Some environmental historians credit early campaigns conducted by organizations on the Central Coast (including Surfrider) with kicking off the environmental movement for the entire country, so we are proud to be part of that tradition. Campaigns define us as an organization. They are how we protect our special coastal places, ensure our ocean is healthy and wild, keep pollution out of the water and make sure every beach is clean and accessible for all to enjoy. Each and every campaign has a defined beginning, middle and end. Nationally we’ve had 807 campaign victories since 2006.
Today, Surfrider has over 82 Chapters, 86 high school and college clubs and more than 1 million supporters, volunteers and activists fighting over 100 active campaigns around the country. That works out to about 4 victories per chapter. Surfrider SLO has had nine victories since 2012 – not bad for one of the smaller chapters in a semi-rural area!
On October 12th, 2019 Surfrider SLO celebrated 25 years of fun and successful efforts by our dedicated volunteers to protect our oceans, waves, and beaches! The Tribune covered the Chapter’s anniversary in the Photos from the Vault column by David Middlecamp. David excerpted a terrific article about the Chapter from our first year of operation 25 years ago published by The Tribune titled “SURFRIDER FOUNDATION: CRUSADING FOR A PRISTINE COAST.” Co-founder Paul Shiro was interviewed in the article and provided several memorable quotes, including his observation that Surfrider is not just a bunch of surfer dudes, and its members range “from barrister to beachcomber, from diver to diva.” He also explained that it was oil spills that prompted Schiro and his co-founders (Michael Rudge, Mark Campbell and Bob Olgin) to open the local chapter:
“The Unocal oil spill in Guadalupe, the Unocal oil spill in Avila, Chevron up in Estero Bay. . .. Those three got us going,” Schiro said. And like the four original members in Santa Monica who launched the foundation back in 1984, he said, “We felt there was a yearning in us to give something back.”
Thanks to David Middlecamp and the Tribune for recognizing the many years of hard work by our volunteers, past and present, writing advocacy statements, attending meetings, cleaning beaches, testing water, and all the things it takes to run a successful chapter. If you look down this page to 1995, you’ll see the Chapter started strong, winning the SLO County Environmental Organization of the Year Award in its first year of operation!
Below is a year by year list of our accomplishments with some local environmental history thrown in for context.
In November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a Notice of Intent advancing the public process to designate the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary (CHNMS). Violet Sage Walker, the Northern Chumash Tribal Council Chairwoman hails this announcement as a crucial first step towards President Biden’s initiative to conserve and restore at least 30 percent of our nation’s lands and waters by 2030. The Notice of Intent kicks off the official scoping process, which is the first of the final four stepsv in the designation process. This is another victory for the Chapter and the other partners in this process. Chapter members have supported the establishment of a marine sanctuary along the SLO coastline since the very beginning of the effort nearly forty years ago.
In 2020 the Protect Our Dunes program persistently advocated for a vehicle-free Oceano Beach. It was closed to vehicles during the COVID pandemic, which allowed snowy plovers to proliferate.
Due to a comprehensive letter by the Save the Avila Coast (STAC) campaign to the Coastal Commission, the Avila Beach Golf Course (ABGC) was ordered to stop events until they received a permit. STAC filed extensive comments and exhibits with the County causing ABGC to postpone several times its application for a permit. If finally withdrew its application which was a victory for STAC!
The Blue Water Task force expanded to North County and now has one of the largest collection programs in the country with 18 sites.
The Chumash Heritage Marine Sanctuary (CHMS) campaign lobbied successfully to get the Sanctuary’s nomination renewed. This means it is highly likely to get final approval soon – a victory for CHMS!
Our Rise Against Plastics program advocated for the SLO IWMA (Integrated Waste Management Authority) to pass a polystyrene ban, which passed on September 11. The IWMA voted 9-1 in favor of our COUNTY-WIDE Ordinance. Another coastal protection victory for RAP!
The Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) has been performing weekly water quality sampling testing at Avila Beach Pier and the San Luis Obispo Creek mouth since 2012 and maintains a data set for these sites going back to that year. We also test samples from the SLO Creek and Estuary at six different sites. Thanks to the generosity of the manager and staff of the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach, all BWTF samples (from all 12 sites in mid to southern SLO County) are processed and analyzed for bacteria level count in the upstairs marine lab at the Aquarium. The test results are reported on the Chapter website every Friday morning. The Surfrider SLO Chapter BWTF has received funding grants from the Avila Beach Community Foundation for each of the two years, 2018 and 2019. These two grants have paid for all water testing supplies for the two Avila Beach sites (Pier and Creek mouth) for the entire two years respectively.
The Aquarium’s Director of Programs, Travis Norton, invited the BWTF Program to present a half-day teaching unit on the importance of clean ocean water to elementary school age kids enrolled in the Aquarium’s Sea Explorer’s Marine Science Summer Camps. Niel Dilworth, BWTF Program Coordinator, took on the teaching challenge and presented this unit in each of the nine week-long Summer Camp sessions in 2019.
