It’s four in the morning and the late night reconnaissance crew at LA Waterkeeper is tired and hungry, but they keep pushing on. There’s a rare all-night rainstorm going on in Los Angeles, so this is their chance to grab valuable water samples.
They’re in the gutters looking for pollution that might be headed to storm drains and out into the ocean. This morning they’re looking for industrial metals, the kind that flow from scrap metal yards or auto shops. In recent months, this small team of environmental sleuths has been targeting some of the biggest industrial polluters in the city, which means they’ve found some pretty disgusting places.
“There are some really nasty spots,” says executive director Liz Crosson, who personally takes part in the late night missions. “We play a really important role in ensuring that polluters are held responsible. We’re willing to get out there and be on the ground and collect the data.”
What they find can be taken to the Regional Water Quality Control Board or the City of Los Angeles to take action. And in some cases the non-profit files suits on its own. It’s a fine-tuned operation by a seven-member staff that can have a big impact.
On May 30, LA Waterkeeper celebrates 20 years of environmental activism by honoring founders Terry Tamminen, Richard Baskin, Dan Emmett, Jordan Kaplan, Gil Segel and Frank and Luanne Wells.
“Success has many parents,” says Tamminen, who was living on a houseboat 20 years ago in Marina Del Rey when he got the idea that a small group of people could make a big difference in cleaning up the Santa Monica Bay.
It was 1993 when he along with several others founded Santa Monica Baykeeper because the state and federal government just didn’t have the resources to keep up with all the polluters. A year ago the group changed its name to LA Waterkeeper to reflect its broader mission of protecting inland watersheds as well as the bay.
There were only about six other waterkeepers throughout the country in the early 1990s including one in San Francisco and the original Hudson Riverkeeper founded by Robert Kennedy Jr. Now there are more than 200 waterkeepers throughout the world.
“The fact that Congress put a citizen suit provision into the clean water act suggests it’s not just an opportunity but an obligation,” Tamminen says. “It’s hands on the water looking for sources of degradation and holding them accountable through public media, or pushing policymakers or filing suits under the Clean Water Act.”
Over the past 20 years, the group’s had some big victories, including a landmark case settled in 2004 against the City of Los Angeles that resulted in millions of dollars of sewage line upgrades and more rigorous monitoring of 7,000 miles of sewer lines to prevent runoff.
“The fact the city has decreased their spills by 85 percent is monumental,” says Crosson. “It says a lot about the dedication of the city as well as how effective this type of targeted litigation can be when you identify a very serious problem.”
Crosson came to the organization three years ago after working as an environmental advocate in Oregon and later representing waterkeepers in California. With Crosson’s leadership the group has stepped up its kelp restoration and additional monitoring programs.
One of the aspects about the ocean that had attracted Tamminen as a boy in Los Angeles before his family moved to Australia was the kelp beds off the coast of Palos Verdes. He remembered a scuba diving trip there when he was 12. But when he returned in the early 1970s as a young man to attend Cal State Northridge, Tamminen said he found the kelp beds had almost disappeared.
“I said to myself, ‘What happened?’” he said. “I learned about polluted storm water runoff, and DDT, and sewage treatment plants. It wasn’t until 20 years later I realized one citizen can do a lot.”
Today the group has restored more than 10 acres of kelp forest in Palos Verdes and Malibu by relocating thousands of sea urchins and planting new kelp beds. In the coming years, Crosson says the group plans to restore 50 acres more.
Crosson has also led the group to focus on industrial polluters and to educate the public on water conservation. Besides protecting the ocean, LA Waterkeepers also takes an active role in preserving the LA basin’s watershed and protecting valuable drinking water resources.
About two-thirds of all Southern California water is imported from the North or the Colorado River so conserving what we have once it gets here is extremely important, Crosson says.
“The mentality in Los Angeles has to change to thinking about water as a really valuable resource,” she says.
Jonathan Varat, a board member and constitutional law professor at UCLA, got involved doing legal work for the group as part of the environmental law clinic on campus.
“The crux of this organization is to advocate for and pursue in court when necessary enforcement of mostly federal and state laws protecting the watershed and the bay,” Varat says.
In Crosson, Varat says the group has been gifted with another attorney on staff and someone who has pushed the mission forward.
“I like to think of it as small but mighty,” he says. “Liz has brought a tremendous amount of energy, and it’s really been terrific. It’s not one of those groups where you just sit around and do nothing. We actually get a lot of work done and it feels really good.”