The Reluctant Superstar

By Steve Meade

Hillary Hauser never set out to be known as the savior of our coastline, that’s just how things worked out.

In the same way, Santa Barbara never planned to be the birth of the environmental movement but after the 1969 oil spill it just sort of happened.

Hillary Hauser is co-founder and Executive Director of Heal the Ocean, a non-profit organization created in Santa Barbara to keep our ocean clean and safe.  In 1998 Santa Barbara was in the early stages of becoming a world class tourist destination. Hollywood was moving here, international travelers were visiting, yet amid our recognition as the jewel of California’s coast, Santa Barbara’s ocean water was receiving failing grades for cleanliness.

How could this be?  Surfers were getting sick, sea life was diminishing and no one had answers to why or how to fix it.  The county lacked funds to do comprehensive water quality testing, enforcement on what went into the creeks was minimal and the political will to make changes was slow in coming.

In this first of several articles on the birth of Heal the Ocean, we will follow the exploits of Hillary Hauser and her methodical march to bettering the lot of Santa Barbara’s waters.  We will also try and sell her a few copies of, her new book Dancing on Waves, 30 years in the making which went on sale August 5th.

The Call

Hillary was working on a story about Santa Barbara surfboard shapers in spring 1998 and ran into a very agitated Clyde Beaty Jr.  Clyde, a local surfboard shaper, glasser and classic waterman was upset with the rapid rise in sickness among the surfing community and needed help.  

Maybe it was the timing, maybe it was Clyde’s passion but the dirty ocean was something surfers couldn’t live with.  3,500 signatures had been gathered by CURE (Clean up Rincon Effluent) a group headed by Doug De Fermian, Wayne Babcock and Joel Smith and they weren’t getting the attention of officials in Santa Barbara County. “Can you help us Hillary?” pleaded Clyde.  Turns out, she could.

The storms of 1997 and 1998 were unprecedented, between November and May, over 50 inches of rain came to Santa Barbara, an area that typically receives 14 inches a year.  Surfers enjoyed plentiful waves for months on end.  Equally plentiful was debris, bacteria and illness for those choosing to enter the water.  Knowing Hillary as a writer whose subject matter often involved the Santa Barbara coastline, Clyde pleaded “Stop what you are doing and write about what’s happening in the water right now.  Guys are getting Meningitis, sores, rashes, colds that don’t go away and it’s getting worse.”   

Hillary called John Lankford at the Santa Barbara News Press and asked if she could submit an op-ed on the sad state of the ocean and the lack of urgency from the County or State on finding a solution.  John’s response, “Write as much as you can and we will print it”.  The resulting article of August 9th 1999 “Another day at the Beach” appeared in the paper.  At a time before high-speed connections and smartphones, the impact was immediate.

Hillary’s article named names and framed a problem ignored far too long.  Water quality experts at the County and State level had no plan.  The surfing community needed answers and to get them they needed a leader, suddenly all eyes were on Hillary.

The News Press article required exhaustive research from Hillary using over 100 sources to conclude that waste water, septic tanks, landfills, storm water and dredging were all villains in ocean pollution.  Chief among Hillary’s sources was Jeff Young, a local oyster farmer who was put out of business by waste water contamination and later successfully sued Goleta and Santa Barbara on his way to becoming a personal injury lawyer.  Jeff had strong ideas: DNA research was not widely in use in 1998, no one in the enforcement of water quality had considered the technology.  Jeff suggested contacting a research scientist from UCLA to pinpoint the source of the problems plaguing Santa Barbara’s beaches.

“Another day at the beach?” caused the phone to continually ring at Hillary’s house.  Callers included, First District Supervisor Naomi Swartz and Congressperson Lois Capps who called to ask for a meeting.  At this get-together, Naomi asked for help.  “Hillary, we need a Public Pressure Group to make something happen” she said “The only way to get the attention we need to do anything is for the public to come before us to say something loudly and often”.  For those who knew Hillary’s reporting the loud and often bit was part she could play.

Long before the News Press article was ever considered, Hillary had planned an East Coast vacation to visit friends and enjoy the closing days of summer.  She arranged to tent her house or termites and get out of town for two weeks.  But as a result of her News Press editorial, some citizens planned a public demonstration on the County Administration building, at the time the Board of Supervisors were to be in session.  Hillary still planned to go on her trip to the East Coast.  However, some actor who appeared on Baywatch who had planned to attend the demonstration at the Santa Barbara County Supervisors meeting called Hillary and vociferously explained there was no way this event would be successful without Hillary.  “You can’t leave Hillary, you started all this” exclaimed the actor.  A half hour on the phone bullying and groveling finally convinced Hillary to cancel her trip.  She checked into the Miramar Hotel to establish a temporary office while her house was being termited, bought a cell phone and prepared for the demonstrations at the Board of Supervisors of Santa Barbara County within a few days.

To this point, the County position was no position.  “The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 and people thought that meant something was being done, everybody went to sleep” Hillary exclaimed.  “Everyone hid behind the excuse there was no money to do testing”.  Hillary’s research for the News Press article uncovered a vast difference of opinion about the cleanliness of the ocean.  Water quality boards, waste water plant operators and public officials of Santa Barbara and Ventura County all had a different take on why the beaches were closed for months on end.  Worse yet, it didn’t appear that beach closures were a high enough priority for anybody to take action on cleaning the water.  That was about to change.

Supervisors Meetings at the county building on Anapamu Street is normally a calm and frankly tedious slog through the business of the 5 District Supervisors of the county.  On this occasion however, a crowd was on hand to make certain it wasn’t going to be business as usual.  People showed up with signs saying “Ocean or Outhouse?” some came with toilet seats around their heads and the general attitude was one of unmistakable displeasure. People were fed up with the polluted state of the ocean and the lack of resolve in fixing it.

There was a PA system set up on the front steps of the building and Hillary was quickly ushered to the microphone to address the crowd.  Her message was straight Howard Beale, “I’m not and Environmental Studies major, I’m a Literature major and a Mad Housewife” Hillary pronounced to the assembled throng.  Message delivered, the demonstration was successful in getting on the Supervisors radar.  The Supervisors were all looking out the window at the noise below.

News traveled fast, the next day, Jean-Michel Cousteau phoned Hillary from a cross country flight and announced “Hillary, you need to set up a 501 c3, if you’re going to raise money, you need to be a non-profit.  I can help you do that”.  Hillary replied, “What’s a 501c3?” It’s safe to say Hillary was a quick study.

More next week on the growth of one of Santa Barbara’s most inspiring public action movements and the creation of Heal the Ocean. 

For more immediate information, buy Dancing On Waves: A True Story of Finding Love and Redemption in the Ocean, by Hillary Hauser in stores now.


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