The first restaurants of the year to become registered Ocean Friendly Restaurants (OFR) were Bliss Cafe in SLO, KravaBowl in Avila, Joy Shell Beach, and Virtjuice in Grover Beach. Our Ocean Friendly Gardens program hosted a table at VegFest in February. Hold On To Your Butt (HOTYB) installed new ashcans at the Great American Melodrama in Oceano and at The Siren in Morro Bay. In April, our chair, Brad Snook, spoke to the South SLO County Sanitation District Board about environmental issues at their sewage plant.
We hosted three activities on Earth Day. At our beach cleanup at the Pismo pier volunteers picked up 9 lbs of trash, 2 lbs of recycling, and over 150 cigarette butts. We also hosted a table at the Earth Day celebration in Cambria and at the Surf Art Photography show at The Siren in Morro Bay.
Our Rise Above Plastics lead, Gage Bock, spoke about marine plastic pollution at our quarterly chapter meeting that took place at Chop Street in Pismo Beach. RAP cooperated with The Wounded Warrior Project on a beach cleanup where volunteers picked up 10.5 lbs of trash, 1.5 lbs of recyclable material and approx. 150 cigarette butts.
The Chapter’s STOP Climate Change campaign achieved a major victory in the hard-fought fight against Phillips 66 oil trains! In 2014, Phillips 66 proposed to build a crude oil train terminal at its Nipomo Dunes refinery in San Luis Obispo County (the same location involved in the Unocal Guadalupe Dunes oil spill). They wanted to import Alberta tar sand oil in mile long oil tanker trains, despite 13 documented negative and significant environment and public health threats. Surfrider SLO lead a local and Statewide grassroots opposition in successfully convincing the County Planning Commission and County Supervisors to deny the project.
The first restaurants of the year to become registered Ocean Friendly Restaurants (OFR) were Centrally Grown and the Baywood Ale House in January. The Libertine (SLO) and the Spoon Trade became registered OFRs. We welcomed new activists at a Core Volunteer Orientation (CVO) held at our new meeting location at iFixit in SLO.
In April, our chapter staffed a booth at the Earth Day fair in San Luis Obispo, and STOP Climate Change (STOP) hosted the chapter meeting at OFR Chop Street. Tap It Brewing held a fundraiser for us. Hold On To Your Butt (HOTYB) purchased eighteen ashcans in May and delivered ten to the city of Pismo Beach, two to iFixit, and one to OFR Robin’s Restaurant.
On International Surfing Day in June, HOTYB Awareness Day at Avila Beach featured a beach cleanup, an information table, and a “cigarette girl” handing out pocket ashtrays to smokers. Avila Beach placed two ashcans provided by HOTYB in August, for a total of fifteen new ashcan installations in SLO County this year.
Kravabowl and Mint + Craft became registered OFRs. The chapter tabled at the Central Coast Art and Music Festival in Cayucos. Ocean Friendly Gardens (OFG) led a neighborhood garden tour in Shell Beach and held a two-day Watershed Wise Landscape Professional Training. We received press coverage from Dave Congalton’s Hometown Radio show about OFR, and from KSBY on HOTYB Day and the impact of cigarette butt litter, beach cleanups and the California bag ban.
The Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) hosted a chapter meeting in July at OFR Novo that featured Liberty Amundson with SLO County Environmental Health Services. Ocean Protection submitted a comment letter to NOAA to oppose oil drilling in national marine sanctuaries. Rise Above Plastics (RAP) held a beach cleanup at Pismo Pier, where volunteers collected 16 pounds of trash, 6 pounds of recycling and 154 cigarette butts.
RAP captained September’s Coastal Cleanup Day at Pismo Pier, where 94 volunteers cleaned up 44 lbs of trash, 10 lbs of recycling, over 1,400 cigarette butts, and a comforter. The chapter staffed a table at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Pismo Beach. In November, RAPtivists urged the City of Grover Beach to enact a ordinances banning styrofoam takeout containers and requiring restaurants to offer straws only on request.
Throughout the year, the BWTF continued sampling water at 11 beach and creek sites. KYH2O submitted public testimony on issues including Morro Bay’s water reclamation facility, the Cayucos Sustainable Water Project, and the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District.
In June 2016, PG&E announced that it plans to close the two Diablo Canyon reactors in 2024 and 2025. Full decommissioning of the plant is estimated to take decades and cost nearly 4 billion dollars.
Our Rise Above Plastics (RAP) program sponsored polystyrene ordinances which passed in Morro Bay and Arroyo Grande in February, bringing to four the number of cities that have banned styrofoam takeout containers in SLO County.
In March, we hosted the successful Surfrider California Chapter Conference in Cambria, where our Chair recruited a San Diego chapter Executive Committee member.
At our 6th Annual Hands Across the Sand event in Avila Beach in May, we stood in support of clean energy over fossil fuels, a key part of our S.T.O.P. Climate Change program.
We launched our new Ocean Friendly Restaurants (OFR) program to reduce disposable plastic restaurant litter. The first two SLO County eateries, Chop Street and Honeymoon Cafe, were certified as OFR in August. In July, US Green Building Council Magazine printed a feature on Ocean Friendly Gardens.
We scored a victory for Beach Access when the Pismo Beach City Council voted unanimously to deny the Bluffs’ appeal to lock the bicycle/pedestrian gate to Bluff Drive, aka Cave Landing in Shell Beach.
