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Ballona Wetlands Nicola Buck Heal the Bay

Photos of Ballona Wetlands on September 16, 2017 by Nicola Buck.

Excuse the pun, but today marks a watershed moment for one of our region’s most important natural places — the Ballona Wetlands.

After years of delay, state and federal authorities released restoration plans Monday for the beleaguered 600-acre Reserve in the Playa del Rey area. Greater L.A. has already lost nearly 95% of its coastal wetlands, so we’re ecstatic to see officials finally moving forward to protect this ecological jewel.

But it’s not just scientists and enviro junkies who should care. Wetlands touch everyone in our region, no matter where we live.

  • Do you like more thriving open space for all Angelenos?
  • Do you like protecting habitat for local animals and native species?
  • Do you like improved water quality throughout the region?
  • Do you like natural buffers from the coming ravages of climate change?
  • Do you like providing natural spaces for young students to explore?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you already care about protecting and restoring wetlands.

Why Ballona Needs Our Help To Heal

For Angelenos, Ballona Wetlands, located between Marina del Rey and LMU, are the largest wetlands habitat in the region. Unfortunately they are not healthy or functioning well and need our help.

Decades ago, authorities building Marina del Rey dumped 3 million cubic yards of fill onto the wetlands – about 28 million wheelbarrows’ worth. Even before that, to protect against flooding, Ballona Creek was encased in concrete, removing the vital connection between land and water.

These actions served as a double-whammy – degrading natural habitat and starving the wetlands from essential sources of salt and fresh water.

Ballona Wetlands Nicola Buck Heal the Bay

One Step Closer To Restoring Ballona

Today the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released their long-gestating draft (EIR/S), which presents three project alternatives for restoration. They examine the pros and cons of each alternative to meet the overall goals of the project, which are ecosystem restoration, increased public access and enhanced recreational use, including a walking trail.

The good news is that the lead agencies seem fully and genuinely committed to a habitat restoration project that grows public access. Our staff scientists look forward to working with them to realize the option that we think best meets the goals for a healthy wetland.

The release of the EIR/S marks the beginning of a 60-day public comment period when anyone can weigh in on the plans.

Robust Restoration Is The Only Option

Heal the Bay is working together with a coalition of leading environmental groups and wetland scientists to advocate for restoration projects that put science first and maximize every opportunity to comprehensively restore our degraded wetlands.

Over the next few weeks, Heal the Bay will dive into the details and options highlighted in the restoration plans. The coalition doesn’t have a preferred alternative at the moment but will identify one in the coming weeks. It’s a thousand-page document – without the appendices! — so our team needs some time to thoughtfully review the EIR/S.

One option creates a more natural creek by removing concrete from Ballona Creek to reconnect the land to the water, north and south of the Creek; another option keeps the concrete along Ballona Creek but allows water to enter the floodplain north of the Creek, creating a so-called oxbow. Every EIR/S also has to examine the impacts of doing no project. You can see a nice review of the various options here.

Ballona Wetlands Nicola Buck Heal the Bay

Despite not knowing every exact detail about we do want to see at Ballona, Heal the Bay knows we cannot leave it alone and do nothing.

The Ballona Wetlands are highly degraded from fill, are too high in elevation and lack the critical connection to fresh and salt water. In addition, more than half the Wetlands Reserve has been taken over by non-native invasive plants, reducing economic, ecological, and social value. If we leave the Wetlands alone, they will continue to degrade and cannot heal on their own.

It’s critical we help our local environment thrive. In L.A. County, there is only 3.3 acres of greenspace per 1,000 residents – well below the national average for major metropolises. We can do better.

You’re Invited To Explore Ballona

Heal the Bay, along with our partners, is dedicated to Bringing Back Ballona. As part of this effort, we invite you to join us over the next month to discover the wetlands.

We have developed a series of weekend events through October so the general public can explore this amazing resource, see why it needs help, and understand its incredible potential. (See the full event calendar here.)

Ballona Wetlands Nicola Buck Heal the Bay

You can pick and choose from a number of fun opportunities with our staff, partners and volunteers:

And stay tuned – as we review the alternatives for restoration, we will keep you informed. We are going to need your help. We need you to add your voice to help protect this special place.

