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Sounding off

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

immunity systems.

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

healthy ecosystems.

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: