Heal the Ocean Works to Prevent Water Pollution Along the Coast | Good for Santa Barbara

Posted on November 22, 2022
| 3:00 p.m

With Thanksgiving this Thursday and #GivingTuesday a week from today, now is a great time to give back to your community. Join Noozhawk this #GivingTuesday and donate to your favorite nonprofits.

Noozhawk is teaming up with local nonprofits to encourage you to take part in this international day of giving, which takes place on November 29th, 2022.

It’s no secret that these past couple of years have been full of challenges and that’s why local nonprofits need your support now more than ever. Our Good for Santa Barbara Nonprofit Section provides all the resources you need to donate this holiday season!

In this interview, Noozhawk spoke with Hillary Hauser, Executive Director for Heal the Ocean, to learn more about the nonprofit’s dedication to ocean conservation.

Heal the ocean

Question: What is the name & mission of your nonprofit?

Answer: Heal the Ocean is a Santa Barbara based ocean conservation 501(c)3 non-profit. Our mission statement is focused on wastewater infrastructure – sewers and septic systems, as well as ocean dumping practices that have contributed to ocean pollution that closes Santa Barbara beaches. We are focused on Santa Barbara County, but our methods are now serving as a model for other coastal communities across the country.

Heal the Ocean hires consultants, engineers, experts, researchers and scientists, GIS mappers and university laboratories to produce reports and test results as well as sewer engineering blueprints. We perform cost feasibility studies for upgraded wastewater management methods. We have conducted DNA tests in watersheds as well as virus tests in the ocean. We work with city, county and state agencies to initiate new wastewater upgrade programs (to recycled water) by facilitating, with the use of consultants, access to state grant funds.

Aerial Pictures of Leaking Summerland Oil Wells
Click to view larger
Aerial Pictures of Leaking Summerland Oil Wells (Heal the Ocean photo)

Q: How long has your nonprofit been in service and whom was it started by?

A: Heal the Ocean (HTO) was formed in August 1998 in Santa Barbara, California, in response to the closing of local beaches due to bacteria. Its original organizers are Hillary Hauser, a journalist who has covered marine topics – both internationally and in Santa Barbara – for over 40 years, and Jeff Young, a practicing attorney in Santa Barbara who once owned an oyster farm that was polluted out of business in the late 1980s.

It is a citizens’ action group that began with Hauser’s newspaper editorial, published in the Santa Barbara News-Press on August 9, 1998, called “Another Day at the Beach?” The piece, which is sharply critical of water quality regulators who were not doing their job, prompted a huge outpouring of emotional support and calls for action within the community. A public demonstration took place at the Santa Barbara County administration building on August 27, 1998, in support of clean waters and clean beaches, with this outcry community giving rise to Heal the Ocean.

Q: What was the inspiration behind your nonprofit?

A: When Rincon, a world-renowned surfing destination on the Santa Barbara/Ventura coastline, became so polluted that surfers were getting rashes, eye and ear infections – sick – they reached out to Hillary for help with the polluted water. HTO immediately tackled the septic systems there. We were the first environmental organization in the country to do DNA testing in the environment in order to identify the origin of the contamination, which we did to silence the ongoing arguments about the sources of contamination at the Rincon. HTO then raised funds for sewer engineering studies, not only for Rincon but for the neighboring communities up the coast. The South Coast Beach Communities Septic-to-Sewer project, as it came to be called, took 15 years to complete, and in the end removed septic systems from 7 miles from the Santa Barbara south coast. HTO has received many commendations for this work.

Q: In what ways does your nonprofit utilize it’s funding?

A: Heal the Ocean works closely with the California State Lands Commission (SLC) to organize the capping of leaking oil wells off one of Santa Barbara south county’s popular swimming beaches in Summerland. Our first task was to get SB 44 passed – a bill authored by then-Senator Hannah- Beth Jackson to bring in $2M per year for 7 years, to pay for capping the leaking wells. Any legislation authorizing anything over $1M goes through a rigorous process in Sacramento, so HTO spent $30,000 on a heat map survey of the area, which showed exact pinpoints of oil in the ocean – and this survey guaranteed passage of the bill. Today, Field Advisor Harry Rabin works with SLC to plan out capping operations. So far, the following oil wells have been capped, Becker, Treadwell #10, NorthStar, Ohlsson 805, and Duquesne. Slated for capping in 2023 are two more Treadwell leakers (#1 and #5).

