Southern California coast hit with both good and bad news in 2021

While Southern California’s shores weathered a few tough blows this year, the local coast also saw key steps toward safeguarding its future.

On the downside were the oil spill in waters off Huntington Beach, pollution generated by backlogged port ships, the Hyperion sewage spill in Playa del Rey, and the extension of the life of the gas-fired Redondo power plant.

But other events this year were good for the coastal environment. Approval of an offshore windmill bill will buoy clean energy efforts, Banning Ranch activists made a deal to buy and preserve the largest private undeveloped parcel on the Southern California coast, and lawmakers in Sacramento passed legislation to reduce plastic waste and to adapt to sea-level rise.

Huntington Beach oil spill

Information seeped out in drips and drabs over several days, with the best news being that the Oct. 1 oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach was initially estimated at 130,000 gallons but turned out to be more like 25,000 gallons. Coast Guard officials believe a ship’s anchor caught and dragged a pipeline connected to an offshore oil platform. This could have weakened the pipeline, and then a subsequent anchor strike or deterioration of the exposed pipe may have led to the 13-inch split that leaked oil.

Waters offshore of Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach were put off limits, with the last closure ending Oct. 14. Oil entered the wildlife-rich Talbert Marsh, contributing to a recorded toll of 82 dead birds and six dead sea mammals, including three sea lions. Fishing was banned off Orange County’s coast through November. On Dec. 15, the U.S. Department of Justice announced indictments related to the spill, charging that Amplify Energy, owner of the pipeline, and two of its subsidiaries, failed to properly respond to eight separate leak alarms over 13 hours and that they improperly restarted a pipeline that had been shut down.

Banning Ranch

The 400-acre Banning Ranch is the largest undeveloped, privately owned land on Southern California’s coast, and the site of more than 20 years of battles between developers and environmentalists. The land on the north coast of Newport Beach features a broad range of prized wildlife habitats, including wetlands, arroyos and coastal bluffs.

For those hoping to maintain it as open space for the public to enjoy, the light at the end of the tunnel finally appeared this year. The Trust for Public Land negotiated purchase of the property, provided it can come up with $97 million by next June. Developer and philanthropist Frank Randall and his wife, Joann, had given $50 million to the project in 2019, which jump started the process. The trust raised $33 million more this year through state and federal grants, leaving them a relatively modest $14 million short of the goal with six months to go.

Hyperion sewage spill

When debris clogged a filtering screen at the Playa del Rey’s Hyperion sewage treatment plant and began flooding the facility, on July 11, officials intentionally discharged 17 million tons of raw sewage into the ocean a mile offshore through an emergency discharge pipe to avoid additional flooding and damage. Portions of Dockweiler State Beach and El Segundo Beach remained closed until July 15.

Lingering odors resulted in the city of Los Angeles shelling out more than $1.4 million to area residents in compensation for hotel stays and air conditioner purchases. Subsequent release of treated sewage five miles offshore exceeded state standards for weeks afterward.

Plastics and recycling

State lawmakers continued to chip away at problematic waste, much of which ends up in the ocean and has been responsible for killing marine life. But the most wide-reaching proposal, SB 54, was tabled for the third consecutive year in the face of opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce and the plastics and packaging industries.

The measure would require all single-use packaging and foodware to be compostable or recyclable. A citizens initiative with the same requirements has qualified for the November 2022 ballot, although there’s still time for the Legislature to pass the measure before then.

On the bright side for environmentalists, lawmakers did pass a measure that expands the plastic straw restrictions to include plastic utensils and condiment packages. That law applies not only to full-service restaurants but also to take-out and fast-food businesses, which currently are exempt. Other new laws kicking in next year address food waste, exported recyclables, reusable glass bottles, recycling labeling, and disposable wipes.

Cargo ships

The busiest-ever year at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach caused backups on the docks and in the water, as dozens of cargo ships could be seen anchored offshore of Long Beach and north Orange County on any given day. It not only created a cluttered view of the ocean, but also contributed to the region’s already poor air quality — and attracted attention from both state and federal officials.

Subsequent actions in the ports have accelerated unloading times, reduced the backlog on the docks and reduced the flow of ships into coastal waters, both by having them slow their journey from China and by having them anchor as far as 150 miles offshore. But Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka acknowledged, many issues remain. “We’ve got a long way to go and no one is declaring victory,” he said on Dec. 15.

Power struggle

Some think California is tilting at dreams with its goal of 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045, especially given that officials have already had to extend the life of outdated gas-fired generators at four coastal power plants — most controversially, a second extension announced this year for the plant in Redondo Beach, where the city is eager to replace the operation with a park and a wetlands restoration.

But the clean-energy future got a boost this year when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law AB 525, requiring the energy commission to develop a strategic plan for offshore windmills — including clearly stated goals for 2030 and 2045. The measure dovetails with federal plans to deploy 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030.

Sea-level rise

Attention on sea-level rise is surging faster than the ocean itself, as state officials hope to get ahead of the consequences of the ocean eventually swallowing existing beaches, homes and infrastructure. SB 1 legislation formalized sea-level rise as a principal responsibility of the state Coastal Commission and established — but didn’t fund — a mechanism for

distributing up to $100 million annually to help local governments adapt. The commission, meanwhile, approved a 230-page set of guidelines for local governments and agencies to prepare for the ocean being 10 feet higher in 2100.

Additionally, AB 63 opens up marine-protected areas for projects such as restoring kelp beds, which can help offset the effects of the rising sea by fortifying breeding grounds for some ocean animals and reducing ocean storm surges. AB 66 launches a study of coastal cliff collapses, and will explore the possibility of developing an early warning system. And AB 72 streamlines bureaucratic hurdles for efforts to address sea-level rise.

However, Gov. Gavin Newsome vetoed SB 83, which would have established a program for the state to loan money to coastal cities to buy homes threatened by sea-level rise and rent them out as long they’re still safe. The rent money would then go back into the loan program.

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