Ballona Wetlands Nicola Buck Heal the Bay



As Strawless Summer comes to a close, Heal the Bay is committing to a strawless forever. We’d also like to thank all of our partners and pledges for making this campaign possible.

In America, food and drinks are routinely served with a side of plastic. One coffee comes with a cup, sleeve, lid, stirrer, straw, sugar packet and cream. A breakfast burrito includes a wrap, container, salsa, utensils and bag. But just because it’s always on the menu, doesn’t mean we have to order it.

If you’ve been to one of our beach cleanups in greater Los Angeles, you don’t need crazy stats to shock you – like 500 million plastic straws being used in the U.S. every day1. You’ve seen our pollution challenges first-hand. In fact, around 40% of the trash found in the environment is beverage-related2, and single-use plastic straws are one of our most commonly found items at cleanups.

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“No straw, thank you”.

This simple statement, echoed by eco-conscious patrons in restaurants, bars, coffee shops and to-go eateries, is the murmur of a movement aimed at combating the single-use plastic convenience craze.

Earlier this year, Heal the Bay joined the straw-free movement and launched the Strawless Summer campaign to raise awareness and reduce plastic straw distribution in Los Angeles County.

Here are a few highlights:

“Straws Upon Request”

We’ve come to expect plastic straws available at dispensers, tossed on our tables and placed in our drinks without asking for them first. What would happen if we turned the tables? This is what we aimed to address in our “Straws Upon Request” Study.

During Strawless Summer, we partnered with three local Santa Monica establishments (Pono Burger, The Misfit, Ingo’s Tasty Diner) to pilot a 4-week program aimed at reducing plastic straw distribution. Patrons wouldn’t be given straws by waitstaff unless they asked for them, in the same way customers must ask for glasses of water during the drought.

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Did people totally freak out? No. Was it easy to implement? Yes. Did it earn the businesses major goodwill with green locals? Yep, it most certainly did.

If patrons asked for straws (one restaurant said this happened about half the time), the waitstaff explained their absence from the experience was part of a local effort to be more green. Then, the restaurant offered paper or plastic straws.

“We chose to participate in a Strawless Summer because it is great for the environment and the Bay. We are a locals restaurant and have a huge locals following a lot of whom spend a good amount of time in the Bay [and] ocean,” said one restaurant manager who participated in the study.

See more local establishments who pledged to go straws upon request during Strawless Summer.

MonSTRAWsity Hits Home

Here’s a frightening truth: the average American family uses 1,752 straws in a year3. To visualize this fact, we collected plastic straws at our coastline cleanups and pieced together the MonSTRAWsity, whose suit is made out of… 1,752 straws. The MonSTRAWsity spent the summer wreaking havoc on the Santa Monica Pier near the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, in the South Bay and all over Los Angeles. By the end of Summer, the MonSTRAWsity was even surfing the airwaves.

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The Sipping Point

It’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish by weight. Another study shows microscopic plastic fibers are being detected in 83% of drinking water worldwide and a whopping 94% of U.S. tap water4. Microplastics are even showing up in table salt, according to new research.

Heal the Bay’s Nothin’ But Sand, Adopt-a-Beach and Suits on the Sand cleanup volunteers together have collected close to 13,000 plastic straws and stirrers5 from L.A. County beaches in 2017 alone.

Local inaction is our own worst enemy; however, on the flip side, local action is our best opportunity. Heal the Bay will continue to work with businesses, environmental partners and local municipalities to curb the proliferation of plastic pollution, including advancing alternatives to plastic straws and only providing straws upon request.

L.A. doesn’t have to suck. Let’s rethink the drink and stop the alarming plastic pollution trends from continuing.

Learn more about the benefits of skipping the straw and make the pledge to go straw-fee at LASucks.org

Looking for something fun to share? Download this amazing poster below created by illustrator Daniela Garreton – please make sure to give her credit for this masterpiece. (Download PDF).

Our Strawless Summer 2017 campaign would not be possible without this tribe of water warriors: Thank you to Mick and the team at ZehnerGroup, Susan Lang (creator of the MonSTRAWsity and Heal the Bay volunteer extraordinaire), Andrea Maguire and the STRAWS documentary team, SoHo House Malibu, All At Once, Jack Johnson and the Ohana Foundation, Lonely Whale Foundation, 5 Gyres Institute, Klean Kanteen, Simone Boyce and KTLA 5, and all the awesome local businesses who pledged to go Strawless or “Straws Upon Request”, we salute you!

