Leonie Sherman
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Healing waters from city to sea

Words by Leonie Sherman • Photos courtesy Heal the Bay

Santa Monica Beach.

Thirty years ago locals were watching the Santa Monica Bay die before their eyes. “Lifeguards were getting sick, surfers were getting rashes, and we found dolphins with fin rot and huge tumors,” explains Lilian Ledesma, Volunteer Manager for Heal the Bay. “Nobody should ever get sick from swimming in the ocean and enjoying the beach.”

The source of the pollution was partially treated sewage from LA’s Hyperion waste water treatment facility. Dorothy Green gathered friends and neighbors in her living room to address the problem. The group pressured city officials to bring the treatment facility up to federal standards. “Now Hyperion dumps 90% less sewage into the bay,” says Senior Coastal Policy Manager Dana Murray. “That experience taught us that a small group of people working together really can change their world.”

That small group of people formally incorporated as Heal the Bay in 1986. Three decades later, they have a dedicated staff of fifty and an annual budget of $4 million, which they use to train hundreds of volunteers, educate thousands of school children and work closely with local agencies to ensure the continued health of their beloved bay. “When people from this community come together and take action with courage and conviction, we’re not just helping the environment, we’re helping neighborhoods and communities,” says Senior Aquarist Jose Bacallao.

Bacallao oversees Heal the Bay’s Aquarium, under the Santa Monica Pier. Originally run by UCLA, Bacallao helped the aquarium transition to private hands. “We wanted to change the programming so when kids come here they can hear the voice of Heal the Bay,” he explains. “We’re not hindered by relationships with oil companies, so we get to educate the young people who come here about whatever environmental causes Heal the Bay is working on.”

About 13,000 students and 75,000 tourists experience the Aquarium’s interactive educational programs each year. “We go out on our boat every week and sample kelp, the way you might sample tomatoes at a farmers market,” says Bacallao. “We take a personal approach to educating. We actually bring visitors to where they can touch the water and feel the sand.” Admission is $5 for adults, and free for kids under 13.

The Aquarium is only one way Heal the Bay makes a difference. Their efforts aim to address any human impact to the Santa Monica Bay and heighten awareness of how individual actions affect the ocean we all rely on.

Towards that end, Heal the Bay issues Beach Report Cards which grade beach water quality based on levels of bacterial pollution. When the program started in 1995, A to F grades were given to 64 locations; 20 years later they gather water quality data and assign grades for nearly 500 beaches from Washington state to the Mexican border.

“We also host monthly ‘Nothin’ but Sand’ beach clean ups,” Ledesma explains. Volunteers collect trash and keep a tally of what they pick up. “Those tally cards helped to ban styrofoam here in Santa Monica, and after we banned it they showed a lot less styrofoam on the beaches,” Ledesma explains. Almost 7,000 volunteers participate each year. Their enthusiasm continues to inspire Ledesma. “People really want to protect our environment, they just need the tools and knowledge to do it.”

A recent oil spill in Santa Barbara polluted the Santa Monica Bay and activated Heal the Bay’s citizen scientists. “We went out and took samples before some local agencies even got there,” says Vice-President Sarah Sikich. “So we were able to notify the public where pollution was happening.”

Smart water management is another goal for Heal the Bay. LA imports 80% of its water from the Colorado River, Owens Valley and Northern California; the recent drought makes that situation increasingly precarious. But on a rainy day billions of gallons of storm water run-off pollute the Santa Monica Bay. “Our single use mindset affects the way we see water,” says Program Manager James Alamillo. “Our challenge is to figure out how to increase storm water filtration into the ground so it can become part of our water supply.”

This commitment has brought Heal the Bay full circle. “Thirty years later, we are focusing on Hyperion again,” explains Sikich. “Even though the water they flush into the bay is up to state standards, we believe that water is wasted. How can we re-use that water, so it can be treated for landscaping or agricultural and industrial purposes?”

“We really want to connect the city to the sea,” says Sikich. “What you flush down your drain in Pasadena, 90 miles inland, has a huge impact on the Santa Monica Bay.” In an intensely urban environment, it can be difficult to understand how individual actions impact local waterways. So Heal the Bay brings educational programs to local schools, city councils and church groups.

They also focus on legislation. Heal the Bay worked on California’s plastic bag ban for eight years before its passage in 2014. “Plastic bags are one of the most common pieces of trash we find on our beach clean-ups,” explains Sikich. “So in addition to the state-wide ban, we also worked on encouraging local governments to pass their own bag bans.” As a result of their efforts, LA county, LA city, Long Beach, Pasadena, Santa Monica and Malibu all passed their own local ordinances banning single use plastic bags.

“That fight is also coming full circle,” sighs Sikich. The plastics industry fought back and gathered enough signatures to float a referendum on the 2016 ballot. Low turn-out made that possible – the number of signatures required for a state-wide ballot initiative is proportional to the number of voters in the previous election- and high turnout will be critical in defeating industry efforts. “We’re doing massive voter outreach, in hopes that the people of California will uphold our landmark legislation.”

But Heal the Bay likes to bring it back to what locals can see and touch. The fight to prevent oil drilling on Hermosa Beach was one of their most recent victories. When E & B Natural Resources announced plans to start drilling under the sea floor of a popular beach and construct 34 wells in a residential neighborhood, Heal the Bay teamed up with Keep Hermosa Hermosa and the Surfrider Foundation. “We had pep rallies, phone banking and organized a huge social media campaign,” says Ledesma. “And we helped to save that beach! 80% of voters voted no on Measure O!”

“The work we do requires political will,” says Sikich. “With so many pressing needs at the state and local level, it can be really difficult to make environmental issues a priority. But ultimately, when we heal the bay, we heal each other.”

Heal the Bay led the charge to enact a single-use plastic bag ban in California.

Angler Outreach Program volunteers educate fisherpeople.

Angler Outreach Program volunteers educate fisherpeople.

Los Angeles shoreline after a major rain storm.

Los Angeles shoreline after a major rain storm.

SCUBA divers remove trash from underneath the Santa Monica Pier on Coastal Cleanup Day.

SCUBA divers remove trash from underneath the Santa Monica Pier on Coastal Cleanup Day.

Heal the Bay President Alix Hobbs (right) and Vice President Sarah Sikich (left).

Heal the Bay President Alix Hobbs (right) and Vice President Sarah Sikich (left).