O.C. shrugs off Coastal Commission’s cures for Aliso Creek breaches

Skimboarders dig into the sand berm at Aliso Beach. Photo courtesy of Laguna Bluebelt Coalition

The California Coastal Commission has called on Orange County to step-up enforcing laws that ban breaching a sand berm at the Aliso Creek terminus, putting the burden on county staffers to prevent skimboarders from releasing polluted runoff into the ocean.

The state panel encouraged county officials to install signage, distribute brochures, enlist docents, and have park rangers write citations for unauthorized breaching activity, according to a March 9 letter. Skim boarders enjoy the thrill of riding a stream of creek water down the berm and into the surf.

“We understand that the County has undertaken some of these measures, but has not attempted to enforce County code provisions that prohibit breaching of the lagoon,” coastal enforcement manager Andrew Willis wrote.

In response to questions from the Independent, OC Parks pushed back against the state official’s claim that they’re not already enforcing the law at the terminus of Aliso Creek.

“The condition of the berm at Aliso Beach is routinely monitored. OC Parks will continue to educate the public on berm breaching activities and enforce if appropriate,” OC Parks spokesperson Marisa O’Neil wrote in an email.

O’Neil declined to offer details on why county officials believe the Coastal Commission staff were mistaken in finding there’s been no enforcement after berm breaching at Aliso Beach.

A coalition of marine environment advocates have inked their own letters to county and city officials, stating their members haven’t witnessed rangers write a single citation or make an arrest.

“The fact that the Coastal Commission would do extensive research and remind the County of their responsibilities is a significant step forward,” Laguna Bluebelt Coalition co-founder Mike Beanan said. “I’m not against skimboarding. I’m against people discharging polluted water into the ocean.”

A channel was dug into the sand beneath Aliso Creek for skimboarding. Photo courtesy of Laguna Bluebelt Coalition

Exasperated with the lack of law enforcement, the Surfrider Foundation reminded county officials that private citizens who dig out and attempt to manipulate Aliso Creek sand berm are subject to citation.

“We ask you to put an end to these illegal activities, ensuring that the laws are followed in both letter and spirit, and that our shared coast and waterways are receiving the protection required and deserved,” Surfrider Foundation policy manager Jennifer Savage wrote in a letter.

State, county, and city jurisdictions bump up against each other at Aliso Beach, creating a “cat-and-mouse game” that has allowed involved agencies to avoid taking responsibility, Beanan said. The Orange County Flood Control District is listed as the parcel’s property owner but state lands extend up to the median high-tide line. OC Parks operates and polices county-owned beaches, including Aliso Beach.

The County holds primary responsibility for maintaining the Aliso Creek berm and ensuring compliance with state and county codes, Laguna Beach police chief Jeff Calvert said in a prepared statement.

“Laguna Beach Police have no legal basis to cite or arrest anyone for breaching the Aliso Creek berm, since it is not in violation of the Orange County Codified Ordinances,” Calvert said.

County laws banning creek disruption, only apply to creeks in unincorporated areas but the Aliso Creek berm is located within the Laguna Beach city limits. The Orange County Board of Supervisors could choose to close the loophole and remove the reference to unincorporated areas or include portions of County creeks that run within incorporated cities, Calvert said.

Beanan pointed out that Laguna Beach police cite illegally-parked cars in the county-owned parking lot and enforce traffic laws on state-owned highways running through the City.

“This is a chance for the city leadership to show they care about all of Laguna,” he said.

The recent dust-up isn’t the first time state officials have probed county officials’ lack of enforcement at Aliso Creek. In January 2021, the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board issued an investigative order to Orange County Parks and Orange County Environmental Resources regarding the sand berm breaches.

“This lack of oversight and monitoring appears to be inconsistent with the public health and safety, environmental protection, and monitoring measures implemented during the authorized sand bar berm maintenance activities periodically conducted by OC Parks,” state water quality officials wrote.

Orange County Sup. Lisa Bartlett declined to comment for this story.

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  1. This once glorious natural water way has been poisoned for decades due the golf course and additional run off from Aliso Viejo, Laguna Niguel and other cities that line Aliso Creek.

