Sniffing Out the Source of the ‘Malibu Smell’

Times Staff Writer

Malibu’s coastline is considered the Riviera of California, but the celebrity-studded city’s famed beaches are often among the most dangerously fouled in the state.

Over the years, officials have blamed the primordial stew of surf contamination on a variety of causes: storm runoff, a wastewater treatment plant, horse manure, bird droppings.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 6, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 06, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Malibu pollution: An item in Thursday’s A2 Briefing about water pollution in Malibu said authorities hoped to test septic tanks in the hills above Malibu. As the full article in the California section stated, they plan to take samples from the streams behind houses, not from septic tanks.

But officials also suspect that some of the septic tanks that handle the household sewage of Malibu’s multimillion-dollar canyon homes are spilling pollutants into the oak-shaded creeks that tumble down to Santa Monica Bay, tainting Surfrider and other famous beaches.


At the urging of Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, officials have begun trying to identify the sources of the fecal matter and other waste -- using a novel approach borrowed from law enforcement.

The county plans soon to begin using DNA testing of sea water off Escondido and Ramirez canyons. The goal will first be to discern whether the waste is human or animal. Officials say they then plan to follow the trail wherever it leads, even if that means to the backyards and horse stables of well-heeled beachside and canyon residents.

Officials say they are developing a testing method and plan to begin taking samples this fall, first from the ocean and then farther upstream as needed.

Other possible sources, they note, are restaurants and commercial facilities. The Paradise Cove mobile home park, for example, is upgrading its septic system after officials found that it was polluting the water off that private beach at the foot of Ramirez Canyon.

“What we intend to do is look at specific locations where counts have been high and, with the permission of property owners, take samples from the streambeds behind their homes,” said Mark Pestrella, assistant deputy director of the county’s Department of Public Works.

If property owners don’t grant permission, Pestrella said, the county is prepared to seek inspection warrants.

Owners of suspect systems will be required to upgrade them or face fines as high as $10,000 a day.

Steve Cain, a spokesman for the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the enforcement arm in such cases, said it wasn’t about the money.

“We’re interested in correcting the problem,” he said.

In Malibu, talk of septic tanks, leach pits and the ubiquitous foul stench known as the “Malibu smell” is hardly new. After rainstorms, officials often must post signs on Malibu beaches urging swimmers and surfers to steer clear because of health dangers.

Celebrity residents Pierce Brosnan and Ted Danson are among many who have championed the cause of better water quality.

Malibu was incorporated in 1991 and became a city with its own local government because residents feared that a county proposal for a sewer system would open up the area to the kind of large-scale subdivisions and commercial development that its residents had fled.

In recent years, the community has come under increasing pressure from regional, state and federal officials to clean up its creeks, Malibu Lagoon and Santa Monica Bay.

The city recently paid $25 million for the so-called Chili Cook-off site near the civic center. It plans to spend $5 million to build a storm water treatment center there.

In May, Malibu suffered a black eye in the annual statewide beach survey released by Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay. Escondido Beach “was the most polluted beach in the history of our report card,” said Mark Gold, Heal the Bay’s executive director.

Heal the Bay, which has published its report for 16 years, made strong recommendations to the county about how to pursue a solution. “It became a top-shelf issue,” Gold said.

The development was overdue, many residents said.

“We’re getting to a critical point,” said Kelly Meyer, who with her husband, Universal Studios President Ron Meyer, lives at the beach near the areas targeted for testing. “We’re all part of the problem, so we can all be part of the solution.”

Meyer acknowledged that there are probably “a few people who think it’s not my fault and want to look the other way. But, as a community, everybody is ready and willing to look at solutions.”

Judy Villablanca, treasurer of the Winding Way-DeButts Terrace Home and Land Owners Assn. in Escondido Canyon, said she applauded the program but worried that it might be hard on older canyon residents who have lived in Malibu a long time and “don’t have the income to upgrade.” A state-of-the-art upgrade for a septic system can cost as much as $100,000.

Malibu Mayor Ken Kearsley said the city spent $900,000 studying contamination in the civic center area and found that 85% of the bacterial pollution resulted from surface runoff from streets, parking lots and roofs; 15% stemmed from septic systems.

He said he welcomes the county’s DNA testing.

“If the DNA shows it’s human, we’ll have to do something,” he said. “If it’s animal, we’ll have to do something. Either way, we’ll have to fix it.”