Special shout outs to these local businesses for their participation in Strawless Summer:

Pono Burger, The Misfit, Ingo’s Tasty Diner, Bareburger Organic, Laurel Tavern, Hermosa Beach Fish Shop, Beckers Bakery & Deli, Brother’s BurritosTallulas and Watermans Safehouse

Sources:
1. “The Be Straw Free Campaign”. National Park Service Commercial Services. (Last update 11/26/2013) https://www.nps.gov/commercialservices/greenline_straw_free.htm
2. Plastics BAN List. Publication. 5 Gyres, Clean Production Action, Surfrider Foundation, USTREAM. 2016. http://d3583ivmhhw2le.cloudfront.net/images/uploads/publications/PlasticsBANList2016.pdf
3. “The Be Straw Free Campaign”. National Park Service Commercial Services. (Last update 11/26/2013) https://www.nps.gov/commercialservices/greenline_straw_free.htm
4. “New Research Shows Plastic Fibers in Drinking Water”. Plastic Pollution Coalition. (published 9/6/2017) http://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/pft/2017/9/6/microfibers-the-plastic-inside-us
5. Heal the Bay’s Marine Debris Database. (data pulled from 1/1/2017-9/21/2017) http://sites.healthebay.org/MarineDebris/MDDB/



Spending time with some exceptional students at the 28th annual Coastal Cleanup Day serves as a real pick-me-up for Communications Director Matthew King.

After 10 years at Heal the Bay, I’ve become a bit jaded about our cleanups. I see the same mounds of trash every time I head to a site – cigarette butts, plastic water bottles, fast-food wrappers, you name it.

In the time I’ve worked here, our cleanup volunteers have removed more than 2.6 million items of man-made debris from L.A. County shorelines. That astounding figure stirs mixed emotions. It’s saddening to realize that we still treat our natural places as trash dumps, but it’s also reassuring to know so many Angelenos still care enough to donate a Saturday morning to protect what they love.

Coastal Cleanup Day 2017 was no different. Under pleasantly overcast skies, volunteers stretching from Compton to Malibu collected roughly 23,000 pounds of trash in just under three hours. To put that in perspective, that’s about the weight of two enormous T. Rex dinosaurs!

Beyond the usual suspects, we found a few oddball items this year – a drone that must have crash landed underneath the Redondo Pier, a whole set of unopened men’s dress shirts resting forlornly on the sand at Will Rogers State Beach, and a jock-strap and cup in Palos Verdes. (Props to whoever had the nerve to pick it up!)

It’s also revealing to see what we didn’t find. A veteran site captain at Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve was astounded how few plastic bags they found at this L.A. River location, which has historically been visibly choked with plastic bags. It’s a good sign that the recently passed state ban is working!

In all, more than 9,600 volunteers joined us at 61 sites across the County today. We always mobilize a cross-section of greater L.A, both the famous and not-so-famous. I’ve met professional surfers, NBA centers, All-Star outfielders and Oscar-winning actors. But it’s usually the everyday folks like you and me who have interesting stories to tell.

Take the inspiring group of six students from Bell Gardens High School who served as site captains for our beach cleanup in Playa del Rey today, under the caring guidance of teacher Patty Jimenez.  The youth brigade — Angel Diaz, Christopher Linares, Heidi Lara, Kimberly Gonzalez, Otzara Villalobos and Vanexi Jaramillo — mobilized 342 volunteers, who collected 235 pounds of ocean-bound debris.

I first met four of these kids last Wednesday morning at a KTLA Channel 5 news shoot to promote today’s cleanup. They had all arisen at 3 a.m., clambered into Patty’s sedan and traveled 23 miles in darkness to do a series of live interviews at the Del Rey Lagoon. With the bright lights of the camera staring them down as dawn broke, they spoke passionately and endearingly on live TV about their desire to curb cigarette-related pollution. Patty beamed at each of her charges, nodding as they offered simple but powerful testimony.

But what really touched me that chilly morning had come a half hour earlier.  I had approached Patty’s car to give the group a heads-up and to share some media tips. A gaggle of kids sat quietly inside, dressed in their teen uniform of denim, hoodies and Vans tennis shoes.

And then I saw something beautiful that made me well up.