    Every time it rains the man made berm is broken and dirty poisoned water containing fecal matter and other microbes poison the beach and Aliso Beach has to be closed down. YUK-brown ocean water….

    What of the estuary redo that has been proposed? Better yet STOP fertilizing the vast green fields of planted grass that is the golf course. Catch and cure the water before it hits the beach?

    We humans have an innate ability to destroy ecosystems while carving the land for homes and holes-in-one.

  2. (1) The SOC Wastewater Authority has tested both in the ponded water and ankle deep in the ocean. The differences were negligible, nil. Call Amber Baylor @ SOCWA and she can confirm that not only do the parties named in the column know of those results but so does the SDRWQCB…notice the wording : An “investigative order,” but no direction, no sanctions? They’re the ultimately responsible agency as they are the regulators and see any fines being handed down?
    (2) So the polluted state is a binary question: If it IS so contaminated, shouldn’t the County be litigated under the Us Clean Water/Cali Porter-Cologne Water Quality Acts? Shouldn’t the SDRWQCB have issued a Cease & Desist or Cleanup & Abatement Order? If these self-described protectionists want a resolution, then spend some of those millions that Surfrider gets for license plate rims and t-shirts, use your attorneys, you know “PROTECT THE BEACH.”
    (3) If it is SO contaminated, also press the issue, have a judge declare the pond both an ATTRACTIVE & PUBLIC NUISANCE.
    (4) If it IS so polluted, shouldn’t the County RESTRAIN the public from wading through and/or bodily immersion, to protect taxpayers from possible personal injury litigation?
    (5) And if it IS so polluted, who has gotten sick and WHY haven’t they filed?
    (6) That berm is NOT natural—-Aliso Creek Mouth ceased to be natural decades ago when the County constricted/channelized the evacuation point, built the parking lot and frontage. So how can the berm be natural if the historical elements of the beach no longer are?
    (7) Laguna Bluebelt Coalition has never been a non-profit—-Go online and try to donate: “Donate to the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition, a FISCAL PROJECT of OneOC.” (Which IS a non-profit with according to my research ZERO names from the eco-protectionist community on staff or the BOD). Go online, don’t believe me, I defy anyone to name one person employed or on the Board who has enviro-credentials.

  3. I challenge Mr. Willis, Coastal Program Analyst at California Coastal Commission, on his comment. “We understand that the County has undertaken some of these measures, but has not attempted to enforce County code provisions that prohibit breaching of the lagoon,” coastal enforcement manager Andrew Willis wrote.”

    Bottom line, there is no “lagoon”.

    During heavy rains, The Ranch property has flooded. Not just the golf course, but the hotel rooms. Stagnant water, leads to vector issues. We have had anopheles and aedes mosquitos breeding when the water is stagnant.

    No one wants polluted water to flow to the ocean. But get real-there is no lagoon.

    I would love to speak with Mr. Willis about the details of the water course in this area, having lived here for 30 years. Unfortunately, Coastal Commission staff does not return phone calls.

    Joanne McMahon
    Aliso Circle Improvement Association

  4. The Laguna Ocean Foundation has dedicated a decade to develop a Aliso Estuary Restoration Project funded by the Coastal Conservancy in coordination with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP). Modest contributions from the South Laguna Civic Association and other environmental NGOs have added to this visionary effort.

    Dry season flows of urban runoff to Aliso Creek have been reduced by 47% by working together productively for years with inland water districts and cities. The natural beach sand berm, if left undisturbed by illegal breaching activities, provides a wide pathway for safe public access to northern beaches and allows lifeguards to conduct rescues. Throughout the day and night, the sand berm slowly filters excess lagoon water to maintain an equilibrium and protect the integrity of the berm.

    In 2018, cooperation and monitoring protected the berm all summer. Subsequent surveys offshore by marine biologists, found rare assemblages of inter tidal fish species.

    Breaching the berm is the biggest source of routine pollution in Laguna. Working together, with forward thinking groups, City, County Public Works and inland partners protects safe public access and ocean water quality to support recovery of sea life in Laguna’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).


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