Know Your H2O (KYH2O) collated county water sampling results and asked the SLO County Health Commission to consider enforcement actions for areas of frequent exceedance.
The first Core Volunteer Orientation (CVO) was held in October and had a great turnout of excited new volunteers. RAP gave away reusable bags and promoted Yes on 67 to enact the state bag ban. Another restaurant, Shine Cafe, signed up to be an OFR, and we organized a Beach Cleanup for Embassy Suites, host of our CVO.
Our new Hold On To Your Butt Program launched in November with an interview on KSBY about cigarette litter on local beaches. Three more eateries, Robin’s, Luna Red and Novo, were certified as OFR.
Our Ocean Protection program sent a petition to members of Surfrider Foundation to ask NOAA to begin the designation process of the CHNMS.
The Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) continued sampling water at eleven beach and creek sites, and trained seven new volunteers. Water testing revealed surprisingly high contamination in the San Luis Obispo and Pismo Creek Estuaries. BWTF applied for funding from three foundations and one business and received money from two.
KYH2O submitted public testimony throughout the year, supporting SLO County’s moratorium on the land application of biosolids, the No Project proposal for the Cambria Community Service District’s Sustainable Water (Desalination) Project, a CEQA review as part of the State Lands Commission permit for DCPP (Diablo Canyon Power Plant); and opposing the DCPP Open-Ocean Desalination Project Proposal.
The Knudson Report was released which investigated potential malfeasance at South County Sanitation District (SSLOCSD) representing a significant victory for the Chapter. For years prior to the report, Surfrider SLO had given public testimony in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Oceano, and at SSLOCSD meetings. The report and the chapter’s activism helped motivate more community involvement, and we’re hopeful the community’s trust will inspire cleaner ocean discharge and eventual reclamation of nearly 3 million gallons a day of usable water in the 5 Cities area.
Our Rise Above Plastics (RAP) program sponsored polystyrene ordinances (styrofoam bans) which passed in two cities: SLO (June 2) and Pismo Beach (December 15), another victory for the chapter!
In October, NOAA accepted the nomination proposal by our Ocean Protection program for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary (CHNMS), and added it to the list of successful nominations.
Know Your H2O (KYH2O) continued to be actively involved in advocating for positive changes at South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District (SSLOCSD) after a major sewage spill in December 2010 and whistleblower reports of illegal sampling procedures at SSLOCSD’s sewage plant in Oceano. KYH2O also opposed Diablo Canyon Power Plant desalinated water distribution to SLO County residences. Through volunteering to assist the county’s Drought Task Force, adding our chapter’s voice to oppose further county resources to studying the plan, and submitting op-ed pieces published in the Tribune and Cal Coast News, our chapter helped ensure alternatives and impacts were presented before the SLO County Board of Supervisors and to the public.
A 2015 SLO Tribune article chronicled the slow progress of the Guadalupe Dunes oil spill remediation project. More than 40 pockets of contamination, called plumes, have been excavated and more than 1 million cubic yards of contaminated soil have been removed. There are also three water treatment units at the site that remove contamination from groundwater. Over the years, workers have also removed about 150 miles of pipeline, oil well pads, and roads that crisscrossed the field. In spite of all the work that has been done, a large volume of diluent remains in the ground. About half of the known plumes near the surface have been cleaned up, and large plumes of oil remain deep underground where it would be too environmentally damaging to excavate.
Local landscape contractor and Surfrider member Robert Nieto was featured in a Village Nurseries article on Ocean Friendly Gardening (OFG). Robert has been designing and retrofitting OFGs with breathtaking results using colorful Mediterranean plants that maximize beauty and enjoyment in gardens overlooking the cliffs of Shell Beach.
Surfrider Foundation’s beach cleanup unit, the Shell Beach Shepherds, helped clean up a huge mess on the beach created on March 30, when Cal Poly students had the day off because of César Chávez Day. For the fourth year in a row, more than 3,000 college-age students, residents and visitors gathered on the beach below the cliffs near Silver Shoals. After they left, 12 city public works employees hauled away an estimated 18 to 20 cubic yards of hard-alcohol bottles, beer bottles, cans, Styrofoam containers and other trash, as well as abandoned clothing, towels, flip-flops and chairs. Jennifer Blonder, vice chair of the Surfrider Foundation SLO Chapter, proposed forming a committee with city staff, Surfrider members, the Sierra Club, the Shell Beach Improvement Group and other interested parties to meet before bigger events, including July Fourth, to plan ahead and ensure beaches stay safe and clean.
In May the Chapter partnered with Mindful Mothers for “Playdate with a Purpose- Oceano Beach Cleanup.” In October, the chapter sponsored the Surfrider Foundation Art Festival and Surfrider Fall Art Show Cayucos Veterans Hall at the Pier.
Surfrider SLO joined a grassroots collaboration organized by the Northern Chumash Tribal Council (NCTC), including the CA Central Coast Marine Sanctuary Alliance, Santa Lucia Chapter of Sierra Club, COAST (Citizens Opposed to Acoustic Seismic Testing) to support our Indigenous proposed California Central Coast Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.
