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May 19 2011 | Coastal development, Waves, Activism, Water Quality, Surfing,

Malibu is a great wave. Mechanically speaking it’s almost perfect. Some would say its better days are behind us and while those comments tend to be directly tied to that person’s age (it was better in the 80's when I was a teen) I agree that it was probably best a long time ago… when the Chumash Indians were the only locals. At that time the wave was clean, natural, accessible and (I’m guessing) connecting all the way from Third Point through First Point. Malibu’s wave has been changed for the worse with development, leaking skeptic tanks, concreted river banks and ongoing tweaks to the coastal zone.
That said, Malibu obviously still good enough to attract among the largest crowds in Southern California.
Surfrider Foundation literally came into being AT Malibu 26 years ago. We formed to formally engage in the lagoon ecosystem management process and to influence the inlet location both with the goal of protecting the wave. I captured that story on a podcast with Glenn Hening, that’s here. What Surfrider Foundation is doing a couple decades later is essentially this same thing except now we’re engaged in this fight all over the globe.
Let me share a few points about who and what Surfrider is and then a few specific points related to the ongoing fight to preserve Malibu.
Surfrider is locally led.
We are a grassroots, locally led organization, bottom-up organization. People tend to miss this point and call us to save the day and protect their wave. We help locals organize their efforts and provide science and expertise to protect the coasts and waves they love. We have done that hundreds of times over the years and will continue to do so.I wrote a piece on this misperception a few months ago, it's here.
Surfrider has a very crisp view of success.
A victory to us is “when a decision made in favor of the coastal and ocean environment that results in a positive conservation outcome, improves coastal access, or both.” Five or five thousand people showing up to fight something isn’t a victory, it’s a meaningful milestone which may or may not yield a victory. I’ll share our definition of success at Malibu below.
Surfrider has a record of success defending our coasts.
I receive calls every once in a while from uninformed people that ask “what have you guys done to protect our coasts?” It’s a simple question to answer because we track what we do. No volunteer wants to waste their time and so we pay close attention to activist best practices and invest to spread those around the globe. Our network of volunteers and activists has netted a very impressive list of 150+ coastal wins, that’s here. Click the tab on the same page to see most of our current live campaigns.
Surfrider has been engaged over the long term at Malibu.
As I mentioned, we started at Malibu in 1984. That crew did amazing work to preserve the waves and one can easily make the case we’ve never left. The most recent victory (directly related to the wave and the ecosystem) was last September with our Clean Water at the ‘Bu campaign. This win helped address the chronic pollution problems at Malibu Creek, Lagoon, and Surfrider Beach (kudos to the West LA Malibu chapter, partner organizations and activists that helped make this happen).
Regarding the current lagoon restoration project we’ve been engaged off and on for the past decade. For example in 2004 we commented during public outreach and specifically recommended that the inlet be addressed and that the wave be considered. As recent as a few weeks ago we underwrote the cost for the most recent report on the lagoon, the Adamson house, the inlet and the potential impact of any and all of these things on the waves. We will release that report to the public soon.
Success for Malibu = preserved wave, healthy ecosystem.
This is the same as it is everywhere and the same as it always has been at Malibu. A great wave is a few things. It starts with being able to access those waves, we fight for coastal access all over the world. Here is a list of our last 44 beach access wins and here is a list of our current 13 beach access fights. Further, a great wave includes a healthy ecosystem; Trestles is amazing because all the land around it is intact as a natural, functioning ecosystem. Trestles is among the only surfable waves after a storm because the water isn’t immediately polluted. Lastly, a great wave is the wave form itself.
As one looks at Malibu through those lenses they see a few things.
Comparably strong beach/wave access. First, Second and Third point are easy to access. First and second points have free parking and open, easy access. Third point is also fairly easy to access, even when the bridge is taken out for the lagoon restoration project access to the wave will be preserve and about 150’ longer. Some people key in on this point, that a bridge will be taken out. Our view is that the trade-off of walking an extra 150’ around a healthier ecosystem is better than short-cutting over an unhealthy ecosystem. It also helps to keep a perspective on access in general. This is good access, bad access is not being able to surf Montauk during certain months, paying to step onto the beach after paying to park in New Jersey or not being able to access 85% of the coast in Maine.
