Roger von Butow
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
-- The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot
A poet writing 80 years ago summed up the conundrum society faces
The soil, sand and minerals that wash down from our watersheds (inland
or coastal) have changed in chemical and physical composition.
Human-induced land disturbances, the grading and dredging necessary for
development, hold bad news. These sources are considered pollutants by
the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Some historical data helps to clarify the quandary: There are existing
nuances to creeks and rivers that result in the necessary transporting of
ingredients. Our beaches do not result solely from seaside bluff erosion.
For the most part, they are formed due to the deposition of sand carried
down that “long and winding road” hydrologists call a watershed. Aliso
Creek, for example, is almost 80% developed, so very little sedimentation
is taking place due to lack of open space.
This means Aliso Beach will eventually “starve,” as it were, and there
may be an eventual depletion that cannot be reacquired naturally. Recent
media attention is justified about the alarm bells going off about
replenishment sources. The San Juan Creek exiting in Dana Point is at 40%
development, so Doheny Beach and San Clemente are no longer receiving
their previous allotment. Laguna Canyon Creek (Main Beach) is beginning
to show these same symptoms.
No beaches, no tourists, no revenue.
The Center for Watershed Protection asserts that “critical mass,” the
point of no return, is around 30%. Obviously, that threshold or event
horizon was passed long ago.
The “nexus” of the problem is further complicated by the fact that our
creeks and tributaries have become conveyance systems for waste water.
Originally integrated as part of flood control, the numerous toxic
substances found in urban runoff that dominate our streams cling or
adhere to the matter. They accumulate in dense clusters, then are dumped
at one time (like a clogged toilet) out into the ocean when the first
flush of a significant rainfall occurs. This is that 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch rainfall that water quality advocates dread.
You’ll note the well-publicized health care warnings about swimming or
surfing in the 72 hours afterward as proof positive of this. No wonder
marine near-tidal areas adjacent to creek mouths are “dead zones,” as the
inhabitants are sensitive to these pollutants that overwhelm their
Ironically, Mother Nature in the past found a delicate balance, a
biotic stasis. Helping to scour and scrub the stream beds, sedimentation
also served to enhance or create nurseries for aquatic species. Even the
trees and attendant woody pulp that was transported were necessary. The
historical meandering quality of these creeks dissipated (like a coiled
shock absorber) the cataclysmic flood events. After being straightened
into typically concrete channels, they move along the very contaminants
we dread farther and faster, precluding organic processes. This robs them
of their ability to cleanse and spirit away the elements that result in
The presence of contaminants destroy fish-nesting areas, clog animal
habitats and cause “turbidity,” a clouding of the water so that sunlight
fails to reach bottom plant communities.
To offset partially the damage, vacuum or regenerative air street
sweepers have become state-of-the-art in efficiently picking up
pollutant-laden sediment on streets all over Orange County.
The city of Laguna Beach, waiting until the clock strikes 12, is the
last storm water permitted to include these machines, mandated by the Air
Quality Management District by 2003. Quiet, yet incredibly effective,
I’ll be tipping my hat each time I see one go down our avenues.
I hope residents will cooperate: Ask not what your sweeper can do for
you, but what you can do for your sweeper. My sediments, exactly.
* ROGER VON BUTOW is the Founder of the Clean Water Now! Coalition and
co-founder of the South Orange County Watershed Conservancy. E-mail: