Bottled at the source


“Santa Monica Bay is dying a death of 11 million cuts. We all have impact,” says Santa Monica BayKeeper Steve Fleischli, a lawyer and the executive director of the environmental organization that watches over the health of the local bay.

With his reputation as an iconoclast and self-described as controversial, he believes in rigorous enforcement of environmental laws and does not specifically advocate any other solutions — not sewers, not population control.

He poses a universal solution: “Deal with it right at the source.” To Malibu, he says, “We’ve taken a hard line on the septics in the L.A. region, but we’re not pro sewer,” adding, “We want whatever system is decided on to achieve water quality standards.

“If you can find a system that works on your lot with your ground-water table so you don’t impact water quality, I don’t care if it’s a septic or a sewer.”

From his office — a boat that tours the bay — he says he has watched beach visitor use decline as the level of fecal matter from polluted runoff in the bay has risen. He sees sea lions choked by fishing lines and dolphins starving to death because the plastic in their stomach gives them a feeling of fullness. “There is some sort of plastic in 70 percent of sea-bird species,” Fleischli cites.

He counts about a dozen lawsuits the BayKeeper presently has filed against polluters, including a billion-dollar suit against the city of Los Angeles arising out of the city’s leaking sewer system.

Sewage flowing through broken sewer pipes has invaded L.A.’s drain system. The suit asks the city to repair the pipes. It also asks the city to find illegal hookups, where users have installed illegal ties to the sewer system to avoid sewer charges.

Malibu residents and businesses should check their own property for illegal drains; so should the city of Malibu. “Cities slap homeowners on the wrist. City storm-water management agencies in Los Angeles have never fined anyone for storm-drain violations or illegal dumping violations.” The BayKeeper plans to change that.

Fleischli, who holds a triple degree in economics, environmental conservation, and environmental population and organismic biology, says it is absolutely possible for individuals and businesses to turn a financial profit while never harming the environment. “In the long run, it’s in the economic best interests to deal with environmental issues.”

Cities oppose environmental measures to deal with pollution at the source, arguing they would scare businesses away. “We have economic studies showing a mere 0.1 percent to 5 percent increase on the overall cost of a project, which can be amortized over the life of the project.” Otherwise, he says, in the long run, the public pays for the problem at the end of the system.

He urges setting aside a portion of each parcel of land for a treatment device. Current technology fits in a corner of a parking lot or a portion of a basement.

Such technology can only add jobs, not eliminate them. “Think of a creative solution. People are attracted to it, and you make the money you’re entitled to.” Meanwhile, a “healthy” economy will reallocate jobs that do not contribute toward a sustainable economy and a sustainable environment, he suggests.

Postulating a worst-case scenario for Malibu 20 years from now, he says: “Malibu Creek is paved. Surfrider Beach is permanently closed because sewage is overflowing daily.”

To stop the damage now, he suggests, Tapia should be reclaiming more of its water and upstream development must act responsibly. “Don’t leave it for people at Malibu Creek to deal with it. Think about it as it is created,” he insists.

“Throw a cigarette butt out the window, it ends up on Surfrider. Don’t wash cars on the street, wash it on the lawn. If you think it will kill the grass, think what it’s doing to the bay. Don’t rake leaves into storm drains, use them for mulch.”

Which raises landfill questions. “I don’t think the landfill people would say the solution is to allow it to go into the ocean,” he counters.

Use different packaging and recycle, which are methods done “at the source.” He urges a change in consumer habits: Buy plastic that is recyclable and recycle it, or buy items that do not have plastic packaging. Properly compost waste, including animal waste products. “Be sure horse manure is not running into Malibu creeks.”

Today’s school children are educating their parents, which Fleischli hopes will take care of residential problems in the future. As for businesses, “I’m a big fan of enforcement,” he says. “If your business doesn’t deal with its environmental effects, you have wrongfully profited.”

As his father pointed out to him, Fleischli is working toward the day when he puts himself out of his job.