In the cramped back seat, two students scanned textbooks, using their mobile phones to illuminate the pages in the dark. They were doing their math homework — in an unfamiliar neighborhood, hours before their school day would start and hours before most of their peers would even be awake.

I told Patty how moving the sight had been and she shared that that these students’ work ethic and optimism keep her motivated when she faces obstacles at school. She shared that this same group of students played a lead role last month in convincing the Bell Gardens City Council to adopt its first ban on smoking in parks and recreation areas.

The simple scene in the car gave me a moment of hope about the public school system, and Patty’s story gave me hope about the next generation of environmental stewards. This is why I work at Heal the Bay, to help my colleagues create leadership opportunities for students like Patty’s, to connect people from all across our region to their watersheds and to each other.

That to me is the real gift of Coastal Cleanup Day.

You can find more images from the day on our Flickr album and at our Facebook Page (check out the new videos, too).

Thank you to all our site captains, volunteers, partners and staff. We couldn’t have done this without you! And a special thank you to this year’s organizers, sponsors and otherwise remarkable organizations: California Coastal Commission, California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways, City of Santa Monica, Golden Road Brewing, Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, Schuchart/Dow, Union Bank, LAcarGUY, KIND Snacks and REI, as well as our photographers Nicola Buck, Cali Gilbert and Alvin Lam.

If you weren’t able to join us today, we have many volunteer opportunities throughout the year – out in the field, in our offices, or at our Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. Explore the various options and time commitments here.



Update (9/10/17): Bacteria levels remain very high in Sepulveda Basin. Most sites also exceed regulatory limits in Elysian Valley, although amounts of bacteria are lower than earlier this week. Based on these latest sampling results, we still recommend avoiding water contact with the L.A. River.

Heal the Bay is urging the general public to avoid the waters of the Los Angeles River this weekend because of alarmingly high levels of bacterial pollution.

Our staff scientists collect weekly water quality samples at four sites in the Sepulveda Basin and Elysian Valley, areas of the L.A. River that have become popular for kayaking, fishing and other recreational activities. The levels of bacteria are at the most worrying levels since Heal the Bay began monitoring L.A. River sites in 2015.

The results have a special urgency this weekend, as the fourth annual L.A. Boat Race is scheduled to take place at the Glendale Narrows (Elysian Valley). Dozens of kayakers are expected for the boat pageant and parade.

Samples taken on Sept. 6 in the Sepulveda Basin by the City of L.A. Sanitation Department showed very high levels of bacteria, well over accepted regulatory and health limits. The poor results are possibly related to runoff from recent thunderstorms and rains. A fish kill in the Balboa Boulevard area of the Basin has also likely degraded water quality. Low-oxygen levels, high turbidity and increased ammonia levels have been cited by city officials as contributing factors to the fish kill.

Additionally, Heal the Bay scientists and other monitoring groups recorded very high levels of bacteria on Sept. 1 and Sept. 4 in the Elysian Valley area. Rainstorms and poor upstream water quality likely led to the spike in such bacteria levels (the presence of which indicate an elevated risk for ear infections, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal illnesses for people who come in contact with the water).

Heal the Bay urges people to stay out of the water and to delay any planned kayaking trips until water quality results show marked improvement. Our staff scientists expect to get updated bacteria counts this weekend (please check our Twitter and Facebook pages on Sunday as we’ll be posting the results).

Unlike at the beach, there is not yet an official protocol for authorities to alert the general public or kayak outfitters when potentially dangerous levels of bacterial pollution are found at popular recreation zones at the L.A. River. The only way for the general public to know about potential threats to their health is to access water quality data on Heal the Bay’s River Report Card, which is updated weekly.

Heal the Bay looks forward to working with the City of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Department of Public Health to resolve jurisdictional conflicts about health oversight of the L.A. River. This effort should hopefully lead to formal protocol for proactively warning kayak operators and the general public as soon as they know bacteria levels exceed safety thresholds.

Every year thousands of people recreate in the L.A. River. In 2014, approximately 6,000 people utilized the recreation zones, according to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

The L.A. River has been designated by state regulators as a bacteria-impaired waterbody. The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board has identified several conduits of bacteria to recreational zones along the river: urban runoff, leaks and flows from wastewater collection systems, illicit connections and failing septic systems. Bacteria sources include pets, horses and human waste.

