Our mystery begins on Aliso Creek a few miles from Laguna Beach, at the yawning end of a pipe whose origin is uphill in a part of Laguna Niguel called Kite Hill. Though there hasn't been even a light rain in weeks, water pours from the pipe like a glass tongue. The water carries bacteria—lots of it, specifically fecal coliform in amounts 150 times greater than state law allows.
That's not the mystery; county officials have known for more than a year that this pipe is Aliso Creek's dirtiest. The mystery is that no one's sure whether the fecal coliform is the product of people or animals.
And there's a mystery behind that mystery: Why isn't anyone doing anything to figure out who's pooping in the Kite Hill pipe?
The answer to that question could lead to a solution that would restore Laguna's much-tarnished reputation for clean beaches. If human waste is the source of the bacteria, Laguna Niguel's sewer system is broken in a bad way. If it's animals—as Laguna Niguel officials insist, without evidence, it must be—well, then, hell, what can you do to keep animals from crapping in the sewer system?
“How much does it cost to do a DNA test?” wondered Roger von Butow, the founder of the Clean Aliso Creek and Beach Association (CACA). “Is it $5,000? $10,000? What's stopping them? The money?”
That's exactly the problem, according to Wayne Baglin, chairman of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board's San Diego region (which covers South County) and of the Aliso Water Management Agency, which operates the region's sewers.
Baglin found and first reported the dirty Kite Hill pipe to county officials 18 months ago. Later, at a March meeting on an Aliso Creek watershed-improvement study, county officials called DNA testing of Kite Hill pollution a top priority. But grant money to fund the tests mysteriously ran out, according to Baglin, whose water-quality board is working with the county to coordinate a future—still unfunded—test.
Baglin says a DNA test will cost around $5,000 and could speed up identification of the pollution source. But absence of that data didn't stop Chris Crompton, a county environmental-resources manager, from telling The Orange County Register in November that he suspects animals are the Kite Hill poopers. He got an assist from Laguna Niguel public-works director Ken Montgomery, who, at that city's Dec. 7 City Council meeting, said that he, too, thinks animals—rabbits, raccoons or even pets—are shitting in the pipe.
That didn't sit well with von Butow, who weeks ago tried to plug the pipe before being escorted off the property. “I am frustrated when I hear things like bunny rabbits being blamed,” von Butow told stone-faced council members. “You are lacking DNA evidence.”
Environmentalist Mike Beanan said it doesn't matter who or what is pooping in the pipe—at least 130,000 gallons of runoff water pours out of it and into the creek every day. “The rabbit shit is always there,” Beanan said. “It's the water that mobilizes it.”
Without knowing positively whether humans or animals are the crappers, the city should crack down on all Kite Hill residents, urged Laguna Niguel City Councilman Mark Goodman.
Contacted by the Weekly, Crompton sheepishly confirmed that no genetic tests have been done to corroborate his critter suspicions.
“Um, essentially, we're looking at different alternative measures, approaches, lots of different techniques and approaches that can be done,” he answered. “Right now, we're evaluating what is the best way to go. A number of these approaches are somewhat new, and sometimes it's a little hard to determine what would provide the best approach in this kind of situation.”
But wouldn't it be easier to locate the pollution source if genetic testing were done first?
“Um, the answer to that, to the extent that the results are definitive, is it would be,” Crompton said. “But there are other ways to do detective studies without doing that kind of testing.”
He said the Aliso Creek poop mystery will be solved sometime during the five-year, county/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers watershed study, which began in 1997.
Laguna Beach Surfrider Foundation president Briggs Christian Morris-Smith fears government officials are stalling because they really don't want to know the actual shit source. If it was proved that high levels of bacteria were caused by people potty, the creek and beach would have to be closed immediately until the source was found and stopped. Streets would probably have to be torn up to find leaky sewer lines. Federal Clean Water Act lawsuits against Laguna Niguel and the water districts responsible for chronically leaking raw sewage could follow. In other words, it would cost mucho dinero.
“Even if they do the test,” Morris-Smith said, “we don't know if we'll ever see the results.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.