A few things make life in Orange County like nowhere else. There’s nothing like exploring our mountains and chaparrals on horseback, watching your kid reel in her first fish from Newport Bay, or surfing at Doheny State Beach on a hot summer day.
The parts of Orange County that make life here so wonderful are the places that belong to everyone. I’ve always thought of our ability to share both our enjoyment of our natural spaces and the responsibility to protect them as one great example of democracy in action.
In 1999, I founded Orange County Coastkeeper to do my part in protecting our aquatic environments – to ensure everyone could enjoy a life in Orange County with fishable, swimmable, drinkable water, just like I did growing up here as a native of Orange County. Having owned three horses myself, I’ve enjoyed horseback riding, swimming and body surfing in the ocean for as long as I can remember. So when Orange County Coastkeeper received community complaints about water pollution stemming from the Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park, it was an issue especially dear to my heart.
The Riding Park’s management allows horse manure, trash and grey water to pollute the nearby San Juan Creek. This pollution not only harms aquatic life – it’s so severe that both the creek’s water and downstream Doheny State Beach often carry excessive bacteria and algae that makes swimmers susceptible to disease and infection. Children are especially susceptible.
Orange County Coastkeeper has several programs, including educating kids on water science, cleaning beaches, restoring marine habitats and advocating for better regulations that ensure improved water quality, but our goal is always the same: fishable, swimmable, drinkable water for all.
Where a business, municipality or other organization is illegally polluting our water, as with the owners and operators of the Riding Park, our first step is always to bring the problem to their attention. Often, they aren’t even aware. From there, we offer our expertise to the organization and work together to implement the most cost-effective, lasting engineering solutions to stop the pollution and bring the operation into legal compliance. In the last 18 years, Coastkeeper has helped over 70 facilities come into compliance with clean water standards throughout Orange County and the Inland Empire.
Here, we contacted the Riding Park owners and operators, the City of San Juan Capistrano and Blenheim Facility Management, but our complaints were dismissed. We organized a tour of the Riding Park and San Juan Creek with City officials to show them the problems and how to fix them, but senior staff left halfway through. Then, the City canceled a follow-up meeting the day before it was scheduled and failed to provide Coastkeeper with a plan to obtain permits and fix the issues outlined in our notice letter.
The City of San Juan Capistrano is familiar with notice letters; soon after receiving our 60-day notice, the City submitted a water quality pollution complaint against Tar Farms Stable demanding the facility corrective actions be completed within two weeks and a long-term plan in less than a month. Failure to comply, the City stated, could cause “further legal action.” These are the same water quality violations the City is trying to get away with at the Riding Park – a facility nearly twice the size of Tar Farms.
The Riding Park’s owners and operators would continue to willingly pollute our water if it was allowed. And amidst the summer’s rush of visitors to both the Riding Park and Doheny State Beach, even more families are at risk of getting sick from bacteria in the water.
So Orange County Coastkeeper sued the City of San Juan Capistrano and Blenheim Facility Management to bring the Riding Park into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Filing a suit against a polluter is always our last resort. It’s a long, resource-intensive endeavor, and if the pollution can be stopped through cooperation and collaboration, we can put more money and effort toward our other clean water programs.
If the Riding Park’s owners and operators continue to refuse to stop polluting, Coastkeeper is confident the Riding Park’s owners and operators will be directed to prevent the continued discharge or pollution to local waterways by a Federal judge. They will need to improve the condition of their facility and pay a fine to compensate for the damages they’ve already caused to the community’s water resources. Coastkeeper will not receive any benefit from that fine.
All of us deserve an Orange County that is swimmable, fishable and yes, let’s add rideable. Our only hope is for the City to address its water quality violations and turn the Riding Park into a place that protects our waters and our families. Orange County is an incredible place with its weather, coastline, resources and economy. Let’s together ensure it remains an exceptional place for all.
Click here to see the original version of this opinion piece by our Executive Director Garry Brown in the Orange County Register.