When Malibu Lagoon was restored in 1983, environmentalists breathed sighs of relief that one of the most important ecological refuges in Southern California had been brought back to life.
But since then, a series of pollution problems have plagued the sand bar-enclosed lagoon, including the appearance in recent weeks of a mysterious dirty brown foam, the exact cause of which is not known, and persistent problems with high levels of bacteria in the placid waters.
Now, residents, surfers and swimmers, whose complaints about pollution led to the lagoon's closure to swimmers in 1985, have begun to ask who is in charge of cleaning up the state park and wildlife refuge.
"Nobody's really doing anything about that lagoon," said Tom Pratte, executive vice president of the Surfrider Foundation, which represents Southern California surfers.
"Whenever we've had a problem out there, the agencies who are supposed to be in charge just pass the buck from one to another, and the buck never stops. I'd like to know who's in charge."
The answer, according to state and local agencies that have various roles in monitoring the lagoon, is apparently nobody.
'Not a Simple Answer'
"Who is in charge of cleaning it up is not a simple answer," said Nelson Wong, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control District.
"We control the permits that restrict and monitor waste water at the source--like the Tapia sewage treatment plant just up the creek from the lagoon," Wong said.
"But the water Tapia is discharging into the lagoon is pretty clean--it gets state-of-the-art treatment."
"It's not clear who's in charge of cleaning it up," agreed Paul Rose of the National Park Service, who has tested pollution levels in the lagoon under a contract with the U.S. Geological Survey.
"But biologically it's an extremely important resource along the coast, because there just aren't enough places like this," Rose said. "You have birds, shrimp, many coastal creatures who need the lagoon and use it extensively."
Bud Getty, superintendent of state parks for the area, said he is at a loss about resolving the lagoon's pollution woes.
"The lagoon is polluted very badly at times, and that's why we breach it--cut a channel for it and it goes whoosh into the ocean," Getty said. "But the silt builds back up and the brackish water sits there and collects more problems. We're concerned that it's unhealthful for swimming and that's why we've posted signs."
Wants to See Solution
Though not in the business of environmental cleanup, Getty said the state Department of Parks and Recreation wants to see the problems solved.
"I'd like to identify the sources of pollution and go after them one by one, but I just don't know if that's feasible or who could do it," Getty said.
However, state and local agencies do not agree on how big the problem is.
"We have made three or four visits to Malibu Lagoon and found algae growth because of all the nutrients in the lagoon," said Mike Sowby of the regional board. "The place isn't really polluted; it's a naturally occurring problem."
Sowby said runoff from upstream causes the same problem at the lagoon as has been reported recently in local storm drains.
"You have the exact same problem in all the storm drains, but it compounds behind the sand at Malibu Lagoon," he said. "But I wouldn't consider it polluted by any stretch of the imagination."
Even if the agencies did agree that the lagoon should be cleaned up, they would face a major obstacle in trying to find the cause of persistent bacterial contamination there.
Norm Groom, of the county Department of Health Services, said the levels of coliform bacteria inside the lagoon are generally so much higher than the 1,000 parts per 100 milliliters considered safe in swimming waters, "that it's useless to even test in there--it blows all the tubes, so to speak."
Instead, Groom said, the county tests the surf in front of the lagoon and has not detected readings above safe levels.
Causes of Bacteria
The droppings from thousands of birds who use the refuge, combined with runoff from homes, businesses and farms located on more than 75 square miles of watershed upstream from the lagoon, are often cited as the causes of the bacterial levels.
But Malibu residents have blamed the Tapia sewage treatment plant upstream, which is operated by the county's Las Virgenes sewage treatment district.
However, Tapia spokesman Bill Ruff said, "No way are we adding to pollution. What we get is already pretty light stuff . . . then we give it tertiary (three-stage) treatment and it meets state drinking water standards." County and state officials wonder whether septic tank leach fields that serve homes in Malibu Colony, several businesses, a grocery store and government buildings at the Malibu Civic Center could be leaking their wastes into the lagoon.