LAGUNA BEACH — From a wooded cove near Cook's Corner, Aliso Creek meanders more than 12 miles to the sea, snaking its way through some of the most richly developed and densely populated areas of Southern California.
At one time, its route was entirely rustic and rural.
But those days are gone. Orange County has changed, and so has the creek.
Longtime residents talk of an era when Aliso Creek was brimming with lush vegetation and marine life, including steelhead trout and crayfish.
"Folks used to gather 'em up and cook 'em in a pan," said Tex Haines, co-founder of the Laguna Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, one of the more active voices in protesting the current status of the creek.
Now, Aliso Creek brims mostly with the weight of urban runoff, serving as the capillary that transports motor oil, pesticides and animal feces from inland Orange County to the sea.
"Just look in your gutter," said David Caretto, general manager of the Aliso Water Management Agency, which operates a sewage treatment plant near the creek. "Anything that goes down the gutter and into a storm drain--anything from animal droppings to fertilizers--will probably end up in Aliso Creek, which then flows to the ocean."
As a result of its changing nature the last two decades, Aliso Creek is now the subject of raging environmental debate in Orange County. The creek is widely acknowledged to pose a health hazard, particularly where it empties out onto lush, scenic Aliso Beach.
"The water's dirty," Haines said with a snarl. "The county has ignored the problem for years, and we're sick and tired of it. It's nothing but a cesspool stew, full of pigeons and pigeon droppings and nearly 90-degree water, right at the beach!"
County health officials acknowledge that the bacterial count at the mouth of the creek--which curls into a warm-water stagnant pond that flushes out onto the beach--is at times alarmingly high, often surpassing the legal limit for California.
As a result, the area where the creek meets the sea, and the creek itself, are considered permanently off limits to swimmers and bear prominent signs that warn of the dangers of trespassing into such toxic waters.
Nevertheless, people do, almost daily. Officials from the Orange County Environmental Health Department say that skin rashes, infections, "pink eye" and other assorted ailments are not uncommon to those who use Aliso Beach and, unwittingly, come in contact with the creek and its invisible bacteria.
"It's a unique, wonderful beach," Haines said. "It's one of the best skin-boarding beaches in the world, with steep slopes and waves. Others like it for swimming, others for wading and fishing. But there's a 1-in-10 chance that you're gonna get sick. A lot of people have no idea what's going on there."
In response to criticism and years of concern, the county, the Laguna Beach City Council and the state Water Quality Control Board have collectively endorsed a temporary solution that may take effect as early as next summer.
A sand berm will be constructed about 500 yards east of the Aliso Creek Bridge and Pacific Coast Highway. The berm will be lined with plastic and designed to create a shallow pool from which polluted water can be pumped through a pipeline into an outfall line that will dump it 1.8 miles offshore.
The project is a joint effort by the county and the Aliso Water Management Agency, which treats waste water from six cities and water districts within the Aliso Creek watershed area. The agency already owns the outfall pipe.
The permit for the berm applies only to the summer months, officials say, noting that such a temporary measure would be virtually useless during the rainy season. The permit, however, is renewable annually until 2002.
Even so, environmentalists call it a "Band-Aid" solution at best, one that clearly improves the situation for human beings, particularly surfers and others who use the beach near the mouth of the river. But it poses new dangers for dolphins and other marine life that congregate near the end of the outfall pipe.
County health officials also note that, on any rainy day, bathers are warned to stay away from Aliso Beach, though such warnings are not uncommon for any portion of the Orange County coastline. Bacterial counts are often much higher during rains, in the likelihood of sewage spills and much more urban runoff.
As for Aliso Creek, its "Band-Aid" also troubles those who eventually hope to see a far more radical--even permanent--solution to the problems of one of Orange County's most overburdened streams.
"The concern we have is that, if the beach is cleaned up, even temporarily, people are going to think, 'Hey, the problem is over,' " said Ron Harris, president of the South Laguna Civic Assn. "When that happens, there's going to be a lot less pressure on all these agencies to effect a permanent solution."