New Wave of Coastal Planning Comes Ashore
Like a powerful winter swell, political action related to California's treasured coastline is generating waves in halls of local government, the capitol and even courtrooms these days. Political, environmental, and economic development interests are combining forces to create some of the most intensive changes to coastal planning since the passage of the Coastal Act in 1972. Even cities that are many miles inland could feel the effects of this beach-protection movement.
Perhaps the most interesting part of all this new activity is the way legislation is coming about: environmental groups are educating and encouraging local governments to collaborate in lobbying state and federal entities. The strategy is working. The experience of the California Coastal Coalition indicates that grassroots movements can catalyze top-down change, especially when their positions are built upon compelling science and arguments.
The coalition, dubbed CalCoast, was only formed in July 1998, but it has already established a legislative beachhead with the passage of AB 64 this past summer. The Public Beach Restoration Act funds a study of beach sand replenishment projects. The Encinitas-based non-profit boasts the participation of 26 cities (from Eureka to Imperial Beach), two regional COGs (SANDAG and the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments), and BEACON, a Santa Barbara-Ventura County government joint powers authority formed in 1996 to address beach erosion. Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego), who authored AB 64, said the solid scientific basis for CalCoast's advocacy provided the group with credibility.
The group also has astutely emphasized the economy to get its message across to local governments. A commonly cited 1995 San Francisco State University study estimated that the state's beaches were responsible for $10 billion in direct spending $1 billion in state taxes and more than 500,000 jobs. Beach-related jobs constituted 3.5% of the state's employment. Another study prepared by Cal Coastal shows a yawning inequity of federal coastal protection spending. Of $89 million in dollars spent in 1998, $60 million, or 67%, went to New York, New Jersey, and Florida. "This is mainly because California has not asked for the money," says Steve Aceti, a former New York state lobbyist and now the CalCoast executive director. "The other thing is that California has no sustained state program for beach protection and replenishment, and federal dollars are attracted to states with matching programs."
It was only a few years ago that most of the state's coastal communities took their beaches and coastal resources for granted. Actual jurisdiction – and therefore government responsibility – has been the purview of state or county parks systems, which were commonly losers during this decade's public budget shuffling. Even today, most coastal municipalities follow the historic assumption that matters such as beach protection are handled by the US Army Corps of Engineers, so the cities employ few engineers who understand coastal hydrology. But due to steady and growing pressure from a few persistent environmental groups, and a trend of shifting of responsibilities to local levels, an emergent new coalition of coastal communities has formed, and its advocacy efforts are beginning to alter how the State deals with our beaches.
This sort of advocacy started with AB 411, passed into law in 1997. A San Diego environmental group known as Surfers Tired of Pollution (STOP), an affinity group that preceded CalCoast, backed the bill, which was a "right to know" law. This legislation, by La Jolla Assemblyman Howard Wayne, focused on requiring county health departments to test and post water quality information at public beaches regularly. The law took effect in July of this year, and the results have been dramatic.
The City of Huntington Beach ended up being the poster child for AB 411, having its famous beaches red-flagged for more than 119 days by the Orange County Department of Public Health. Under the old rules, the beach would have been posted for only 7 days. Although still not entirely verified, the problems appeared to stem from stagnant stormdrain water that was flushed to sea as part of permitted hotel construction project. The reaction has been dramatic. The City has calculated and publicized the huge monetary losses on its tourist revenue stream this summer, and the events have not escaped notice up and down the coast by other municipalities that face similar public relations black eyes.
Meanwhile, water quality and wetland creation efforts are also gaining steam. Led by Santa Monica and its efforts to clean stormwater runoff that has long polluted the fabled bay, coastal cities are suddenly very interested in making sure compliance with Clean Water Act rules about stormwater runoff are enforced. In October, the City of Laguna Beach received broad publicity about its consideration of suing upstream municipalities for polluted water that they discharge into creeks that ends up on Laguna's beaches. The city's threat signals a potential for expanding the responsibility for clean ocean water to inland communities. Perhaps the swell of coastal protection will have a pull beyond the coastal zone.
Stephen Svete, AICP, is a principal in the Ventura-based consulting firm of Rincon Consultants.