To achieve the best water quality, vibrant marine ecosystems, and to protect the Chumash cultural heritage, our efforts are focused to fill the unprotected gap between the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Chumash villages and cultural heritage lie submerged within the proposed sanctuary area as well as along the shoreline, many continuously occupied for over 10,000 years.
There are four major Chumash Sacred sites near San Luis Bay – three known to have been occupied for 9,000 years: 1) The site for which the City of Pismo Beach is named; 2) The site where the Chumash people return to renew the Traditional Ritual Ceremony Cycle; 3) The old Chumash Capital in the area of Avila Beach, now partially covered by sea level rise; and 4) The Chumash Sacred site at Diablo Cove along the coastline of the Pecho Coast.
The chapter participated in the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition. This effort resulted in a victory for the Chapter when the county’s waste management board voted to ban plastic shopping bags at most stores in San Luis Obispo County. Many marine mammals and seabirds die from plastic ingestion or entanglement from littered bags, and the coalition illustrated this with slides showing suffering wildlife and polluted shorelines. Coalition members also highlighted the large floating body of discarded plastic in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Garbage Patch.
The Chapter started their small Blue Water Task Force (BWTF) water testing program in 2012. At the time, they had two volunteers sampling two sites on a weekly basis. Since then, BWTF has built a team of dedicated water samplers and testers that are out monitoring eleven sites on a weekly basis. Their labs are at the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach and adjacent to the Cambria water facility.
The Chapter supported AmpSurf™, non-profit organization established to inspire, educate, and rehabilitate people with disabilities through adaptive surfing and other outdoor activities.
Joe Geever, the Surfrider Foundation Water Programs Manager, published an article in Cal Coast News explaining the chapter’s support for the recommendation of the Coastal Commission staff to move Morro Bay waste treatment plant off the beach and re-build it into a water recycling facility that will provide long-term financial returns to the city. The move will allow the city to conserve its limited freshwater supplies, start adapting to inevitable sea level rise and threats to coastal infrastructure, as well as eliminate a source of pollution in our ocean
The Surfrider Free Fall Festival was held in October at the Cayucos Pier and featured the band, Too Late for Roses.
Thanks to the persistent efforts of the Blue Water Task Force achieved an advocacy victory by persuading the City of Pismo to prepare an extensive study, “PISMO BEACH FECAL CONTAMINATION SOURCE IDENTIFICATION STUDY FINAL REPORT,” utilizing funds from the California Clean Beaches Initiative. Surfrider conducted several workshops and public presentations of the results and recommendations, which including reducing the number of pigeons at the Pismo Pier, reducing the amount of human and dog feces getting into the beach water through increased restroom access for swimmers, especially during high beach visitor times and an increased presence on the beach to enforce dog dropping pickup laws more strictly or with higher fines for failure to comply. In addition, warning should be posted of the dangers of swimming in the Pismo Creek lagoon to ensure the public is informed about the risks to one’s health inherent to those stagnant and pathogen-filled waters.
The chapter chair, Jeff Pienack, contributed a detailed eleven-page analysis to the MORRO BAY – CAYUCOS WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANT UPGRADE Final Environmental Impact Report, which covered 1) scoping issues, 2) significant impacts which were not appropriately characterized or fully mitigated; and 3) missing information and fundamental flaws.
Lady wave riders from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara performed in the third annual All Girl Cayucos Pier Classic Surf Contest March 20 at the Cayucos Pier. The contest featured divisions for short boards and long boards with a special mom and grom division that featured a crew of young competitors — one of whom rode waves perched on his mother’s back. The contest had over 30 contestants and was a benefit for the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. A portion of the proceeds went to help fund women’s shelters in the county.
The Chapter collaborated with other environmental groups in a collective mission to preserve, enhance, and protect the biological health of our coastal environment and its contributing watersheds as well as the cultural resources of the California Native American Chumash. In a Key Environmental Issues Statement, the groups agreed that the fate of Morro Bay is dependent upon Los Osos having a centrally managed wastewater system. Los Osos’ proximity to the least tidal area of the bay makes a sewer system a necessity. The selection of an appropriate type of collection system and the treatment plant’s location are vital to the protection of the coastal environment and watershed. The portion of the Morro Bay Estuary adjacent to Los Osos had recently been designated a State Marine Reserve. The Department of Fish and Game stated Marine Reserves “shall be maintained to the extent practicable in an undisturbed and unpolluted state,” and that “The high level of protection created by an SMR [State Marine Reserve] is based on the assumption that no other appreciable level of take or alteration of the ecosystem is allowed (e.g., sewage discharge…).”
A letter to the SLO County Board of Supervisors from Chair, Jeff Pienack, requested review of the Planning Commission’s decision to recommend approval of the Los Osos Wastewater Project. Specifically, Surfrider requested the BOS to review the proposed project’s impacts to Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (ESHA) and to find the EIR deficient.
The Pismo Creek/Edna Area Watershed Management Plan credited the local Surfrider Blue Water Task Force for monitoring beach water quality with a volunteer monitoring program at several sites within the outfall area of Pismo Creek. Results indicated that dry season testing during August 2006 showed elevated rates of Total and Fecal Coliform.
