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Whiff of Nature Stains Santa Barbara's Serenity

Environment: The beachside pooling of a polluted creek has stirred a debate over what needs to be preserved.


SANTA BARBARA — Hotelier Tony Romasanta is all for nature. What he can't see is protecting the filthy, malodorous body of water pooled up next to his luxury hotel. To Romasanta, that's not nature. That's a sewer.

"I coined it sewer lagoon," he said. "That's exactly what it is."

Sewer it may be, but that hasn't prevented Mission Creek and the other urban backwaters in this resort community from becoming the latest environmental cause celebre along the Central Coast. For decades, the city breached the mouths of the creeks during the dry months of summer to flush them to the sea.

The practice was stopped last year after a local environmental group complained. As a result, this summer Mission Creek, no longer aided by the city in its journey to the sea, has coagulated into a fetid, trash-encrusted pool right along the city's high-rent beachfront.

Some say it is an insult to the eyes and nose and should be drained. Others say safeguarding the environment is about more than saving cute sea otters and majestic redwoods: Nature in her most ragged, decaying frock also deserves protection.

Whatever happens, the question of what to do about the odoriferous body of water has already thrown into conflict two basic elements of the Santa Barbara mystique: its greener-than-thou sensibility and its dainty, mannered beauty.

To see the conflict in action, all one needs to do is watch the tourists get off their buses at the foot of famed Stearns Wharf. Looking out to sea, they can view a lovely harbor, a white-flour beach, and signs gravely warning them to stay out of the lagoon or risk illness.

"It really is, like Tony said, a sewer lagoon," admitted Brian Trautwein, an analyst for the Environmental Defense Center. "But it's a really happening place biologically."

While Mission, Sycamore and Laguna creeks flush naturally during the rainy season, Santa Barbara, like some other coastal communities, has made a practice of dredging out lagoons during summer. Just last year, the city bought a bulldozer to make the job easier.

That was before Trautwein and his group got involved. After finding out what the city was doing, the environmental group complained to the Army Corps of Engineers. "It was a clear violation of the Coastal Act," Trautwein said. He said the law allows only certain activities in wetlands, and breaching lagoons for odor control isn't one.

The Corps of Engineers warned the city, threatening it with fines unless it obtained permits under the Clean Water Act to continue the dredging. The city then ordered an immediate halt to the breaching.

"We stopped all breaching since last August," said Richard Johns, director of Parks and Recreation. "We ceased activities we'd been doing for 40 years."

Romasanta said one of the problems with trying to return the creeks to their natural states is that their urban setting has changed them almost beyond recognition. City drainage systems dump everything--pesticides, animal waste, street oil and plain old litter--into them.

To Romasanta, an attorney who owns several hotels and motels in town, including the exclusive Harbor View, halting the dredging made a bad situation worse. "We've become captives of this pollution," he said.

Mission Creek flows directly behind his hotel. "We try to mask it with flowers and trees, but it's pretty difficult to mask that," he said.

Johns acknowledged that the city has received complaints about the creek from waterfront firms. He said city crews have been dispatched to clean garbage out of the water. "That's helped a bit," he said.

Trautwein, 34, conceded that the bacteria count in the creek is "off the charts." But the pollution has not made the creek a dead sink. Leaning over a railing alongside the creek where it passes by Romasanta's hotel, Trautwein said, "Right now, there are tidewater gobies in here."

The tidewater goby is a small, burrowing fish that lives only in California lagoons. It is on the endangered species list. The lagoon at Mission Creek is also important to the endangered southern steelhead trout, Trautwein said. Young steelhead need the safety of the lagoon to mature before returning to the sea.

"If the lagoon is opened too soon and flushed out, the fish get eaten," Trautwein said. "Breaching is one sure way to kill endangered species."

Romasanta said the idea that the creeks are necessary for the survival of endangered species is "absolute nonsense. In spite of all the good work done by my friend Brian Trautwein, he can't change the facts."

Romasanta said there's no evidence of steelhead in lower Mission Creek. He acknowledged that there are gobies in the creek, but denied that they are in trouble.

As for the city's role in all this, Romasanta is less than pleased. "The city has given us exceptionally good lip service," he said.

However, the City Council decided recently to apply for permits that would allow the creek-breaching to resume. Johns said it will take at least a year.

In an attempt to solve the long-term problem of polluted creeks, the city is asking voters to approve a 2% increase in the bed tax. As a hotel owner, Romasanta is not happy about that idea, either.

"It's always nice to get someone else to clean up your mess," he said.

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