In addition, HTO uses funding to pay MarBorg Industries to pick up wrecked vessels from the beach; and to pay MarBorg for hauling Styrofoam to a repurposing/recycling plant in Moreno Valley (Los Angeles area); we run a sponsorship program for dog dispensers, to pay for dog bags to fill those dispensers (approximately $25K per year); we pay a GPS expert to map the polluted groundwater areas which will be inundated by Sea Level Rise, and more.

Heal the Ocean's Executive Director, Hillary Hauser
Click to view larger
Heal the Ocean’s Executive Director, Hillary Hauser (Heal the Ocean photo)

Q: What types of fundraisers and/or programs does your nonprofit run?

A: HTO has a long history of successful fundraisers – first at the QAD property in Summerland, then the Biltmore Coral Casino, a private Montecito Ranch, and finally at the El Paseo in downtown Santa Barbara. Along the way we took breaks by staging “Imaginary Galas” – “the best party you never went to,” with considerable success. Since the pandemic, we have returned to that format very successfully, and have found that it eliminates enormous amounts of time and energy we feel is better spent on our campaign for a cleaner ocean. In between are smaller gatherings, or invitations from local businesses to table for events on their premises.

Q: How do people get involved/volunteer for your nonprofit?

A: They call us. Heal the Ocean continues its successful program of facilitating large beach cleanups on the Santa Barbara coastline. We also encourage groups or individuals to lead independent beach and watershed cleanups. Our organization provides cleaning equipment (reusable gloves, sturdy horse feed bags (instead of plastic), and free HTO volunteer T-shirts). This results in beach cleaning about once per month. In April 2022, Heal the Ocean led a beach cleanup with the Santa Barbara campus of EF International Language School, with the entire student body of over 150 students spread along the coastline from Goleta to Summerland, working to clear the beaches of trash in honor of Earth Day.

Q: What makes your non-profit different from others?

A: HTO is unique because we learned long ago that whatever you seek to change, you find the funding for. when you go before a city council or regional board panel with a solution that has funding behind it, that goes way farther than lodging a complaint. When you get state funding for a wastewater plant to upgrade to full tertiary, that goes way farther than insisting they do it. HTO has gathered funding for the planning upgrade of the Goleta Sanitary District wastewater treatment plant and the Santa Ynez Valley Community Services District, among others. In the words of Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse:

“What sets HTO apart from many other activist organizations is that their work is on the beach and not in the courtroom. Cleaning up beach camps before the tide comes in, or removing hazardous materials from a beached boat in the wee hours before it becomes an environmental catastrophe is how they do business.”

Q: What is one best kept secret or fun fact about your nonprofit that not everyone knows?

A: In the beginning of Heal the Ocean we thought we were the Monkey Wrench Gang – we climbed over fences, snuck into wastewater treatment plants, went down manholes. The Goleta Sanitary District wrote the HTO Board a warning that if they caught the HTO Executive Director on their property again, they’d take action…but the warning ended up in the newspaper. When HTO fought the expansion of the Tajiguas Landfill, we snuck in and filmed all over the place, resulting in a 60-minute video film that has to be the worst film ever made – WORST – corny and full of errors. We put it on local television, and the director of County Public Works ripped us up publicly. That public works director and Hillary had huge laughs about it later, over a couple of martinis.

Q: Can you share one or two stories of individuals whose lives have been changed because of your organization?

A: In our work cleaning up homeless camps out of the watershed we encountered Andrew Velikanje, a former occupant of a homeless encampment. Andrew had been, on his own, cleaning up trash from everywhere, for no pay, and uploading films on his website, Earthcomb.com. Heal the Ocean began to pay Andrew to help us, then put him on a monthly retainer, then helped him get his business license, and Andrew/Earthcomb is a regular part of our homeless camp program. He is certified to work with homeless individuals, to help them into housing through City Net and other programmes.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about your nonprofit that has not been mentioned above?

A: As surfers, swimmers, divers, boaters, beachgoers, and all-around ocean lovers, Heal the Ocean and its team of supporters believe we can no longer misuse the ocean. When things are not right in the ocean, it is in each and every one of our natures to do something about it. The ocean connects us all and it’s simple: the ocean can no longer be used as a dump.

Click here to support Heal the Ocean’s mission to protect our oceans.

Check out Noozhawk’s Guide to Giving for a full list of nonprofits to donate to this giving season.