From a wooded cove near Cook's Corner, Aliso Creek meanders more than 12 miles to the sea, snaking its way through some of the most richly developed and densely populated areas of Southern California.
At one time, its route was entirely rustic and rural.
But those days are gone. Orange County has changed, and so has the creek.
Longtime residents talk of an era when Aliso Creek was brimming with lush vegetation and marine life, including steelhead trout and crayfish.
"Folks used to gather 'em up and cook 'em in a pan," said Tex Haines, co-founder of the Laguna Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, one of the more active voices in protesting the current status of the creek.
Now, Aliso Creek brims mostly with the weight of urban runoff, serving as the capillary that transports motor oil, pesticides and animal feces from inland Orange County to the sea.
"Just look in your gutter," said David Caretto, general manager of the Aliso Water Management Agency, which operates a sewage treatment plant near the creek. "Anything that goes down the gutter and into a storm drain--anything from animal droppings to fertilizers--will probably end up in Aliso Creek, which then flows to the ocean."
As a result of its changing nature the last two decades, Aliso Creek is now the subject of raging environmental debate in Orange County. The creek is widely acknowledged to pose a health hazard, particularly where it empties out onto lush, scenic Aliso Beach.
"The water's dirty," Haines said with a snarl. "The county has ignored the problem for years, and we're sick and tired of it. It's nothing but a cesspool stew, full of pigeons and pigeon droppings and nearly 90-degree water, right at the beach!"
County health officials acknowledge that the bacterial count at the mouth of the creek--which curls into a warm-water stagnant pond that flushes out onto the beach--is at times alarmingly high, often surpassing the legal limit for California.
As a result, the area where the creek meets the sea, and the creek itself, are considered permanently off limits to swimmers and bear prominent signs that warn of the dangers of trespassing into such toxic waters.
Nevertheless, people do, almost daily. Officials from the Orange County Environmental Health Department say that skin rashes, infections, "pink eye" and other assorted ailments are not uncommon to those who use Aliso Beach and, unwittingly, come in contact with the creek and its invisible bacteria.
"It's a unique, wonderful beach," Haines said. "It's one of the best skin-boarding beaches in the world, with steep slopes and waves. Others like it for swimming, others for wading and fishing. But there's a 1-in-10 chance that you're gonna get sick. A lot of people have no idea what's going on there."
In response to criticism and years of concern, the county, the Laguna Beach City Council and the state Water Quality Control Board have collectively endorsed a temporary solution that may take effect as early as next summer.
A sand berm will be constructed about 500 yards east of the Aliso Creek Bridge and Pacific Coast Highway. The berm will be lined with plastic and designed to create a shallow pool from which polluted water can be pumped through a pipeline into an outfall line that will dump it 1.8 miles offshore.
The project is a joint effort by the county and the Aliso Water Management Agency, which treats waste water from six cities and water districts within the Aliso Creek watershed area. The agency already owns the outfall pipe.
The permit for the berm applies only to the summer months, officials say, noting that such a temporary measure would be virtually useless during the rainy season. The permit, however, is renewable annually until 2002.
Even so, environmentalists call it a "Band-Aid" solution at best, one that clearly improves the situation for human beings, particularly surfers and others who use the beach near the mouth of the river. But it poses new dangers for dolphins and other marine life that congregate near the end of the outfall pipe.
County health officials also note that, on any rainy day, bathers are warned to stay away from Aliso Beach, though such warnings are not uncommon for any portion of the Orange County coastline. Bacterial counts are often much higher during rains, in the likelihood of sewage spills and much more urban runoff.
As for Aliso Creek, its "Band-Aid" also troubles those who eventually hope to see a far more radical--even permanent--solution to the problems of one of Orange County's most overburdened streams.
"The concern we have is that, if the beach is cleaned up, even temporarily, people are going to think, 'Hey, the problem is over,' " said Ron Harris, president of the South Laguna Civic Assn. "When that happens, there's going to be a lot less pressure on all these agencies to effect a permanent solution."
A permanent solution lies in the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is studying the options for a lasting solution to the pollution of Aliso Creek. But the study will take five years, at a minimum, and a few critics, such as Harris, remain skeptical about ever seeing the study.
