Dorothy Green, a leading environmental activist whose anger over the pollution of Santa Monica Bay spurred her to establish the grass-roots group Heal the Bay and head efforts to change water policy in California, died Monday at her Westwood home. She was 79. The cause was melanoma, according to her son, Joshua.
Green became a warrior for clean water in 1985 after hearing how her brother had been splattered with barely treated sewage from an open drain at Ballona Creek in Marina del Rey. The creek runs into Santa Monica Bay, which encompasses a large swath of the Southern California coast, from Point Dume south to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Soon after the incident, Green huddled in her living room with a group of like-minded activists and formed Heal the Bay, which became a leader in the fight to clean up and protect local coastal waters. One of the largest nonprofit environmental groups in Los Angeles with 15,000 members, it is known for its annual Beach Report Card on water quality at California beaches.
When Green launched Heal the Bay, the challenges were significant.
“We had a ‘dead zone’ in the middle of Santa Monica Bay, we had bottom fish with tumors and 10-million-gallon sewage spills in the middle of a bright summer day. None of that occurs anymore,” said Mark Gold, a marine biologist and Heal the Bay’s executive director, who has been with the group almost from its inception. “That’s Dorothy’s legacy you see every time you look out at the bay.”
Heal the Bay, of which Green was founding president, was only one of the products of her vision. She also founded the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring and preserving the watershed, and California Water Impact Network, which is focused on the equitable use of public water.
She was a mentor to many of the current leaders on water issues in the state, including Timothy F. Brick, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and a longtime water activist.
“She was quite unique in our generation,” said Brick, who knew Green for 35 years. “She not only was personally a very effective advocate but she founded a series of organizations that have been very effective in shaping policy on a variety of different water issues.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in a statement Monday, called her “a giant of the environmental movement.”
Green, the daughter of Polish immigrants, was born in Detroit on March 16, 1929. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in music in 1951, the same year she married her husband, Jacob. He joined her family’s construction business and from 1955 to 1960 the couple worked together in Desert Hot Springs building and later operating a motel and water system.
She took her first step toward activism in 1962, when she joined the Exceptional Children’s Foundation to help people like her son, Hershel, who is mentally challenged. For the next 17 years she ran the organization’s Christmas card program, which raised $25,000 a year. With another son facing the draft, she also became involved in the antiwar movement.
By the early 1970s she was a full-fledged citizen warrior. She campaigned for Proposition 20, which led to the creation of the California Coastal Commission. Later, she joined the fight against a proposal to build a peripheral canal, which would bring Northern California water south through the California Aqueduct by looping around the polluted Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. That campaign “got her hooked on water” issues, according to Gold.
By 1985 she was a coordinator of Working Alliance to Equalize Rates, a group concerned with statewide water issues. She also was president of the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, a politically oriented environmental group.
When the phone call came from her brother about his troubling discovery in Ballona Creek, she was, she recalled in an interview with Surfline magazine, “between issues.” She sprang into action, starting with a personal inspection of the spot in the creek where largely untreated waste was spilling out next to a popular bike trail.
“The stench was undeniable,” Green recalled in a 1987 interview with The Times.
Due to the efforts of Green and a small group of other activists, a political stink ensued.
Green called a number of leading environmentalists, including then-Assemblyman Tom Hayden, who represented the Westside. With Green leading the charge, they exposed problems in the city of Los Angeles’ decaying sewer system, applying public pressure that generated critical attention.
The city was fined $180,000 by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board for several spills that had dumped nearly 200,000 gallons of waste into the ocean. The next year, 1986, the city agreed to introduce secondary treatment of sewage at its Hyperion plant in El Segundo, a first step in a years-long process of detoxifying the bay.
The group soon began to hear reports of what many people believed to be the health consequences of swimming in polluted waters.
“We started getting calls from surfers with infected ears and rashes,” Green said. “We found out the lifeguards had an inordinate history of cancer and health problems, but the county didn’t recognize the links between water quality and these illnesses.”
When Green’s group formally organized as a nonprofit, it chose the name Heal the Bay because “it communicates hope,” Green said. “That’s the main thing we wanted to sell.”
It held beach rallies to sign up members and generate publicity and offered testimony at hearings before regulatory boards. At the center was Green, who colleagues said had a gift for communicating with everyone from sewage treatment engineers to volunteers assigned to pick up beach litter.
“You could not say no to Dorothy,” said Paula Daniels, a Los Angeles Board of Public Works commissioner who gave up a law career to join Green’s water battles.
By 1987, Heal the Bay counted 900 individuals and 60 organizations as members. They celebrated a major victory that year when a federal judge approved a settlement between the city and the federal Environmental Protection Agency after Los Angeles agreed to cease dumping sewage sludge into the bay and to upgrade the Hyperion facility.
Heal the Bay was granted friend-of-the-court status in the EPA lawsuit and assigned the role of monitoring the city’s progress. By 1989, the Hyperion plant was nine years ahead of schedule in meeting an important federal pollution standard. In 1992, she participated in the opening of a new sewer line that would help end the dumping of sewage into the bay. Green served seven years as president of Heal the Bay. In 1990 then-Mayor Tom Bradley appointed her to a term on the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, which sets policy for the Department of Water and Power. She remained a member of Heal the Bay’s board.
The venerable activist was first diagnosed with melanoma 30 years ago. In 2003, the cancer reappeared and spread to her brain and eventually to other organs, but Green refused to let her illness interfere with the issues that remained at the top of her agenda.
In 2005 she spoke passionately at Heal the Bay’s 20th anniversary gala on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier -- 11 days after undergoing a major operation. Earlier this year, she showed up at the group’s board meeting a week after having her spleen and kidney removed.
Two weeks ago, while bedridden and in hospice care, she wrote an eloquent plea for sensible water policy, which was published on The Times’ opinion page last Wednesday.
“Until her last breath,” Gold said, “she was going to try to make this a better place.”
In addition to Joshua, of Brentwood, and Hershel, of Diamond Bar, she is survived by her son, Avrom, of Phoenix; brothers Morris Cohen of Los Angeles and Gerald Cohen of Westwood; and three grandchildren.
Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles 90068. Memorial donations may be sent to California Water Impact Network, the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, and Heal the Bay.