steps to catch urban runoff before it flows into streams, said Nancy Palmer, the city's environmental programs manager.
Storm drain runoff within Laguna Niguel flows into Sulphur Creek, which then funnels into Aliso Creek (at the boundary of Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park), Palmer said.
Laguna Niguel and Laguna Hills co-sponsored a grant project with the county that graded portions of a channel leading into Sulphur Creek and planted vegetation along the creek's banks, Palmer said.
Laguna Niguel will replace an irrigation system along a five-mile stretch of street median on Crown Valley Parkway starting in spring to eliminate landscape runoff, according to Palmer.
Workers will move sprinkler heads 2 feet away from the curb, Palmer said.
Tiered rate structures from Moulton Niguel Water District, which charges residents for excess water use, have helped control the amount of urban runoff, Palmer said.
The efforts have resulted in improved water-quality levels at Aliso Creek over the past 15 years, according to Chris Crompton, the county's water-quality compliance manager.
"We've seen reductions in bacterial indicators," said Crompton, who has overseen data collection in the creek for 15 years. He said the county tests water weekly at multiple locations from June to September but not as frequently at other times.
Bacteria levels increase following a storm, so the Orange County Health Care Agency urges people to avoid contact with the water immediately after a rainstorm, Crompton said.
A combination of factors are credited with the reduction of bacteria levels in Aliso Creek, including educating the public about water that drains to the ocean and building more treatment plants, Crompton said.
Lower portions of Aliso Creek — closer to the ocean — have less bacteria than further upstream, Crompton said.
"The stream moves slow, and there are not as many inputs from urban areas," Crompton said. "Also the water is exposed to sunlight. The ultraviolet light kills bacteria."
Several agencies are participating in a study called Bight 13, coordinated by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, which will try to identify whether certain bacteria can be attributed to human or other sources by analyzing an organism's DNA, Crompton said.
The study covers a 400-mile long area from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County south to Ensenada, Mexico, according to the water project's website.
The sinking creek
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is focused on a 6-mile stretch of the 19-mile Aliso Creek Watershed, beginning at Pacific Park Drive in Aliso Viejo and heading south to the South Orange County Wastewater Authority treatment plant.
The creek is in some reaches 20 feet lower than ground level — now at 25 feet — than it was in the 1970s, said Jon Vivanti, lead planner on Aliso Creek for the Corps of Engineers.
The most critical issue for the Corps is channel instability, he said.
"The channel is degrading the native habitat," Vivanti said. "Since the 1970s, there's a lot more water in the system. As the channel is incising, native and unique California riparian and aquatic habitat is being lost. The habitat is home to many animals on federal and state endangered species lists."
Vivanti likens the creek's descent into the earth to the Grand Canyon, where years of erosion create a creek that cuts into the ground, with steep slopes on both sides.
The sinking creek has had an effect on wildlife within Aliso Creek, according to Vivanti.
"Overall the wildlife habitat will steadily decline as channel degradation continues to wreak havoc," he said. "Modeling shows species will no longer be present in the region, or their numbers will greatly decline."
Indeed, the creek is a haven for wildlife, said Derek Ostensen, president of Laguna Canyon Foundation, a Laguna Beach-based nonprofit dedicated to preserving Laguna Coast Wilderness Park and surrounding land.
"Aliso Creek supports some of the most important plants and wildlife. It has one of the largest populations of southwestern pond turtles, extremely high numbers of Least Bell's Vireo," Ostensen said. "All of our work is overseen by government regulatory agencies."
The foundation is leading a multiyear, multiagency effort to remove invasive species in Aliso Creek and plant native species such as native willows, wild roses, and blackberry bushes, the foundation's website said.
In March 2012, the Orange County Transportation Authority awarded $1.1 million to begin the project, while Laguna Canyon Foundation coordinated an additional $2 million, the website said.
A nasty reputation
Still, Aliso Creek carries a dirty-water stigma that is difficult to shake.
Haines remembered his grandparents, both doctors, advising him about 50 years ago to steer clear of the water at Aliso Beach Park.
"'Don't go in the water; you'll get boils,'" Haines said they told him.
Haines said he is concerned about skimboarders in the annual championships being subjected to unclean water.
"It's embarrassing that for an international skimboard contest I have to apologize to everybody, saying, 'I'm sorry if you get sick,'" Haines said.
The sand Haines said is building up at beaches south of Aliso, such as West Street and Ninth and 10th avenues, is also negatively affecting the kind of waves skimboarders covet.
For a skimboarder, steep facing rocks beneath the water's surface help create ideal waves because the swell hits the rocks and ricochets at a 45- or 90-degree angle.
The reflected wave or "side wash" moves up the shoreline, allowing the skimboarder to ride straight out to catch another wave that is larger, Haines said.
"The more sand that covers the rocks means you don't get the wave," Haines said. "This is a warning call, not necessarily proven. We think it is a concern."