By John Tapley
Where there is water, there is life, and when waterways are afflicted – polluted, choked, stifled – it makes a sweeping significant impact on all aspects of life and society. While scuba divers have enjoyed firsthand encounters of the world beneath the waves, they make up a small percentage of people on planet Earth: a big, blue sphere that demands the attention of all its residents. Education is a keystone to understanding the manifold systems, which govern water cycles; advocacy often a necessity to ensure it remains protected. For over 30 years, Heal the Bay, a non-profit organization headquartered on the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, has enlightened people on issues concerning water safety and sustainability, and has electrified them to enhance the world.
Heal the Bay was formed in 1985 to help battle discharge from poorly treated sewage into Santa Monica Bay – Los Angeles’s coastline where millions of people swim, surf, scuba dive, and spearfish each year. According to Heal the Bay President and CEO Shelley Luce, the runoff was so devastating, it created a dead zone of toxicity, which blanketed a large portion of the bay and its surrounding shoreline. Banded together for a common goal, activists stridently worked to change their environment for the better.
“Dorothy Green, our founder, spearheaded a campaign to force Hyperion (the sewage treatment plant that treats most of LA) to clean up the discharge: after nine years and a lawsuit, they won! Now we have a much healthier thriving bay: the dead zone has disappeared, sea life has come back, and our beaches are much cleaner and safer for people to swim, surf, and dive without getting sick. It was the strong foundation Heal the Bay has built on over the years.”
With formidable local support, Heal the Bay grew from a grassroots effort into an officially designated environmental advocacy non-profit organization. Luce details one of its prolific accomplishments:
“In the late ‘90s/early 2000s, Heal the Bay was one of the groups that forced the State of California, specifically LA County, to start implementing parts of the Clean Water Act (total maximum daily loads) that had been ignored: it was and is really important because storm water run-off is the biggest source to our coastal waters. It requires cities and the county to either capture or treat the polluted run-off before it gets to the coast; it has resulted in another huge step forward to cleaning up our beaches.”
Extending its mission of education, conservation, and activism with a wider audience, Heal the Bay established the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium in 1996. Showcasing the bay’s environment within an educational hub provides guests who haven’t experienced the majesty of underwater exploration with opportunities to understand the unique world beneath the surface – and just a stone’s throw off the pier. A swath of animals, numbering over 100 local species, proudly displays the dual fragility and charming character of Santa Monica sea life; meticulously crafted exhibits provide guests with valuable information on where their refuse ends up, and how it impacts the environment at large; regular educational programs drive the community by teaching fishermen and women how to determine and avoid toxic fish, and encouraging youths to pursue careers that help shape the future.
“People from all over California, the country, and the world come to our aquarium, and when they look over the bay, they see a flat surface and don’t know what’s underneath. At the aquarium, they can touch invertebrates from the intertidal zone, and see swell sharks, moray eels, octopus, and sea horses: all of the kelp forest fish we have. They have a completely different understanding of the life that is supported by Santa Monica Bay and the coast of California. It’s wonderful to see.”
“A challenge for healing the ocean – for protecting our coastal waters – is helping people understand that everything that happens on land affects oceans, lakes, and rivers,” she continues. “People don’t always make the connection: when they drop a cigarette butt or a Styrofoam cup on the ground, it’s going to go in the storm drain, then onto the beach, then into the ocean where it’s going to get eaten by [sea life] and make them sick or strangled. Connecting people to that and helping them understand the magnitude of the problem and how we can stop it – and we can stop it if we choose to – is a big challenge, and we’ve made a lot of progress.”
Looking ever forward in its drive to safeguard waterways, Heal the Bay is diligently working on a campaign to convert paved surfaces to absorbent surfaces or redirect water, and in doing so, ensuring water naturally soaks into the earth: putting a stopgap on storm water pollution and increasing vital ground water. Upcoming summer activities and events include an educational summer camp for kids right on the beach; Nick Gabalon Day, which celebrates the life and triumphs of the first known African-American surfer in Santa Monica Bay; beach cleanups at Playa del Rey and Venice Beach; and a host of regular aquarium programs tailored for guests of all ages.
From grassroots origins, Heal the Bay has come a long way in its 33 years: hard science coupled with grit and determination have made it a beacon for environmental adherents the world over. Now a full-fledged program with an accompanying facility, it illustrates what concerned citizens can accomplish when they fight for their waterways.
“Contact your local environmental group, go out to cleanups, donate to your group, and call your elected officials and demand they will reduce trash and improve our water,” Luce advises. “It was really important for Heal the Bay that people called them and supported the ban on plastic bags. It makes a big difference – getting that change in motion.”
For more information on Heal the Bay, including details on the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, and upcoming events and features, visit www.healthebay.org.