Experiencing the L.A. River firsthand is an undeniable way to make a connection to a river that needs supporters and advocates; many Heal the Bay staff members and volunteers have kayaked the L.A. River over the years and will continue to do so. We also believe that the public has a right to know what the water quality of the river is and then to make an informed decision about how they want to experience the river.

If you are thinking about getting out on the water, please check out our FAQ about recreation and water quality issues along the L.A. River.



As California’s legislative session nears its end, an important water bill passed out of the Assembly last Thursday, giving us hope that cities will soon find it easier to finance much-needed stormwater projects. SB 231, led by state Sen. Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), is now headed to the Governor’s desk. We believe it’s a great step to increase runoff capture, cleansing and reuse throughout the state.

What is SB 231?
SB 231 gives cities, counties and local water agencies broader authority to finance local projects to put stormwater to use. Cities currently charge residents for infrastructure like sewage treatment, but have been hamstrung by rules that prevent them from charging property owners for stormwater services. Cities need public funding measures to build enhanced runoff infrastructure that can augment local water supply while protecting against flooding. We need to treat stormwater as a resource instead of a nuisance.

What problem does it solve?
California suffers from an outdated water management system that has created serious long-term challenges that are intensified during times of drought and heavy rains. For example, an average 1-inch storm in Los Angeles County sends over 10 billion gallons of runoff to the Pacific Ocean, along with the pollutants picked up and carried with it. This wasteful and environmentally harmful practice could be improved by capturing, cleansing and reusing that stormwater. However, one of the biggest barriers to plumbing our cities has been confusion around the tools local government can use to finance new or updated infrastructure to put runoff to use. SB 231 helps address this problem by clarifying the definition of sewer service so that projects designed to capture and clean stormwater can be more easily financed, consistent with how municipalities support water, sewer and trash services.

I care about clean water, but what other benefits does it provide?
SB 231 will provide economic benefits by creating jobs through local infrastructure investments and upgrades. It will shield our communities from costly and devastating flood damage, and it would also help cities and counties invest in a more water-resilient future in the face of climate change – cleaning stormwater to help build local water supplies and reducing reliance on costly and uncertain imported water.

What will this allow greater L.A. to do?
Each day roughly 10 million gallons of water flows uselessly from the urban Los Angeles County area out to sea, even as we desperately need water. Up to 630,000 acre feet of water per year could be generated by better stormwater capture and reuse in the state. That volume is roughly equal to the amount of water used by the entire City of Los Angeles annually. Properly managing runoff and water supply is a critical responsibility of local government, and in L.A. it’s required by regulations set by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. If SB 231 is signed into law, it will provide L.A. region municipalities more options for funding these critical stormwater service investments, allowing us to modernize the way water is managed in the region.

What happens next?
SB 231 is now headed to the Governor’s desk. Gov. Brown has until Oct. 15 to sign the bill into law or reject it with a veto.

Follow @OurWaterLA to stay up to date with the latest news about building a more water-resilient region. You can also learn more and get involved at ourwaterla.org, a website created by a coalition of leading community groups including Heal the Bay.



Most people view Labor Day weekend as the last celebration of summer and a final opportunity to enjoy a relaxing water adventure either at the beach or the river. A last hurrah before settling into the fall season.  With that in mind, now is a good time to deliver a friendly reminder about water quality when heading to your favorite beach or stream.

First – let’s remember the basic safety tips.

These are some general rules to follow to lower your risk of getting sick when:

Going to the beach

  • Swim at least 100 yards from piers and flowing storm drains.
  • Because of poor circulation, water quality at enclosed beaches and harbors is often poorer than at open beaches.
  • Wait at least 3 days after a rainstorm before diving into the water (and wait at least 5 days before swimming at beaches near storm drains).

Going to the river

  • Do not drink the water.
  • After water contact, rinse off with soap and water.
  • Be aware of your swimming conditions (funny smells, homeless encampments, nearby drainages, posted signs) before entering the water.

Second – knowledge is power.

Heal the Bay has two great, if not awesome, sources of water quality information regardless of whether you are going to the beach or the river. In addition to practicing safe swimming, water enthusiasts should visit Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card to get the latest information on all California beach conditions. (We publish the Beach Report Card on a weekly basis for the whole year, so can stay informed if you plan on swimming in the ocean beyond Labor Day Weekend.)