Surfrider SLO was a sponsor of WaterFest an annual “learn by playing” family-fun event full of educational activities and entertainment that celebrates water quality protection, water conservation and our watersheds. WaterFest is about education through celebration of water – one of our most precious resources. This year’s WaterFest, was held in conjunction with Surfrider’s International Surfing Day.
From approximately 2004 To 2008 the Chapter lead a variety of initiatives ranging from monthly beach cleanups to environmental and public access advocacy. More detail is provided in the years below.
The chapter and SLO Green Build co-sponsored 2 public presentations and workshops in an effort to present environmentally and economically friendly ways to solve the Los Osos sewer problems.
The drought and impacted local water supplies were a key issue for the SLO community. The chapter engaged with local jurisdictions as many considered development of water supply, treatment, and disposal systems such as desalination, water reclamation, and storm water management. High profile wastewater treatment projects in Los Osos, Morro Bay/Cayucos, Pismo/Five Cities and San Simeon were tracked by chapter volunteers with assistance from Surfrider National. To foster public dialog and awareness the chapter organized public tours of a majority of local waste water treatment plants and formally submitted public comments (and in some cases appeals) throughout the process. Climate destabilization and sea level rise was already a strong concern for the Chapter (and Surfrider National) and a focus of our advocacy but most local jurisdictions were reluctant to consider the hazards of business as usual and had not initiated Climate Action Planning.
The chapter produced the “Sustainability Seduces” concert and fair at Swallow Creek Ranch about two miles north of Cayucos. There was music throughout the day, including headliners Blue Turtle Seduction. It was a family-friendly green celebration.
In response to chronic water quality issues at some SLO County beaches, along with a lack of convenient public access to testing results from SLO County Public Health, the Chapter expanded the Blue Water Task Force program. Utilizing a limited budget, the BWTF developed a strategic water quality testing program collected by trained volunteers and tested at a professional lab to better understand the situation and verify the County’s results. The BWTF utilized the collected information and public advocacy to successfully encourage the county to not only expand its testing frequency but also its public reporting to include easily accessible online testing results and the installation of a network of permanent “poor water quality” warning signs at the most popular beaches. The Chapter also partnered with local health professionals to host a series of “surfer wellness” workshops aimed at boosting our immune systems and overall vitality.
New Times published a detailed article about possible ailments originating from “red tide” algae blooms featuring chapter member, Jennifer Jozwiak. Surfrider’s “Ocean Illness form” was recommended. This form was the precursor of the crowd-sourced illness reporting tool introduced by Surfrider in 2012. See http://sickatthebeach.crowdmap.com. Anyone can easily provide basic info about how and where they got sick, allowing others to see where pollution hotspots are. There is even a tool for setting up alerts, so that you can receive an email when someone reports an illness in your area. As part of Surfrider’s Clean Water Program,the rep0rting ool adds an additional layer to our efforts to alert the public to water quality problems and the risks of exposure to bacteria in the surf.
The Chapter also worked to encourage solutions such as green building and low impact development practices at a time when these systems weren’t yet common in CA. We organized and hosted numerous “sustainability socials” concerts and events that featured music, food, and educational presentations featuring internationally famous leaders such as Jonathon Todd, Brock Dolman, Brad Lancaster, and more. These socials and our strong coalition with other local environmental non-profits eventually led to working directly with the SLO county building department and supervisors to develop a new set of building codes that allowed, incentivized, encouraged and, some cases, required Low Impact Development, BMP’s, and green building sustainability measures. Through grants we developed a set of County specific Appropriate Technology manuals/guides on rainwater catchment, greywater, and low impact development. We persuaded the County to loosen restrictions on waterless toilet systems. The manuals are still endorsed and distributed by the County and some municipalities.
Surfrider Foundation contributed to the development of the recovery plan for the endangered tidewater goby. It is a small fish that inhabits coastal brackish water habitats entirely within California. It is known to have formerly inhabited at least 134 localities. At the time of the plan, 17 percent of the 134 documented localities were considered extirpated and 41 to 52 percent of the localities are naturally so small or had been degraded over time that long-term persistence was uncertain. Coastal development projects that modify or destroy coastal brackish-water habitat are the major factor adversely affecting the tidewater goby. Coastal lagoons and marshes have been drained and reclaimed for residential and industrial developments. Waterways have been dredged for navigation and harbors, resulting in direct losses of wetland habitats as well as indirect losses due to associated changes in salinity.
Coastal road and railroad construction have severed the connection between marshes and the ocean, resulting in unnatural temperature and salinity profiles (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1994). This is what happened in Avila in 1876 when the raised track bed for a railway was built down the middle of the SLO Creek estuary. It served as a levy that severed the saltwater marsh from the SLO Creek estuary. This area was drained and is now the flat portion of Avila town and its beach.
