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I miss the Ocean

Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
Coast News
March 11, 2004


"It is a sign of our power, and our criminal folly, that we can pollute the vast ocean and are doing so." — Isaac Asimov

Recently I have been very present to the fact that, except for snorkeling off Kailua-Kona, a decade ago, I have not been in the Pacific Ocean for eighteen years. Living and working in Encinitas, not a day goes by that I don't catch a glimpse of the ocean. Tempting and taunting me, the Pacific Ocean has lost its lure due to a monumental build up of pollution that I am unwilling to risk.

It's to be expected that as population increases in Southern California, so too does the amount of sewage being pumped into the ocean. Day after day, year after year the Pacific is used as a septic pool. No matter how much I would like to ignore the reality of the situation and plunge headlong into the breakers to recapture some of the joy of my youth, I can't.

Growing up in Vista, going to the beach was something to look forward to. During the summer we migrated to the coast whenever possible. Days were spent at the beach, even some nights; contact with the ocean was never in question. I loved body surfing and body boarding. I cherished a sea otter's view, bobbing in the ocean, contemplating my place in the world. Thoughts of water quality related to temperature and wave size, nothing else. All that mattered was having fun and looking good.

But then again, that was before the days of brown tide and beach closures. Thirty years ago the San Diego region was a lot less crowded. But with the economic boom, came a population boom and that meant more sewage needing to be disposed of. And sewage treatment plants can do only so much to keep up with the river of human waste being generated on a continuous basis. Considering the pharmacy now available to us, it's safe to assume that the remnants of those drugs are building up as well.

As Southern California continues to "build out" urban runoff also continues to drain into coastal waters. More people equal more runoff. When one contemplates what is potentially running into the Pacific from our communities it's freighting. For an idea, just go to Home Depot and read the labels on herbicides and pesticides being sold to homeowners. Then imagine the amount of cleaning products being washed down the drain. Any supermarket will provide a list of chemicals currently being dumped off the coast. Paints, oils, fertilizers, plastics, also add to the equation.

Auto related pollution is another rabbit hole of implication. It's hard to deny that automobiles and the fluids required to operate them are, by their very nature, toxic. In numerous ways they contribute to the fouling of the ocean, run off from roads is but one.

Unlike most people I spend the majority of my time contemplating humanity's impact on the environment. And yes, with such a preoccupation shaping my world, it is impossible for me to see the Pacific Ocean as anything other than a giant toilet unfit to swim in. Hard core? Absolutely.

Contrary to popular belief, knowledge does not always equate with power. Case in point; my knowledge of the amount of sewage and urban runoff being dumped off the coast of California leaves me powerless in the face of reality. Ask any surfer. They can relate a catalogue of stories pertaining to illness associated with time spent in the Pacific Ocean. It is now common knowledge that it is unsafe to surf or swim after a storm, yet there they are surfing.

In fact if surfers were to organize in defense of water quality and demanded, on the threat of political upheaval, a concentrated effort on the part of elected officials, they could surf without the threat of illness. As a voting block surfers could change the way Californians view the ocean, if only they understood they hold the power. Whatever happened to the Surfrider Foundation? It's time they started throwing their collective weight around.

Now that spring has sprung, we will begin to see how important coastal waters are to cultural sustainability. Sooner or later we will realize that the health of the ocean is directly related to the health of our economy.

I miss the ocean.

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