Dorothy Green, a leading environmental activist whose anger over the pollution of Santa Monica Bay spurred her to establish the grass-roots group Heal the Bay and head efforts to change water policy in California, died Monday at her Westwood home. She was 79. The cause was melanoma, according to her son, Joshua.
Green became a warrior for clean water in 1985 after hearing how her brother had been splattered with barely treated sewage from an open drain at Ballona Creek in Marina del Rey. The creek runs into Santa Monica Bay, which encompasses a large swath of the Southern California coast, from Point Dume south to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Soon after the incident, Green huddled in her living room with a group of like-minded activists and formed Heal the Bay, which became a leader in the fight to clean up and protect local coastal waters. One of the largest nonprofit environmental groups in Los Angeles with 15,000 members, it is known for its annual Beach Report Card on water quality at California beaches.
When Green launched Heal the Bay, the challenges were significant.
"We had a 'dead zone' in the middle of Santa Monica Bay, we had bottom fish with tumors and 10-million-gallon sewage spills in the middle of a bright summer day. None of that occurs anymore," said Mark Gold, a marine biologist and Heal the Bay's executive director, who has been with the group almost from its inception. "That's Dorothy's legacy you see every time you look out at the bay."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 25, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 120 words Type of Material: Correction
Dorothy Green obituary: The obituary of environmental activist Dorothy Green in the Oct. 14 Section A said that she established the grass-roots group Heal the Bay after hearing how her brother had been splattered with sewage from an open drain at Marina del Rey's Ballona Creek, which runs into Santa Monica Bay. Accounts of how Green first learned of the pollution in the bay vary, but according to author Bill Sharpsteen, the person who first drew her attention to the problem was schoolteacher and environmentalist Howard Bennett, whose campaign to reduce the contamination started a movement and led Green to create Heal the Bay. Sharpsteen's research for an as-yet-unpublished book on the bay's cleanup included interviews with Bennett and Green.
Heal the Bay, of which Green was founding president, was only one of the products of her vision. She also founded the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to restoring and preserving the watershed, and California Water Impact Network, which is focused on the equitable use of public water.
She was a mentor to many of the current leaders on water issues in the state, including Timothy F. Brick, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and a longtime water activist.
"She was quite unique in our generation," said Brick, who knew Green for 35 years. "She not only was personally a very effective advocate but she founded a series of organizations that have been very effective in shaping policy on a variety of different water issues."
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in a statement Monday, called her "a giant of the environmental movement."
Green, the daughter of Polish immigrants, was born in Detroit on March 16, 1929. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in music in 1951, the same year she married her husband, Jacob. He joined her family's construction business and from 1955 to 1960 the couple worked together in Desert Hot Springs building and later operating a motel and water system.
She took her first step toward activism in 1962, when she joined the Exceptional Children's Foundation to help people like her son, Hershel, who is mentally challenged. For the next 17 years she ran the organization's Christmas card program, which raised $25,000 a year. With another son facing the draft, she also became involved in the antiwar movement.
By the early 1970s she was a full-fledged citizen warrior. She campaigned for Proposition 20, which led to the creation of the California Coastal Commission. Later, she joined the fight against a proposal to build a peripheral canal, which would bring Northern California water south through the California Aqueduct by looping around the polluted Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. That campaign "got her hooked on water" issues, according to Gold.
By 1985 she was a coordinator of Working Alliance to Equalize Rates, a group concerned with statewide water issues. She also was president of the Los Angeles chapter of the League of Conservation Voters, a politically oriented environmental group.
When the phone call came from her brother about his troubling discovery in Ballona Creek, she was, she recalled in an interview with Surfline magazine, "between issues." She sprang into action, starting with a personal inspection of the spot in the creek where largely untreated waste was spilling out next to a popular bike trail.
"The stench was undeniable," Green recalled in a 1987 interview with The Times.
Due to the efforts of Green and a small group of other activists, a political stink ensued.
Green called a number of leading environmentalists, including then-Assemblyman Tom Hayden, who represented the Westside. With Green leading the charge, they exposed problems in the city of Los Angeles' decaying sewer system, applying public pressure that generated critical attention.
The city was fined $180,000 by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board for several spills that had dumped nearly 200,000 gallons of waste into the ocean. The next year, 1986, the city agreed to introduce secondary treatment of sewage at its Hyperion plant in El Segundo, a first step in a years-long process of detoxifying the bay.