The San Luis Obispo Coalition of Appropriate Technology (SLO-COAT) was a joint effort by SLO Green Build, the San Luis Bay Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. SLO-COAT produced an educational series regarding water and waste applications of appropriate technology for San Luis Obispo County and is still active. Appropriate technology seeks to address problems related to energy use, the water cycle, and affordable and building at the smallest and most accessible scale possible. SLO-COAT produced local events on alternative waste water treatment using biological systems, healthy watersheds, the County’s Low Impact Design Manual, rainwater harvesting, graywater usage. These guidelines were developed by SLO-COAT to specifically address efforts to maintain a healthy hydrologic cycle in San Luis Obispo County. Funding for this project was provided in part by the Morro Bay National Estuary Program with funding from the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Green Goods, San Luis Sustainability Group, and the Wallace Group.
The Chapter began a campaign to support Marine Sanctuary expansion to prevent a variety of negative impacts including offshore oil rigs, desal plants, toxic water disposal,
David, Goliath, and the Beach-Cleaning Machine: How a Small California Town Fought an Oil Giant and Won! is published detailing how Surfrider provided the template for local attorney Saro Rizzo’s successful suit against Unocal for the Avila Oil Spill.
Representatives of the Chapter attended meetings to oppose a proposal by the Bureau of Reclamation to dispose of water tainted by toxic selenium into the ocean near Cayucos and a potential desalinization plant at the Chevron Estero Terminal.
A cooperative effort between the SLO County Environmental Health Department the Chapter’s Blue Water Task Force continued regular testing of the County’s popular swimming and surfing beaches. Water tests showed that County beaches failed bacteria tests 16 times including three times at Avila Beach by wide margins.
An extensive sociological analysis of the activism surrounding the Unocal oil spills was published by THOMAS D. BEAMISH (University of California, Davis), titled “ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARD AND INSTITUTIONAL BETRAYAL Lay-Public Perceptions of Risk in the San Luis Obispo County Oil Spill.” The report revealed that over 38 years, Unocal Corporation spilled 20 million gallons of a petroleum thinner called diluent used to thin the viscous crude oil found in the southern and central coasts of California. Diluent is similar to kerosene or diesel fuel in appearance and smell. Although a less blatant pollutant than crude, diluent contains carcinogenic chemical solvents such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene, which make it potentially more toxic. This occurred in an increasingly rare piece of open space in the southwest corner of San Luis Obispo County, which is ecologically diverse and an important refuge for 12 federally recognized endangered species and some 40 other locally and regionally identified threatened flora and fauna. The area is also used extensively for recreation (surfing, hiking, birding, and so forth) and was used for commercial surf fishing, but this is no longer the case as the fish are said to have taken on the odor of petroleum, making them unsuitable for sale. The paper showed how the environmentalism by Surfrider and other groups surrounding the Santa Barbara 1969 Oil Spill and the Unocal Oil Spills in Guadalupe and Avila, and the fight against offshore oil rigs was a major factor in igniting the nationwide environmental movement.
Surfrider participated in the MONTEREY BAY SANCTUARY CITIZEN WATERSHED MONITORING NETWORK Snapshot 2000.” On Snapshot Day, 120 trained volunteers waded into creeks, streams, rivers, sloughs, estuaries, and beaches throughout San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo counties to test water quality and take a “snapshot” of the condition of the Sanctuary’s watersheds. Snapshot Day 2000 was designed to increase public awareness of water quality issues affecting Sanctuary watersheds and to emphasize the importance of water quality monitoring and the key role volunteer monitors play in our area. The event was a huge success generating a tremendous response from volunteers, good media coverage, and strong support from local businesses. The data collected on Snapshot Day 2000 reinforced previous findings that some of the Sanctuary’s watersheds face water quality problems.
The May issue of the Oil and Gas Journal published a history of the Guadalupe-Avila Beach spills titled, “Unocal goes to extremes to remediate two California petroleum spills.” It covered the extent of the Guadalupe diluent spill, an interview with Unocal Corp.’s project manager for the Guadalupe diluent cleanup, an inspection of the beachfront area that contains sensitive plants and wildlife, and the installation of a high-density polyethylene wall to isolate a contaminated area.
After years of litigation, hearings, debates, emergency excavations, and recovery—Unocal began an 18-month excavation in the town of Avila Beach while tackling a more widespread contamination at the 2,700-acre Guadalupe Dunes area.
In June of 1998 Unocal agreed to a settlement to clean up 400,000 gallons of petroleum contamination in Avila. The settlement was the largest Proposition 65 settlement in state history. It was the first time a company was forced to remove contamination and rebuild a community and the biggest cleanup since Love Canal. Under the agreement, Unocal agreed to pay $18 million in damages to county and state agencies, which was earmarked for various restoration and water quality projects, future pollution response, penalties and litigation costs. Much of the money was used for environmental restoration in Avila Beach. Unocal officials said they expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a decades long cleanup. The LA Times estimated that the cleanup could cost Unocal as much as $200 million to dig up the town’s commercial core and tear down a number of homes and businesses to remove tons of contaminated soil.
Unocal also agreed to clean up the Guadalupe Dunes oil spill and agreed to pay $43.8 million in damages to county and state agencies, which was earmarked for various restoration and water quality projects, future pollution response, penalties and litigation costs. At that time, Unocal officials said they expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a decades long cleanup.
