Commentary: Remember the fight to save the coast

Baby boomers may remember the Beatles' verse: "It was 20 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play." How long 20 years seemed when that song was released!

Let's double that this October and November to celebrate the 40th anniversaries of the federal Clean Water Act and the passage (Nov. 7, 1972) of Proposition 20, the Coastal Initiative, here in California.

Having lived through those 40 years, it doesn't seem like a long time, but to people younger than 40, it is, admittedly, personally prehistoric.

So for all those younger than 40, or who just don't remember, here's a brief review: Prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted it erupted in flames, millions of fish died of contamination in a single Florida lake, and many rivers, lakes and bays were so polluted that two thirds of U.S. waterways at the time were unfit for fishing or swimming.

With unprecedented bipartisan support, Congress took action and passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The legislation was signed by President Richard Nixon. Since then Lake Erie and many other lakes and rivers have been cleaned up.

In the 1960s, the California coast was being walled off by the development one sees in Malibu — beach houses so close together that you can't see the ocean from Highway 1, or in Redondo Beach where huge apartment and condominium complexes replaced single family homes, or major hotels on the beach, such as high-rise Holiday Inns in Monterey and Ventura and the Surf & Sand in Laguna Beach.

Then came the 1969 Santa Barbara oil blowout, the result of cost-cutting by Union Oil. Thick black crude oil coated the beach for months and killed innumerable birds, fish and sea mammals. Californians went into action. Gated-communities, nuclear power plants and industrialization were not what the citizens of California envisioned as a remake of their fabled coast.

After three failed attempts to have coastal protection legislation passed through the Legislature, the Coastal Alliance went to the initiative process in 1972. Under brilliant leadership, the coalition collected 416,000 verified voter signatures in 34 days — about 16,000 signatures a day — gathered by thousands of unpaid signature gatherers. To have done this in a day when social media did not exist is inconceivable today. They relied on "phone trees," where one person called 10 people, who each called 10 people etc. But they didn't even have answering machines!

However, as a result, Proposition 20 went onto the ballot, and with the combination of great strategy, statewide organization and the tireless energy of citizens who were passionate to protect the coast, the proposition was passed by 55% of voters Nov. 7, 1972.

Proposition 20 created the California Coastal Commission and lead to passage in 1976 of the Coastal Act. The law and the commission have continued to protect natural resources, public access to beaches and to assure that the beauty of the coast is available to both rich and poor. Among its many accomplishments, it has also worked with other state agencies to maintain the moratorium on new oil drilling along the California coast. Despite challenges in the court system and from several governors, as well as lobbyists representing developers, utilities and oil companies, the Coastal Act has survived and has also served as a model for coastal protection throughout the world.

There are millions of people each year who enjoy the amenities and benefits of the California coast. But as we now see in Congress, with repeated efforts by the House of Representatives to gut federal environmental protection such as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Act is only as strong as the will of the voters to protect it.

Those of us old enough to remember the events leading up to 1972 will eventually be gone. Indeed, this past year saw the passing of Peter Douglas, the Coastal Commission's executive director for 26 years and a fierce fighter involved in coastal protection since 1971. As Douglas often said, "The coast is never saved. It's always being saved." That's why the torch of coastal protection must be taken up by those younger. But first they need to understand why so many worked so hard to implement it.

To this end, 40 years later, myself and others are creating and promoting a documentary called "Heroes of the Coast," about the events leading up to and following the passage of Proposition 20. The documentary will be shown in free public presentations beginning in January, and via the web. We fervently hope many young people will use social media to encourage friends to join them in watching it. For more information, visit

PENNY ELIA is from Laguna Beach.

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