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Let dogs have their day in Santa Monica

Animal lovers are proposing a pilot dog beach in Santa Monica to test whether off-leash dogs can coexist with people. The state is resisting, but it's worth a test.

November 30, 2011

Santa Monica Beach welcomes swimmers, surfers, joggers, volleyball players and all manner of tourists. But no dogs. In fact, along the entire 75-mile stretch of Los Angeles County coastline, the only area where dogs are lawfully permitted to romp is a three-acre zone in Long Beach known as Rosie's Dog Beach.

Now, animal lovers are proposing a pilot dog beach in Santa Monica to test whether off-leash dogs can coexist with people. The city of Santa Monica supports the idea, but its beach is state-owned, and the California Department of Parks and Recreation is staunchly opposed. According to a 2006 report commissioned by now state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), 46 California beaches allow on-leash dogs and another 19 allow dogs off-leash. But while some state-owned beaches allow dogs on leash, they generally don't allow dogs to run free.

State officials and Heal the Bay have raised public health and environmental concerns about dog waste contaminating sand and water, as well as pets posing a threat to people, nesting shore birds and other canines. Even if dogs and their owners were perfectly well behaved and the latter always conscientiously cleaned up after the former, pathogens from dog waste would still contaminate the sand that children play in, said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay (and owner of three dogs). The city of Santa Monica, with the help of Heal the Bay, has spent millions to clean up the water along its shore. Why risk dogs adding more pollutants?

But do they? The 2006 state report noted that most beaches that allowed dogs received very good or excellent grades from Heal the Bay in 2005. According to Gold, however, those monitoring locations were not along shorelines with high dog use.

Those inconclusive results suggest the need for more study, and the Santa Monica proposal offers just that opportunity. The state should reconsider its opposition and agree to a modest pilot project to allow dogs off-leash for one year of dry and wet seasons. The designated area should be small, with specific hours, strict enforcement of cleanup requirements and stiff fines for those who disobey. This would help ensure that the beach stays clean, as would trash cans and plastic doggie bags. Water pollutant levels should be tested before the start of the project, during it and after. And because Santa Monica supports the idea, it should absorb the costs of the project and monitoring of humans and canines.

Dog lovers have been asking for a place on Santa Monica Beach for years. A group called Unleash the Beach has started an online petition for a dog beach, which as of Tuesday had garnered more than 500 signatures. This is a chance for the state to respond, and for owners to prove they are worthy of the state's trust. Let's stick a paw in and test the waters.

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