Water Watchdog : Environment: Santa Monica Baykeeper’s job is unofficial and self-appointed, but he has significant backing. Besides, he knows the law.

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Terry Tamminen got an early morning phone tip about raw sewage floating in Ballona Creek and swung into action. Grabbing the tools of his trade--a video camera, still camera, cellular phone and sampler jars--he jumped into his “Baykeeper Mobile” and headed to the scene.

Once he arrived, tipster Skip Gralapp pointed Tamminen toward the concrete-lined creek, which runs next to his lumber yard, and said the water had been emitting a foul odor for several weeks. Gralapp had reported it to officials in Culver City and Los Angeles, but they “fought over whose responsibility it was to look into it,” he said.

Pulling out his video camera, Tamminen, 41, began shooting tape of raw sewage, plastic foam cups and oil slicks slowly flowing downstream toward the bay.


Tamminen is the Santa Monica Baykeeper--an unofficial job to which he essentially appointed himself. He rounded up some backing from an environmental foundation, donated his own boat and car to the cause and--about a month ago--started doing business as a water watchdog.

“We are sort of your one-stop shopping center for fighting pollution in the Santa Monica Bay,” Tamminen said. “We will follow up on every tip that we get.”

Tamminen lives on the water--on a boat in Marina del Rey--and takes to land, sea and air as what he calls “field reconnaissance man” for government agencies and environmental groups. In addition to checking out complaints, he routinely patrols the bay and the coast, searching for signs of illegal dumping, commercial fishing or grading, and collecting evidence to present to the appropriate agencies.

Tamminen in the past has managed a real estate company, developed an international private security service and has owned and run a recreational services business. All the while, however, he has stayed close to the water, sailing, boating and diving at every opportunity.

“I have had a career and made money,” he said. “But that doesn’t motivate me anymore.”

In his new crusade, Tamminen has affiliated himself with some significant players in the environmental movement. Santa Monica Baykeeper--so far, there is little more to the organization than Tamminen himself--is one of nine members of the National Alliance of River, Sound and Baykeepers. The alliance was founded in 1983 by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and New York activist John Cronin, whose bailiwick is the Hudson River.

Cronin, associate director of the National Alliance, gained nationwide attention when he discovered Exxon Corp. oil tankers emptying their toxin-filled ballast into the Hudson River in 1983. The tankers were then refilling with fresh water and selling it to the Caribbean island of Aruba to be used at the Exxon refinery there. Cronin filed a complaint with the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, and Exxon was ultimately forced to settle the matter by paying $2 million to state and environmental groups.


Tamminen and other members of the alliance have no enforcement power of their own. Their strength is that they know the law, and whom to call in which government agency to report a problem. They also know how to nag if an agency is slow in responding.

“In this era of budget cuts, we don’t have enough staff to do what Terry and his people will do,” said Robert Ghirelli, executive officer of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has six employees assigned to monitoring Santa Monica Bay. “It is good to have another set of eyes and ears out there.”

Because the water quality board’s offices are well inland in Monterey Park, Ghirelli said, there is a tendency for the staff to sometimes “write off as insignificant” complaints about bay pollution.

Santa Monica Baykeeper already boasts of some results.

The sewage leak in Ballona Creek, for example, became a high priority issue for Los Angeles and Culver City after Tamminen kept pushing it. The source of the leak has yet to be pinpointed, but the L.A. Department of Public Works recently erected a barrier to contain the sewage and installed a portable pump to get it out of the creek and back into a sewer line.

Baykeeper also recently joined forces with the Natural Resources Defense Council in a lawsuit against Caltrans, accusing it of failing to reduce toxic storm-water runoff into the bay.

Tamminen and attorneys for the environmental legal group are making use of a provision of the state Clean Water Act that empowers citizens to sue violators where there is noncompliance and where the governmental agency does not enforce the law. The attorneys allege that Caltrans is allowing harmful pollutants, including toxic heavy metals, to run into storm drains and pollute Santa Monica Bay.


“Santa Monica Bay is our back yard,” Tamminen said. “We will continue to sue those who don’t comply.”

He also aided in the confiscation of 100 fishing traps that a small commercial fishing company placed illegally in the bay.

“We identified the traps, and identified their source, and reported it to the Department of Fish and Game,” Tamminen said. The company turned out to be a previous violator and had been warned by the department several times. “It was a perfect example of what we do,” he said.

Much of Tamminen’s work is financed by a grant from Environment Now, a Malibu-based foundation whose major causes include protection of Santa Monica Bay. It has agreed to cover the first three years of administrative costs for the Santa Monica Baykeeper, including Tamminen’s $30,000 annual salary.

Tamminen has used some of the money to acquire a houseboat at Marina del Rey that serves as his floating office, and an 18-foot motorboat that he uses for patrols. Moored next to the houseboat is Tamminen’s home--a 30-foot trawler he owns, which can double as a seagoing laboratory for analyzing water samples. He is on call around the clock via a pollution hot line, 1-800-HELPBAY.

A licensed pilot, Tamminen also rents airplanes from Santa Monica or Van Nuys airports when needed.