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Checking city’s water honor

Apparently Village Laguna wasn’t too thrilled with the city’s designation as a “beach buddy” by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental activist group.

A few months ago, the city was given the equivalent of an Academy Award for ocean water quality — the only city on the West Coast to get the designation, and the only one anywhere in a major metropolitan area.

The designation resulted from the group’s Testing the Waters program, a nationwide data-gathering that resulted in the “beach buddy” and “beach bum” designations for best and worst water quality.

It was a huge accomplishment for Laguna, which in the last millennium (not that long ago) was hand-slapped by the EPA over the large number of sewage spills that fouled local waters.

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The “beach buddy” story got lots of ink nationwide and may have contributed to a swell of beachgoers during that spate of wonderful warm-water weather this summer.

The city didn’t seek the designation and City Manager Ken Frank was obviously surprised — and blushingly pleased — when he was notified of it.

It was a bit ironic that a week before the beach buddy designation became public a skimboarding contest at Aliso Beach had to be moved slightly north due to a major sewage spill down Aliso Creek, but hey, crap happens.

Now we learn that Village Laguna president Anne Caen penned a letter to the Natural Resources Defense Council that generated a response from the group’s Santa Monica office. The NRDC letter was dated October 5. We asked Caen for a copy of her original letter, which came in just at press time.

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A press release from Aliso activist Michael Beanan announces, “NRDC advocates more local action to curb ocean pollution in Laguna Beach.” Beanan did not respond to our query for more information.

The NRDC letter to Caen makes it pretty clear that Caen was questioning the organization for giving its thumbs-up to Laguna’s water quality.

Caen wanted the NRDC to know that Aliso Creek funnels millions of gallons of urban runoff every day into the ocean, and wondered whether Laguna’s water issues were being served by the “buddy” moniker.

“As a result of the award, the public, county and city has an impression that little else needs to be done to protect our coastal waters,” Caen wrote.

Caen apparently succeeded in putting the Defense Council itself on the defensive.

David Beckman and Michelle Mehta of the NRDC’s branch office in Southern California responded that, “A beach buddy designation should not be interpreted as a finding that the community has no water pollution problems.”

The letter goes on, “Nor should it be interpreted to mean that the community need not take further action toward eliminating beach water pollution.”

In other words, Laguna’s waters are clean, but, okay, they could be cleaner.

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The NRDC further clarifies that the “beach buddy” designation was specifically to recognize Laguna’s installation of “a series of storm drain urban runoff diversions to reduce bacteria at community beaches.”

Now are we perfectly clear that the “beach buddy” designation does not mean that Aliso Creek doesn’t need to be cleaned up? I hope so.

So, is the NRDC now backing away from the “beach buddy” designation and saying the city isn’t deserving of the recognition? No way.

In fact, Beckman was surprised and shocked that his letter was interpreted as a “announcement,” telling us unequivocally that “notwithstanding the headline and the inclusion of my name as a contact, NRDC did not prepare, review or even know of this release before your call.”

But Beckman adds, “We don’t want our Testing the Waters program misunderstood or misused by those who don’t support actions to clean up local waters. To the contrary, Testing the Waters is intended to spur communities across the nation to make an investment in clean water.”

Beckman points out that Testing the Waters monitors “pathogens” — bacteria and viral agents that can make humans sick — not the myriad of other compounds that make their way to the ocean and cause environmental damage.

Aliso Beach, for instance, despite being inundated by urban runoff, routinely tests “clean” for swimming by the County.

It’s a murky subject, to be sure.

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But we can all rest easier knowing that Caen and her group won’t let the city rest too long on its clean water laurels.

Cindy Frazier is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be reached at cindy.frazier@latimes.com


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