An appeal of SLO County Board of Supervisors grant of a permit to Cliffs Hotel to install shoreline rock rip rap was filed with the Coastal Commission. The Chapter joined with the Sierra Club, SEA, BOO, and Surfrider – Santa Barbara to form the Coastal Oil Action Coalition (COAC) to fight the Offshore Oil Platforms. The Chapter started monitoring and reporting on ongoing Pismo Beach Sewage spill from the Del Mar and Addie St. lift stations.
The Chapter fought bluff armoring in Shell Beach by appealing a permit for a 13-foot high sea wall in Shell Beach to the Coastal Commission. They lost the appeal, but continued to fight against beach-destroying bluff armoring by opposing a rock rip rap shoreline structure proposed by the Cliffs Hotel.
In response to the EIR for the Unocal Oil spill at Avila beach, the members came out in support of 1) excavation as the preferred remedial action and the 2) the Regional Water Quality Board’s decision that oil should be reduced to 100 ppm for soil and 1ppm for water. The members expressed firm opposition to the Unocal proposal for cleanup. In December of 1997, Unocal began tearing down the Avila Tank Farm. See this article by David Middlecamp about the history of tank farms on the Central Coast.
Surfrider began battling the Hearst Corporation’s efforts to eliminate much of the public beach access between Cambria and Ragged Point.
Surfrider joined the Surfers Environmental Alliance in a suit against Unocal (San Luis Superior Court Case no. 075205) in regard to the Guadalupe Oil Spill, claiming that under Proposition 65 “right-to-know legislation,” Unocal had failed to warn surfers of their spillage. Because it is potentially toxic, they claimed that Unocal was responsible for compromising local surfers’ health and thus must pay for that breach of responsibility. Pursuant to a provision of Prop 65, the CA State Attorney General stepped in and took over the case. However, this case was used as a template for the winning case against Unocal filed by Saro Rizzo on behalf of the Avila Alliance.
In its first full year of operation, the Chapter won the SLO County Environmental Organization of the Year Award, conducted a dozen beach cleanups, established a water testing program, started a storm drain stenciling program, lobbied to maintain surfing access to Pismo Pier, participated in numerous environmental awareness events, and prompted government agencies to post warning signs on Guadalupe Beach.
The first major campaign of the Chapter was to regulate the use of jet skis to avoid dangerous conflicts with other ocean and beach users. A Jet Ski Committee was formed, local ordinances researched, and concerns about jet ski use were communicated to US Coast Guard, County Sheriffs, Coastal Commission, State Fish and Game, Pismo Dunes State Park, City of Pismo, and National Marine Fisheries. A letter was written to the City of Pismo setting forth goals and asking for a new ordinance.
The Chapter’s Blue Water Task Force decided to start its own water testing lab. Volunteers for the chapter’s storm drain warning project painted stencils on Pismo storm drains reading: “NO DUMPING. THIS DRAINS INTO THE OCEAN.”
A committee was formed to study the multi-million-gallon toxic solvent and oil spill at Guadalupe Dunes and Beach. Permission for site visits was sought, information regarding remediation choices was gathered, the chapter joined with other environmental groups to evaluate habitat damage, and experts were identified to make health impact assessments.
The 2,700-acre oil field was an active oil field from 1946 to 1994. During that time, millions of gallons of an oil called diluent leaked from rusty pipes and settled into the sand dunes. Diluent is similar to kerosene and was used to thin the heavy crude oil produced in the field. It is a toxic for humans, wildlife, and plants, and therefore presented a risk to ecological and human health.
The first large excavation was an emergency operation in 1994 along the beach to prevent the toxic pollution from entering the ocean. Sheet walls have also been installed to prevent the oil from moving toward the ocean or the nearby Santa Maria River.
The SLO County Chapter of Surfriders Foundation formed in 1994 and actively protects nearly 100 miles of coastline from Point Sal to Ragged Point. Ken Harmount was a Morro Bay lifeguard until a snowboarding accident changed his life. His friends got together, paddled from Avila Pier to Pismo Pier and raised money to help Ken pay for his hospital bills. Ken generously donated the money to help start the San Luis Bay chapter (now San Luis Obispo Chapter) of the Surfrider Foundation. Michael Rudge, Mark Campbell, Bob Olgin, and Paul Schiro co-founded the Chapter.
It was discovered by local Avila Beach residents that there was a massive oil spill under their homes and businesses. Over many decades, corroded pipes that ran under the town, from the hilltop tank farm to the Union Oil pier, had leaked over 400,000 gallons of toxic petroleum. Union Oil knew that the pipes were leaking and again, for decades, kept it secret.
Unocal pleaded “no contest” to three criminal charges that it leaked thousands of barrels of diluent and failed to report it. A Unocal Vice-President faced the public, saying, “I personally owe this community an apology for what’s happened . . . we fully accept responsibility.” He vowed to do “whatever it takes” to clean up the spill. Unocal would prefer to use in situ bioremediation rather than excavation on the grounds that it is less destructive. But bioremediation takes more time than the agencies and public have patience. Dr. Raul Cuno of Cal Poly called this the “DNA —or Do Nothing Approach—which doesn’t call for any intervention.” Dr. Cuno is a recognized expert worldwide in microbiology and worked under a Unocal grant at the dunes.
