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Surfers Are Wary of New Channel

Restoration: Some worry that bird waste and oil-field chemicals may taint Bolsa Chica water. Others back plan.


What appears to be good news for the Bolsa Chica wetlands--approval Tuesday by the California Coastal Commission of a tidal channel to restore the area to its natural state--is cause for concern among many surfers, who worry the channel will add pollution to local beaches.

Jeff Gordon, 31, of Newport Beach said he is aware of the dangers of surfing in polluted water. On Tuesday, he bypassed surfing near his home because of the recent rain; storm runoff flushes urban waste onto the beaches and causes bacteria levels to rise near river mouths, such as the Santa Ana River jetty near his home.

Instead, he found crisp, 2- to 3-foot waves at Bolsa Chica State Beach.

"I was thinking about ocean pollution today, so that's why I came and surfed up here," Gordon said.

His fears about water quality were echoed by other surfers after the commission approved a $100-million plan to restore the 1,200-acre Bolsa Chica wetlands to its natural state by letting ocean water sweep through a 360-foot-wide channel near the Huntington Beach bluffs.

Opponents say the channel could flush pollutants into the waters off Bolsa Chica or Huntington state beaches, depending on the currents.

The project still needs approvals from three agencies, but no obstacles are foreseen. The channel idea has considerable political and community support, although the Huntington surf community has yet to organize.

Don Slaven, a surfing veteran and member of the Surfrider Foundation, Huntington-Seal Beach chapter, said the group opposes the project because it would flush out decades of bird waste, unknown substances, and chemicals from the city's 100-year-old oil fields onto nearby public beaches.

Slaven and others believe the project could make swimmers and surfers "human guinea pigs" for an environmental experiment.

Gordon is against the channel because of pollution concerns. But he believes the political muscle behind the project would make official protests futile.

Not all surfers, however, are against the project.

Jack Souders, 64, of Huntington Beach said he's all for the tidal channel. "A lot of surfers are for this," Souders said as he watched the ocean from his old VW van. "This would include a jetty and surfers like that because jetties create waves."

Kris Kroo, 37, of Hacienda Heights brought sons Aaron, 15, and Kody, 8, for a day at the beach. When Kroo was told of the channel, he wondered whether a reclamation project to clean pollutants from the wetlands could be included.

"Who is going to be in charge of this project and are there plans for reclamation to clean up the water before it goes back to the ocean?" he asked.

Don Ito, Orange County's state park superintendent, said the state had similar concerns but dropped its opposition after a report on a similar tidal channel flow near Carlsbad showed that pollution has been minimized.

But Ian Bailey thinks he and other surfers can delay or kill the project. "There's always a big difference between getting approval and when construction actually begins," said Bailey, an 18-year-old business major at Cal State Long Beach.

Tim Whalen, 44, of Long Beach agrees that the commission's approval doesn't mean that the fight is over. Whalen, a bartender, said he surfs frequently at Bolsa Chica State Beach, which has been an important recreational spot for his family.

"It's where I grew up surfing. I remember what this place looked like, old 'Tin Can Beach,' they used to call it in the '60s. Now, I bring my kids down with me and they all surf."

Today's surfers include many attorneys, CEOs and doctors, Whalen said.

"We've got a lot of heavy-hitters in this area and maybe it's time for some protesting, some really heavy-duty rallying," he said.

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