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Commentary: Remember the fight to save the coast

November 05, 2012|By Penny Elia | By Penny Elia

Baby boomers may remember the Beatles' verse: "It was 20 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play." How long 20 years seemed when that song was released!

Let's double that this October and November to celebrate the 40th anniversaries of the federal Clean Water Act and the passage (Nov. 7, 1972) of Proposition 20, the Coastal Initiative, here in California.

Having lived through those 40 years, it doesn't seem like a long time, but to people younger than 40, it is, admittedly, personally prehistoric.

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So for all those younger than 40, or who just don't remember, here's a brief review: Prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was so polluted it erupted in flames, millions of fish died of contamination in a single Florida lake, and many rivers, lakes and bays were so polluted that two thirds of U.S. waterways at the time were unfit for fishing or swimming.

With unprecedented bipartisan support, Congress took action and passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The legislation was signed by President Richard Nixon. Since then Lake Erie and many other lakes and rivers have been cleaned up.

In the 1960s, the California coast was being walled off by the development one sees in Malibu — beach houses so close together that you can't see the ocean from Highway 1, or in Redondo Beach where huge apartment and condominium complexes replaced single family homes, or major hotels on the beach, such as high-rise Holiday Inns in Monterey and Ventura and the Surf & Sand in Laguna Beach.

Then came the 1969 Santa Barbara oil blowout, the result of cost-cutting by Union Oil. Thick black crude oil coated the beach for months and killed innumerable birds, fish and sea mammals. Californians went into action. Gated-communities, nuclear power plants and industrialization were not what the citizens of California envisioned as a remake of their fabled coast.

After three failed attempts to have coastal protection legislation passed through the Legislature, the Coastal Alliance went to the initiative process in 1972. Under brilliant leadership, the coalition collected 416,000 verified voter signatures in 34 days — about 16,000 signatures a day — gathered by thousands of unpaid signature gatherers. To have done this in a day when social media did not exist is inconceivable today. They relied on "phone trees," where one person called 10 people, who each called 10 people etc. But they didn't even have answering machines!

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