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He Puts Clean Water First

O.C. activist Michael Hazzard once opposed polluters; now his job is helping them comply with regulations.

January 04, 2004|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Michael Hazzard once was an in-your-face environmentalist who coveted his role as a foe of Orange County water polluters. Now he works for an environmental firm, helping those polluters stop polluting.

"I guess you can say my activism got me my job," Hazzard said.

But he has hardly given up. Hazzard has been one of the strongest voices raising concerns about the possibility that the endangered steelhead trout still lives in coastal creeks -- a concern reinforced by the apparent rediscovery of the fish in Trabuco Creek. Such a finding could stall development in the area.

Hazzard, 46, has long been willing to put on his boots and hike canyons and creeks to study polluted areas. But when it comes to combating water pollution, Hazzard is showing signs of mellowing: Environmentalists and friends say he's gotten smarter, gaining new tact in his approach to developers and polluters.

His new job of six months as Orange County area manager for Santa Rosa-based Drainage Protection Systems, a company that provides devices for storm-water pollution, may also have changed his attitude toward strip malls, restaurants and developers. "I've gone from someone who agitated against them and am now helping them comply," he says.

Born in South Gate, Hazzard grew up in Bakersfield as the son of a banker. After a stint in the Navy, he moved to Orange County, where he worked as a carpet cleaner until he contracted an undetermined illness in 1995 after diving into Upper Oso Reservoir -- an illness he now suspects was caused, at least in part, by water pollution.

"I spent three days diving to retrieve an outboard motor and my skin broke out in hives and boils and my gallbladder suffered and I later had six operations over a 2 1/2-year period," Hazzard said.

He said doctors at a veterans hospital never diagnosed what he had contracted. He said he also developed a high fever, and lost 70 pounds.

The reservoir is off Aliso Creek, where Hazzard used to live. To aid his recovery, he started walking. Short trips at first, like around the block, he said. Then he started hiking up the creek -- and what he saw crystallized his new concerns about water quality.

"As I hiked, I started taking notes of what I saw and I was startled to see all these pipes from different areas going into the creek," he said. "Some of the areas near these pipes had a bad smell, and also you could see where things weren't growing as abundantly near them."

Hazzard joined a group headed by Roger von Butow, another South County environmentalist, who also had begun looking at the creek's high bacteria levels. The two became a one-two environmental punch, attending meetings and hearings for cities and water agencies, including the state water board.

Hazzard said he, Von Butow and Laguna Beach Councilman Wayne Baglin, who was chairman of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, San Diego region, worked together to gain increased water testing in the creek.

The new rules were imposed on six Orange County cities: Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest and Mission Viejo.

However, John Robertus, the water board's executive officer, downplayed Hazzard's role as a catalyst, saying that Hazzard's testimony merely contributed to the board's directive.

Whatever the contribution, Hazzard's environmental stock rose, especially among other South County environmentalists.

"He is a committed activist and always out there with a laser focus," said Mark Cousineau, from the San Clemente chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. "Mike has realized that when it comes to water quality, you can't just focus on coastal cities like Dana Point and San Clemente, but he's leading the charge up the watershed."

Through the years he has worn different hats and served in the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited of California and Von Butow's Clean Water Now, to name a few. He is also chairman of the state water resources control board's citizen watershed monitoring program in Orange County.

Developers are wary of Hazzard.

"We are working with various people who represent the legitimate and recognized environmental organizations, versus somebody who has extreme rogue interests like Mike Hazzard," said Diane Gaynor, a spokeswoman for Rancho Mission Viejo, which owns 23,000 acres in South County.

Despite the new job, which helps him understand the water-quality perspective of developers and other businesses, Hazzard has found his way back into the forefront of environmental activism in south Orange County. The issue now is the possible return of the steelhead trout, a discovery that could cause headaches for developers by requiring additional safeguards and paperwork.

He still attends meetings where he speaks out on water quality issues and spends his weekends in search of more steelhead and possible polluters.

State biologists and environmentalists say the apparent finds are significant and raise hopes that the species -- once plentiful in local watersheds but virtually absent since the 1960s -- will make a comeback. Until now, the trout have been confirmed only along San Diego County's San Mateo Creek, where more than 40 steelhead were reported in 1998.

It remains unclear whether the new discoveries would affect the proposed Foothill South toll road or the planned construction of 14,000 homes by Rancho Mission Viejo in south Orange County.

Hazzard said he may have a poor reputation with developers, but he still feels he has no choice but to pursue the cause of cleaner water.

"The whole reason I got into this was because I had a public-health interest," Hazzard said.

"I'm not against development, but we can't keep on doing it the way we've been doing it, which has resulted in polluted creeks and closed beaches."

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