If you plan to visit a swimming hole in Los Angeles County this coming weekend, then see our River Report Card to see updated water quality information about these swimming holes.

Our motto has always been, and always will be: KNOW BEFORE YOU GO!

Have a great Labor Day Weekend!



Summer is coming to an end, but our #StrawlessSummer Campaign is a pledge you can keep all year round.

We are thrilled to be joined by local businesses like Pono Burger, The Misfit, Ingo’s Tasty Diner, Bareburger Organic, Laurel Tavern, Hermosa Beach Fish Shop, Beckers Bakery & Deli, Brother’s BurritosTallulas and Watermans Safehouse for our “Straws-Upon-Request” campaign. These businesses are leading the way to change consumer behavior across our region. If a straw is absolutely needed, biodegradable paper straws are available by request.

Americans use roughly 500 million plastic straws daily – that’s enough to fill up 125 school buses and to wrap around the planet 2.5 times. Because they aren’t readily recyclable, most plastic straws end up in landfills, and the rest wind up polluting the environment. Plastic pollution is a major problem, in fact it’s estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea by mass than fish. Skipping the straw is an easy way to make a big difference.

L.A. sucks at times, but we don’t have to! We just launched our new campaign microsite (thanks ZEHNERGROUP). You can take the pledge to go strawless, catch up on the latest straw-related news, share with your friends and find out which local restaurants and bars are going straws-upon-request. Learn more at lasucks.org.



Wonder Woman

Mentoring is a powerful thing. Here we catch up with our former teen advocate Zola Berger-Schmitz, left, who has blossomed into a Georgia eco-warrior.

Heal the Bay is thrilled that our own volunteer and super healer, Zola Berger-Schmitz, will be honored this week at the influential 2017 Women in Green Forum with the Youth Trailblazer Award.

Zola came to us as a 12-year-old on a mission – she wanted to be involved directly in Heal the Bay’s work to make our oceans more vibrant and full of life. Instead of just coming out to a beach clean-up here and there, Zola dug in deep, got her friends and family involved, and even took her spring break to attend a Fish and Game Commission hearing and testify before the agency, requesting that Marine Protected Areas be established in L.A.

As her passion for environmental advocacy grew, Zola became involved in Heal the Bay’s efforts to prevent plastic pollution and build a youth brigade of high school clubs. Zola is now a junior at Emory University, where she is co-president of the Emory Climate Organization, an intern for the Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, an intern with U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and served as a youth delegate at the United Nations 2016 Climate Talks. As the premier venue to promote women’s leadership in sustainability in California and beyond, it is fitting that Zola is being honored at the Women in Green Forum this year.

Here, Heal the Bay vice president Sarah Sikich reconnects with the young woman she successfully mentored.


Sarah Sikich: What sparked your interest in ocean conservation and environmental activism at such a young age?

Zola Berger-Schmitz: Shortly before I turned 12, my grandparents enrolled me in an oceanography camp at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. I had always been interested in reading about marine life, but I hadn’t had much exposure to oceanographic research or to the field of marine biology as a whole.  What I learned at the camp absolutely blew my mind. I remember being fascinated by the notion that plankton could be bioluminescent, and enamored with the NOAA submersibles we toured that were used to conduct deep-sea research expeditions. That same summer, I had a sudden epiphany: “What if there were no more fish left in the ocean?” Later that year, I decided to visit Heal the Bay to learn more about ocean conservation and found out about a campaign you were working on to help adopt Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along the Southern California coast. I was pretty shocked to discover that although we had national parks like Yosemite on land, there were no state parks underwater. At that moment, I knew that I had to do something to help, especially if I wanted to ensure that my children and grandchildren would still be able to see fish in the ocean one day.

SS: You’ve been involved in many campaigns and projects with Heal the Bay over the years. What was the most influential for you?