Bad-to-horrible water quality. After decades of water quality testing and scoring among the worst grades in all of Southern California it would seem hard to argue that the water in Malibu has historically been anything but bad. I’ve never heard the word “Malibu” associated with “clean water”… ever. The recent “Clean water at the Bu” campaign helped move the needle on this issue.
The wave form at Malibu is good but not optimal. The Malibu river empties into the lineups of First, Second and Third point. Like all rivers the mouth of the river, the inlet, has moved around over the centuries due to natural variation in weather patterns, coastal engineering projects and other human tinkering. As I write this the river inlet empties out near First Point. Most-to-all surfers agree that this isn’t optimal. The sand that is filling up the lagoon and eventually coming out near First Point would be better from surfers perspective if it came out at Third Point and slowly migrated to Second Point and then First. This would better yield a wrapping wave that is elongated and connectable. The same as when we started 26 years ago, this is one of our primary goals.
Thus Surfrider’s focus is on these things, the wave itself (engaging in the process to have the inlet breach at third point), the ecosystem health (continuous work to have a more functional wetland and for the water to be less polluted).
When I look at the process a few ideas come to mind.
Engagement over the long term wins.
That suggests two things. First engagement is key. Just thinking an area needs to be protected yields essentially no results or impact. Engaging over a short period of time is the next step up in terms of value. Engagement over years and decades offers a multple of value in terms of wave and ecosystem protection. After winning hundreds of wave and coastal preservation victories we know what works – engaged activism over the long term (years-to-decades) based on credible science wins.
Prescription without analysis is malpractice.
If a doctor prescribed a medication without first analyzing our condition we’d think their license should be taken away. Similarly we wouldn’t ask a non-lawyer to represent us in a court of law. I.e. In some parts of life credentials matter, this is one of those places. The Malibu lagoon has been studied by a long list of experts, scientists, environmental groups and local surfing clubs. The groups that Surfrider has worked with and agrees with include Malibu Surfing Association, Santa Monica Bay Keeper, Heal the Bay, Friends of the Adamson House, LA chapter of Audubon, LA chapter of Sierra Club, California Coastal Commission and others. It’s always easy to disagree with one organization’s take on something… this is an exhaustive, diverse list. Moreover there hasn’t been any science shared to suggest that this groups collective view is incorrect. What has been shared are personal opinions, winning coastal preservation wins requires more than subjective opinions.
Going beyond the call… for the wave.
It’s important to note that Surfrider wasn’t a lead in the organizations named above that studied these issues. Since we have a unique interest in the wave we decided to invest more into the process. We spoke with locals (for and against the lagoon project) and hired a neutral outside team of researchers to study the project and it’s potential connection and impact on the waves.
Our goal is and has been since our inception (and will continue to be) preservation of a healthy coast at Malibu, including the wave form. We've been consistent. Of the three projects we are pushing hard to have the inlet (breaching at Third Point) taken into consideration alongside the other two issues (lagoon and Adamson house).
Where are we now.
The wetland restoration project is not designed to solve the inlet problem. Supporting or opposing the wetland restoration project won’t lead to a long term fix for the breach point of the inlet. That said, we have an opportunity to engage with the agencies that oversee  the inlet and develop a plan to better manage where the inlet breaches. The inlet portion of this process is evolving, it's at the beginning stages. We are joined my many surfers that are among the only groups talking about it. The only way the inlet, and thus the wave, will be protected is if people engage over the long term to focus on it. In the short term, in the months ahead, we hope to influence the lagoon project to better incorporate some of the desires of surfers. But a true solution to the inlet issues will take more than that.
In the years ahead.
We, the local surfers and beachgoers that are committed to protecting this area in the years and decades to come, need to engage in this process. To be frank this is a boring and somewhat arduous task. Instead of participation in this long and laborious process surfers tend to want to... surf. We don’t need First, Second and Third point surfers and Surfrider beach lovers to have a presence at just one city council meeting. We need those people to have a presence at the meetings where these things are decided... probably for at least the next decade.

Locals concerned and engaged have been organizing to protect Malibu for the last 26 years. I’m pretty sure many of those same locals will be working to protect this area for decades to come. If you have concerns about Malibu, or any coastal region, we’d love to have you add value to this process because as so many people know… Malibu is worth it.

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