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Cancer can't dim passion for cause

September 17, 2008|STEVE LOPEZ

Dorothy Green was trying to be polite, but the founder of Heal the Bay made it quite clear that she wasn't terribly interested in talking about the things I had come to discuss in her Westwood home.


"It's part of living," she said, flicking away the question.

Her legacy?

"I don't look back, only forward."

Her deteriorating condition?

"It's interesting that cancer is what you want to talk about."

Now 79, Green has beaten her grim prognosis by years. But the melanoma first diagnosed 30 years ago metastasized to the brain six years ago, and she's now been told there's no way to stop the rapid spread of the disease. She's in hospice-care now, a bit wobbly on her feet and wearing a smart-looking cap to keep warm.

"I hope it happens sooner than later," she said of her demise. "It's so hard getting one thought put with another now."

You're not afraid?

"I'm scared for the whole world, for the Earth. Not for me."

To those who know her, this is classic Dorothy.

"She tells me we have to keep talking about these issues because it's what keeps her alive -- her passion to do what's right for California," said Carolee Krieger.

Krieger and Green co-founded the California Water Impact Network, a nonprofit devoted to educating Californians about what they see as environmentally destructive water mismanagement in California, with public officials caving to the desires of big agriculture.

Though Green is clearly addled by painkillers and exhausted by her fight with cancer, so much so that she often pauses mid-sentence to steal the strength to continue, she immediately interrupted me when I mentioned California's water shortage.

"There is no water shortage," she said sharply.

Not that anyone should run out and plant a 40-acre lawn, she cautioned. We waste far too much water as it is. But there's no water hog like agriculture, she said.

"Big agriculture uses 80% of the developed water in the state," she said, calling their conservation measures abysmal. "And almost half the agriculture in the state is for low-value, water-intensive crops like cotton, rice, alfalfa."

The siphoning of such huge amounts of water for agriculture is destroying the ecosystem in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, she argues. And the boondoggle is made possible by the lackeys on the state Water Resources Control Board. She gave the Gov. Schwarzenegger-appointed board members lousy grades for their two main duties:

Managing water supplies and managing water quality.

But in Dorothy Green's book, they aren't the only culprits. More than once during my visit, she blamed the media for not hammering away at the story and helping light a fire under the aloof and detached general public. As for the latter:

"They turn on the tap and water comes out," she said, and that's all the average Californian cares to know about water issues.

If she weren't still fighting the fight, Green told me, she doesn't know what else she'd be doing.

"This year, she had her spleen and kidney removed and showed up at our board meeting five days later," said Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay. "She has been the most influential water activist in California in the last 30 years."

Green's life is a lesson in reinvention. All that activism lay dormant as she raised a family with a husband who was in real estate. But after the kids were out of the house, she filled the void by volunteering for one cause after another, beginning with programs related to the needs of her own mentally challenged child.

She later campaigned for Proposition 20, which led to the creation of the California Coastal Commission. Her outrage over the lack of restrictions on sewage treatment and discharge into the ocean led to community organizing in her living room, followed by the creation of Heal the Bay and the watershed councils for the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers.

I assumed a person of her background might choose to have her ashes scattered over a bay she has helped heal. But Green shook her head, calling herself more traditional than that.

"Bury me in the soil," she said with a devil-may-care grin. "Worms crawl in, worms crawl out."

I asked Green if she thought it was easier to face death having made a great contribution to society and knowing she's left a lasting mark.

That's not something she'd given much thought to, she said, as if such rumination would be a waste of precious time.

"It's been a good life. A very rewarding life," she admitted.

She regrets that she won't be around to see 3-year-old granddaughter Tara grow up, and she regrets all the unfinished business. But she's not finished just yet.

She and Krieger were scheduled to meet today and strategize on fundraising for California Water Impact Network. I promised Green I would direct readers to the website, so they could educate themselves on the issues she's so passionate about.

So please, dear readers, take a look at Or spend a few minutes at

You might get angry; you might even get involved.

And Dorothy Green's great legacy, in spite of her modesty, will only grow.


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