"Man-made features have put the creek out of whack," said Mark Williams, planning sector chief for the Corps of Engineers. "It's a long-term problem. There is no quick fix."
Earlier this year, the corps released a draft study that warned of pollution at Aliso and San Juan creeks threatening to kill off aquatic and riparian species, worsen water quality and cause up to $4.2 million a year in damage to bridges, sewer lines and other utilities.
Already, erosion has eaten away at creek banks and beds and caused sewer lines to break, polluting beaches in Dana Point and Laguna Beach.
The problems facing the creeks are blamed almost entirely on urbanization, which has deprived the creeks of needed sediment while increasing pollution.
"It's hundreds of thousands of people washing their cars. It's restaurants and businesses doing what they do," said Monica Mazur of the Orange County Environmental Health Division. "It's an unrelenting source of runoff that never soaks into the ground, because the ground has largely disappeared in favor of concrete. So, instead, it goes into the creek and, eventually, into the ocean."
But in some respects, people's perceptions are more damaging than the reality of Aliso Creek, according to Michael Dunbar, president of the South Coast Water District, the sewage collection agency for south Laguna and north Dana Point. The agency also operates the sewage treatment plant on a contract basis with the Aliso Water Management Agency, which owns it.
One day last week, Dunbar escorted a visitor along the course of the creek, from Alicia Parkway to Aliso Beach. Near Alicia Parkway, the flowing water is so deceptively clear and clean that it looks like any bottled water available at the store.
But it is by no means fit for drinking, said Dunbar, who contends that Aliso Creek is not the vastly polluted waterway that many make it out to be.
Even so, Mazur, the county health official, says the creek often exceeds the state's legal limit for fecal coliform bacteria of 1,000 per 100 milliliters, primarily at the mouth of the creek, near the beach.
But Dunbar is right in the sense that Aliso Creek is not the county's worst, Mazur said, noting that creeks near Crystal Cove and Pelican Point, as well as Broadway Creek in Laguna Beach, carry far more bacteria.
The effects of flooding over the years may be a more severe problem at Aliso Creek. Erosion up and down the stream is clearly evident, with 25-foot chunks of the creek bed completely eaten away at numerous junctures between Alicia Parkway and the ocean.
"To a large extent, this is a problem of conflicting concerns," Dunbar said. "These two waterways, Aliso Beach and Aliso Creek, shouldn't have to be in conflict . . . but they are. Aliso Beach is a beautiful beach--without this creek. And this creek is a terrific flood-control channel--without the beach."
In other words, if Aliso Creek could exist only as a flood-control channel, and Aliso Beach only as a beach, then Orange County would be spared the dilemma of what to do with the creek.
"Somehow," Dunbar said, "we have to figure out a way to make the two coexist, but how we do that remains a mystery."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A plan to divert polluted runoff from washing down Aliso Creek to the beach will get underway in the spring. The effluent, a foul brew of motor oil, pesticides, local waste water and animal feces, has been the cause of several beach closings. How the plan will work:
1. New sand berm creates diversion pond
2. Filtered pipe installed through creek bottom, connected to existing outfall
3. Outfall carries waste water 1.8 miles offshore
Four waste-water treatment plants are located along the Aliso Creek watershed. Accidental leaks in sewage lines, called unauthorized waste discharges, can cause dangerously high fecal coliform levels at the mouth of Aliso Creek. Fecal coliform is the bacterium measured to indicate presence of fecal matter in water.
Testing at four South County beaches shows the number of coliform organisms are well above health standards at Aliso Beach. County health standards require levels to not exceed 1,000 per 100 milliliters (approximately 3.5 ounces) of water. Readings on Sept. 18: Beach: Coliform / 100 ml sample
Main Beach, Laguna: 20
Three Arch Bay: 2
Aliso Creek (mouth): 3,600
Salt Creek Beach: 8
Sources: County Environmental Health Department; County Public Facilities and Resources Department; Surfrider Foundation; Researched by APRIL JACKSON / Los Angeles Times