ZBS: The first campaign I worked on with Heal the Bay, the campaign to adopt Marine Protected Areas along the Southern California Coast, was probably also the most influential. I hadn’t had any experience with legislative advocacy and I had no idea how to get up in front of a group of stakeholders and give convincing testimony. Soon, several Heal the Bay staff members began mentoring me and through watching them in action, I learned how to write speeches that appealed not only to fellow environmental activists, but also to politicians who were more skeptical about the need to adopt MPAs. A few months later, you helped inspire me to produce a film with my entire middle school that focused on the importance of preserving the ocean for future generations. By the end of the campaign, I had grown from a shy 12-year-old into a poised teenager who felt prepared to present a film in front of the California Fish and Game Commission. When it was announced that Marine Protected Areas had been adopted along the Southern California coast, I was ecstatic and it was the first time that it fully occurred to me that anyone, myself included, could help have an impact on the public policy process.

Zola, second from the left, at our 2010 volunteer party.

SS: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your environmental activism career thus far?

ZBS: When I was in my first year of college at Emory University, I decided to testify in front of the Georgia Public Service Commission in order to advocate for more renewable energy options in the Georgia Integrated Resource Plan prepared by Georgia Power. This IRP determines in large part what the Georgia energy landscape will look like over three year periods of time. Before the hearing, I was told that it would be unwise to use the term climate change when giving my testimony, because it could alienate climate-skeptic politicians. Instead, I had to learn how to make economic arguments about renewable energy and how to approach energy savings from the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis. It was quite frustrating at first to give a public testimony without including information about climate change and coal emissions. Over time, however, I learned how to adapt quickly to my environment, and I have become much better at gauging how to best appeal to different kinds of audiences.

SS: What is something you’ve learned during your time working with Heal the Bay that you will take with you for the rest of your life?

ZBS: One of most important things I learned at Heal the Bay is that you don’t have to be a scientist, politician, or policy expert to have an influence on public policy and to affect environmental change. You can be a middle-school student or even an elementary-school teacher. A lot of people are too intimidated to speak up for what they believe in because they are afraid that they will come across as inarticulate and uninformed. When I first got involved in environmental activism, I was in a similar boat. I didn’t have that much knowledge about the nuances of environmental legislation and knew very little about the science behind phenomena such as overfishing and sea-level rise.  What I did have, however, was the passion to make a difference. In college, a lot of my peers are surprised that I have the courage to testify in front of politicians or approach delegates at the United Nations Climate Talks. This is largely because Heal the Bay gave me the confidence to put myself out there, even in tough situations.

SS: How do you stay motivated in a field that’s faced with so many competing interests and obstacles?

ZBS: I always remind myself that change doesn’t happen overnight. Some of the most successful campaigns that I was involved in during my time at Heal the Bay, such as the campaign to ban plastic bags in the City of Los Angeles, were campaigns that took over 15 years to effectively implement. Persistence is key to staying motivated, even when things don’t look like they are going to work out. Often times, the most satisfying victories are the victories that were the hardest to achieve.

SS: What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing a career in environmental conservation?

ZBS: I have a few really simple pieces of advice. First of all, try to find a mentor. It can feel daunting to think about pursuing a career in a field like environmental conservation, and it really helps to talk to someone who has already gone through some of the same hoops. Sarah, you are one of my biggest mentors at Heal the Bay and have continued to serve as an inspiration to me in college and beyond. Secondly, get as much practical experience as you can early on. The only way to learn about environmental activism is to participate in it directly, whether that means speaking at public hearings, starting an environmental club at your school, or simply signing up for a carbon footprint reduction challenge. The more and more opportunities you take advantage of, the more you learn about yourself as well as your strengths and weaknesses. And lastly, just go for it! You don’t need to be a seasoned environmental activist to have an opinion that matters.



Participating in our biggest volunteer event is guaranteed to lift your spirits, writes aquarium staffer and veteran organizer Randi Parent.

This will be my 13th year as a Heal the Bay staff member rolling up my sleeves to organize our biggest volunteer event of the year — Coastal Cleanup Day — on Saturday Sept. 16. (I should be logging No. 14, but taking my daughter to college was the priority a few years back.)

It’s a day of big numbers: half a million people around the globe, volunteering to tidy up their favorite park, stream, lake or shoreline. Millions of pounds of debris picked up, documented, bagged and disposed of, all within a few hours on a Saturday morning by folks in 112 countries. Heal the Bay has historically organized coastal and inland sites in L.A. County, welcoming up to 20,000 volunteers spread out at cleanup locations from Malibu to Compton.

