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Unofficial dog beach at Santa Ana River jetty to get more signs to stay away

People and their dogs
People and their dogs enjoy the beach near lifeguard tower No. 74 at the mouth of the Santa Ana River in Newport Beach on Wednesday.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The California Coastal Commission has cleared Orange County to place more “no trespassing” signs at the mouth of the Santa Ana River to keep dogs and people away from sensitive bird habitat nearby, although birders and commissioners both wonder how much good it will really do.

It is, however, a start, they say.

The commission agreed to signage Wednesday specifically targeting commercial dog-walkers, who bring packs of often off-leash dogs along with individual dog owners to the jetty where the river meets the Pacific Ocean. That’s because commercial dog-walking, commission staff argues, is potential “development” in violation of the state Coastal Act, in addition to long-known but little-enforced bans on dogs on county beaches, leash laws, and dogs and humans in a flood control channel that the county says is unsafe for either to enter.

Nardy Khan, from Orange County Public Works, said the county is working on a solution but it’s difficult for sheriff’s deputies to enforce trespassing laws along all the hundreds of miles of flood control channels in the county’s jurisdiction. Deputies take an educational approach, preferring warnings to tickets.

Commissioner Erik Howell wants enforcement. He said this plan doesn’t go far enough, and he’s not sure it will make a difference.

“All this feels very familiar,” he said, explaining why he was the only one of 10 commissioners to vote against the proposal. “I think it’s going to be very difficult to get compliance. I think there needs to be more signs. There needs to be more enforcement. There’s such thing as private attorney general too, and if the county can’t enforce it, then maybe somebody else needs to.”

An endangered Western snowy plover
An endangered western snowy plover parent keeps a close watch on its chick on the Huntington Beach side of the mouth of the Santa Ana River on Wednesday.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)
An endangered Western snowy plover chick
An endangered Western snowy plover chick hides under a branch.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The county will present annual reports to the commission with data on visits by deputies and staff and the number of warnings and citations issued to gauge the efficacy of the signage.

“My observation is that it takes a long time to change human behavior unless you’re really coming down hard with a hammer,” Commissioner Katie Rice said. “Enforcement is one thing, but it’s hard for the sheriff to do that and it just feels like beyond this one small step for the snowy plover, there’s going to have to be a lot more effort on education.”

The embattled beach has been an off-and-on target of the various jurisdictions that converge at the river mouth.

The beach, with its calm surf and position at the end of a funnel of miles of runoff, straddles Newport Beach-Huntington Beach city limits and is a longtime unofficial dog beach. In 2016, Newport’s Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission voted unanimously to reject a proposal to have city animal-control officers enforce leash restrictions there and instead suggested the county look into designating the area as an official dog beach.

People and their dogs enjoy the beach near lifeguard tower 74.
Catherine Steinberg, from the Irvine-based Sea & Sage Audubon Society says 2020 needs “to be the last year that dogs disrupt and harass snowy plovers and least terns and other birds at the Santa Ana River mouth.”
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The Orange County Board of Supervisors started to follow suit later that year, but halted a final vote on an ordinance that would have changed county law to permit off-leash dogs on that stretch of sand over environmental groups’ concerns about the birds that roost nearby — specifically, the endangered California least tern and the threatened western snowy plover.

In 2018, the environmentalists approached the Coastal Commission to say the sensitive plover is feeling ill effects of dogs frolicking in the surf and government could be doing more to help, a familiar refrain repeated Wednesday.

Penny Elia, from the Sierra Club, said the area already has plenty of signs, which the public disregards.

Catherine Steinberg, from the Irvine-based Sea & Sage Audubon Society, said she supports the added signage as a starting point, with more commitment from the county.

She played a video of a yellow lab chasing willets as a newly fledged least tern hovered nearby, too young to know it was in danger, she said,

“We need 2020 to be the last year that dogs disrupt and harass snowy plovers and least terns and other birds at the Santa Ana River mouth,” she said.

People and their dogs enjoy the beach
The embattled beach has been an off-and-on target of the various jurisdictions that converge at the river mouth.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

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