In 1991, an ambitious young lawyer named Mark Massara was instrumental in litigating the Surfrider Foundation’s victorious campaign against the Louisiana-Pacific and Simpson Paper pulp mills in Humboldt. The mills were emitting effluents that damaged indigenous population of fish, fauna, wildlife, and other aquatic organisms and created health hazards for those engaging in recreational activities in and on the water. The companies were eventually forced to pay $5.8 million in fines, implement secondary treatment, remove chlorine from bleaching process and build beach showers, campground and an environmental conference center.
California’s worst oil spill, at the Union Oil Guadalupe oil field, was uncovered by surfers and fisherman and reported by whistleblowers. Company officials knew about it for decades but kept it secret. Million gallons of oil were leaked into the dune complex that straddles SLO and Santa Barbara counties. It remains the largest oil spill in continental US history and is still being cleaned up 30 years later. Executives and operators were originally charged with criminal violations, later reduced to civil charges.
Estimates of the volume lost at the Guadalupe oil field vary between 8.5 million and 20 million gallons, making the spill comparable to the Exxon Valdez tanker spill (10-31 million gallons). It is at least twice as large as the infamous blowout at Union Oil Co. of California’s Platform A in the Santa Barbara Channel in
1969, which released 100,000 bbl and is often cited as a key event leading to the environmental movement. (Union Oil Co. of California was the precursor of Unocal Corp.)
In response to the Federal government’s proposed leasing of offshore oil drilling permits, a citizen’s initiative was passed by the voters of SLO County to ban any onshore infrastructure (such as pipelines, storage, or pump stations) in support of offshore oil or gas development.
Diablo Canyon Power Plant began operating. The facility was the subject of controversy and protests, both during its construction and operations, including nearly two thousand civil disobedience arrests in a two-week period in 1981.
The Surfrider Foundation was started in 1984, by a group of visionary surfers from Malibu, California. Today, the organization maintains over 250,000 members, supporters and activists with 84 chapters in the United States and affiliates in over 20 countries worldwide.
A chain reaction
1969: Santa Barbara oil spill
1970: National Environmental Policy Act, California Environmental Quality Act, Environmental Protection Agency created
1972: Coastal Zone Management Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act
1973: Endangered Species Act
1976: California Coastal Act
In nearby Santa Barbara Channel, Union Oil’s offshore platform “Holly” blew out its safety valve and gushed oil into the ocean and beaches for 11 days before being capped. The activism of Surfrider, Sierra Club, and other environmental organizations on the Central Coast in response to the massive spill gave rise to a national environmental movement, which resulted in the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Construction began on Diablo Canyon Power Plant. It was built despite legal challenges and civil disobedience from the anti-nuclear protesters of the Abalone Alliance. Over a two-week period in 1981, 1,900 activists were arrested and sent to jail for protesting at Diablo Canyon Power Plant, including musician/activist Jackson Browne. It was the largest arrest total in the history of the U.S. anti-nuclear movement.
On April 7, 1926, lightning struck one of Union Oil’s massive Tank Farm Road tanks and set off a series of explosions and fires. Flames were said to be as high as 1000 feet. In the end, over 8 million barrels of oil were lost. The fire sucked in so much oxygen that the wind broke windows, collapsed six houses, destroyed roofs in Edna, and even uprooted trees. Smoke was seen as far as Fresno, soot turned livestock black in Santa Margarita, and burning timber from the blasts fell from the sky up to 2 miles away.
The Tank Farm Fire is the worst environmental disaster to hit the Central Coast. Flaming oil covered 900 acres of land and to starve the fire, a massive amount was pumped into the ocean. A river of fire burned down San Luis Creek to Avila for up to 2 weeks. It is said that even today, you can find pieces of glass near the original site of the tanks formed from the intense flames. The land is still deemed toxic today, though a rehabilitation project was commenced in 2016 by Chevron (Unocal parent), the site owner.
In 1910, Lakeview Gusher Number One, a well in the Maricopa oil fields, unleashed a torrent of oil that rained down on the countryside for 17 months. It was an environmental disaster that surpasses the oil disaster in the Gulf War. National Geographic says that the intentional spill in the Gulf was between two and eight million barrels. It was worse than the Deepwater Horizon. Nine million barrels vomited from the earth onto oil workers and the surrounding countryside. This created an urgency driven by greed to corral as much of this runaway oil production as possible and transport it to markets. Some say this urgency may have resulted in ill-conceived, hasty efforts to build pipelines, tank farms, and refineries without appropriate precautions to protect our citizens, land, waterways, beaches, and ocean. This lead in turn into three oil disasters in SLO County (Tank Farm fire, Avila spill, and Oceano Dunes spill) and more elsewhere.
Lakeview Gusher #1, column to a gurgling pool. Maricopa, Kern County.
Union Oil built the tank farm along Tank Farm Road in south San Luis Obispo in 1910. It was a major storage facility for oil from Taft and Kern County en route to Avila Beach for loading onto ships. It was the world’s largest facility of its kind in the 1920s.
First Union Oil (Chevron) oil pipeline from Kern County Maricopa oil fields to Avila built.