I usually help mobilize our biggest site, next to the Santa Monica Pier, where we’ve sent more than 2,000 people out along the beach. But I’ve also assisted at much smaller inland cleanups, where the power of a few community groups spreading out along a concrete-lined riverbed makes everyone feel mighty, as they weigh their garbage haul at the end of the morning.

For this year’s event – which runs from 9 a.m. to noon – it’s exciting to hear we’ll be including several locations around the county where active wetlands restoration is in progress.

Volunteers are removing invasive plants that choke waterways and they’re removing the trash that accumulates in the overgrowth too – a win-win for the native plants and animals that depend on these riparian habitats for their survival. These sites – LAX Dunes and Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve in Playa del Rey, Medea Creek in Agoura Hills and Alta Vicente Reserve in Rancho Palos Verde — all offer an opportunity to become involved with an ongoing restoration project.

But no matter the size, scope or location of the cleanup, there’s been one constant in my 13 Coastal Cleanup Days with Heal the Bay: the genuine feeling of satisfaction and connection I receive after spending a morning with community members, school groups, families and individuals who really care. In a world full of dysfunction and strife, we gather for a simple task that makes a world of difference. On one Saturday in September, we can all make a small corner of this planet that much cleaner and healthier. It may sound corny, but it’s a very powerful moment.

I look forward to meeting you at the Pier cleanup site this year. But there are many more to choose from! Please register today.



Attention citizen scientists and naturalists, it’s time to charge your mobile devices. Our watershed scientist Katherine Pease is inviting you to BioBlitz with her for a few hours on Saturday, Aug. 26.

Compton Creek is a small gem of green and blue, bisected by noisy freeways, crumbling parking lots, aging shopping malls and a high-rise casino. Amid all this urban scrabble, a soft-bottomed section of the creek thrives.

Most people don’t know this earthen-bottomed half-mile stretch even exists. And some might argue that “gem” is too generous a term for this L.A. River tributary. But we see it as a forgotten jewel – a glimpse of what greater L.A.’s inland waterways used to be and a symbol of what we can hopefully bring back on a larger scale.

There are drooping willow trees, reeds, frogs, swarms of dragonflies, California ground squirrels and even majestic kites (a type of bird) flying overhead. There is also trash, a lot of it, and pollutants that can’t be seen with the naked eye: bacteria, metals and nutrients. But there is that glimmer of hope. Plants and animals persist here, and now it’s our job to find out what’s there and to protect it.

So we’re inviting you to a blitz. A BioBlitz to be exact.

On Saturday, Aug. 26, you can join scientists and experts from Heal the Bay and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in searching for wildlife and documenting it with your smartphone.

We’ll be spending three hours snapping pictures of the local flora and fauna, uploading the images to our growing catalogue of L.A.’s wildlife via the iNaturalist app.

You don’t need to be a scientist to participate – you just have to observe what is around you! In addition to looking for plants and animals, we will be picking up trash in and around the creek, which ultimately drains into the Pacific Ocean near Long Beach.

The data we collect will better inform restoration and revitalization of the Los Angeles River watershed. A revitalization plan for the Lower L.A. River is being formulated by the Lower L.A. River Revitalization Plan Working Group. As a member of this effort, Heal the Bay is fighting for better access, improved water quality and restored ecological habitats in the Lower L.A. River. Having data on the current conditions of biodiversity in Compton Creek helps set a baseline so we can establish goals for what we would like to see in the coming years.

This BioBlitz is part of two greater efforts in the Los Angeles area to document, protect and improve biodiversity and habitats.

First, the Los Angeles City Council, championed by councilmember Paul Koretz, recently passed a motion to protect and improve biodiversity in Los Angeles. Heal the Bay has been involved in this effort and sees this BioBlitz in Compton Creek as a way to understand the nature that exists all around us in greater Los Angeles.

The second push is the city of Compton’s revival of the Compton Creek Task Force. The Task Force is focused on creating stewardship opportunities along the creek, educating residents and visitors about its importance. The group will also help implement the city’s Compton Creek Regional Garden Park Master Plan, which includes restoring the earthen-bottom portion of Compton Creek.

If you ever thought about becoming a citizen scientist, this is an ideal opportunity to get started. Last year, we hosted similar events in the Ballona Wetlands and Malibu Lagoon. Dozens of volunteers made a big difference in our ongoing restoration work by creating a record of what they saw each morning.

You can register with us for the event here.