Malibu’s Epic Battle of Surfers Vs. Environmentalists

Local politics take a dramatic turn in southern California over a plan to clean up an iconic American playground

Water and sediment flowing from Malibu Creek and Lagoon impact the waves at Surfrider, especially after winter rains. (Keegan Gibbs)
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When a swell approaches Malibu’s most famous beach, Surfrider, it begins breaking just above a long, curved alluvial fan of sediment and stones near the mouth of Malibu Creek. It then flattens out, rears up again and rounds a small cove before running toward the shore for 200 yards. Here, according to Matt Warshaw’s book The History of Surfing, it “becomes the faultless Malibu wave of legend”—a wave that spawned Southern California surf culture. The plot of the classic 1966 movie Endless Summer was the quest for, in the words of the film’s director-narrator, “a place as good as Malibu.” In 2010, Surfrider was designated the first World Surfing Reserve.

Stephenie Glas moved to this stretch of Los Angeles County in the late 1990s. Blond, athletic and in her mid-20s at the time, she settled in a Malibu neighborhood with gaping ocean views and took to the water with her kiteboard. “She was one of the very few women that would hit the lip [of waves] with style,” an acquaintance of hers observed. “No holding back!”

Always something of an over-achiever, Glas had worked her way through UCLA by starting a personal-training business, and later set her sights on becoming a firefighter. In 2005 she joined the Los Angeles Fire Department, a force that was 97 percent male. “I picked this career knowing I would have to spend the next 25 years proving myself to men,” Glas said in a magazine profile.

To what extent her hard-charging nature contributed to her becoming a polarizing figure in close-knit Malibu is open to question. But she dove into one of the most surprising environmental disputes in memory not long after her partner, a 55-year-old goateed carpenter and surfer named Steve Woods, contracted a gastrointestinal illness following a session at Surfrider.

The water there, everyone knew, was contaminated with runoff from commercial and residential developments as well as effluent that flowed out of a wastewater treatment plant through Malibu Creek and into Malibu Lagoon before pulsing into the ocean. Eye, ear and sinus infections and gastrointestinal ailments were common side effects of paddling out at Surfrider. In the late 1990s, four surfers died after contracting water-borne diseases, reportedly acquired in the sludgy waves, and a fifth was nearly killed by a viral infection that attacked his heart.

UCLA scientists commissioned a study in the late 1990s and found a “stagnant lagoon replete with human waste and pathogens,” including fecal contamination and parasites such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium. California’s Water Resources Control Board in 2006 found numerous violations of water quality standards. A federal judge ruled in 2010 that the high bacteria levels violated the federal Clean Water Act. “Malibu Creek is a watershed on the brink of irreversible degradation,” warned Mark Gold, then the director of the nonprofit Heal the Bay.

One government authority after another approved an ambitious plan to rehabilitate the lagoon, to improve water flow and quality and bring back native wildlife. Combining historical data and modern scientific methods, the plan emphasized a return to the lagoon’s original functions, recreating a buffer against rising sea levels, a nursery for fish and a stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway migration route. This was in contrast to previous wetlands restorations in Southern California—including a failed one at Malibu Lagoon in 1983—which had altered original ecosystems, imperiling fish and birds. When the Malibu Lagoon plan was approved, it set a new precedent. “We can get ecological functions back or put them in place by giving a system the bones that it needs, the water flow, the land flow, the elevations that we know are useful,” Shelley Luce, director of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, a nonprofit overseeing the work, said of the plan’s emphasis on historical accuracy.

Then something unexpected happened, something seemingly out of character for a place that prides itself on its natural lifestyle: People vehemently opposed the cleanup. Surfers said tampering with the lagoon would wreck the legendary waves at Surfrider. Real estate agents said the construction mess would deprive them and property owners of rental income, beach houses in the area going for up to $75,000 a month. One environmental group insisted restoring the lagoon would do more harm than good. Protesters on the Pacific Coast Highway held signs that drivers whizzing by might have been puzzled to see in this sun-drenched idyll—“Malibu Massacre,” one said. Debate erupted on the local news website Malibu Patch, with people on both sides of the issue taking aim at one another in increasingly angry posts.

Some of Malibu’s famous residents jumped in. Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, said in an interview tied to an anti-restoration fundraiser: “Not being a biologist or a politician, I just kind of had to go with my gut instinct. Obviously [Malibu Lagoon is] not pristine, but it’s also not a toxic waste dump....The idea of bulldozing it and replacing it with an artificial version—just common sense tells me that’s not a good idea.” “Baywatch” star Pamela Anderson posted a note on Facebook with a racy photo of herself sitting by a river: “Why are they dredging up the Malibu Lagoon...? It is a protected wetland and bird sanctuary...”

In some ways the debate was classic Nimbyism, a case of locals not wanting outsiders to change the paradise they had come to love. But in other ways the Malibu controversy has been exceptional, a crack in the surface of an iconic American playground that reveals other, deeper forces at work: the fierceness of surf culture at its most territorial, property interests allied against environmental reformers and scientists, the thrall of Hollywood celebrity.


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