Special Reports

Oceano Dunes ecosystem needs constant care

County environmental health specialist Jeremiah Damery collects a water sample from the surf off Oceano Dunes. Samples are taken weekly and tested for several types of bacteria. No problems have been found so far, which indicates illegal dumping is rare.
County environmental health specialist Jeremiah Damery collects a water sample from the surf off Oceano Dunes. Samples are taken weekly and tested for several types of bacteria. No problems have been found so far, which indicates illegal dumping is rare. The Tribune

Take 4,000 acres of wind-swept dunes, five-and-a-half miles of beach and numerous rare plants and animals and combine that with 2 million people and tens of thousands of trucks and off-highway vehicles a year.

It's a potent recipe for controversy. No other location in San Luis Obispo County and perhaps no other California state park consistently generates as many environmental conflicts as Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. The controversies cover a wide range beyond protecting wildlife — everything from air pollution to littering.

In fact, environmental issues have been one of the most potent tools critics have used to impose restrictions on off-highway-vehicle riding in the park. For example, a lawsuit by the Sierra Club recently forced the park to nearly double a seasonal shorebird closure area in the park.

Environmental issues are the main point OHV opponents cite in arguing that the county should retain ownership of a large parcel in the center of the park. They want the parcel to act as a buffer between riding areas and ecologically sensitive areas in the park.

Monitoring is spotty but is getting better. For example, biologists regularly monitor endangered species, but county environmental health officials only recently added the park to their list of 20 beaches that are sampled weekly for bacteria levels.

Here is a rundown of the main environmental issues facing Oceano Dunes and what is being done to address them:

Air quality

Air pollution is quickly emerging as one of the most vexing issues facing Oceano Dunes. The Nipomo Mesa sits directly downwind of the park, and it suffers from the worst particulate pollution in the county.

"The Mesa is violating every state and federal level for particulate matter on a regular basis," said Larry Allen, county air pollution control officer. "We see concentrations that are far higher than any other place in the county, particularly on high wind days."

The problem is so worrisome that the county Air Pollution Control District is beginning a yearlong monitoring program in conjunction with experts from UC Davis to determine what is causing the pollution.

Specifically, they want to determine whether the problem is just an unavoidable result of strong winds blowing across a large area of sand dunes or whether off-road vehicle riding in the park is exacerbating the problem.

Air pollution experts theorize that dune buggies may be breaking a crust that naturally forms on the sand dunes, making it more likely for particles to become airborne. Vehicles could also be crushing the sand particles, making them smaller and more likely to be blown into the air.

Particulates are tiny bits of sand or dust that become airborne and are inhaled. The smallest particles can be breathed in deeply and irritate and damage the lungs of children and the elderly.

The study will measure particulate levels coming off areas where ATVs are allowed and compare them to areas where vehicles are not driven. The sampling study will be complete by February, and the data will then be analyzed.

"I expect we will be going to our board with the results by late summer or early fall of 2009," Allen said.

Neither Allen nor Park Superintendent Andrew Zilke could say what steps would be taken if the study shows that ATV riding is worsening the air pollution.

Halting riding altogether is considered unlikely, but less drastic restrictions are possible, they said. One option might be to limit riding during times of high winds.

"Regardless of the source, it's a significant public health issue we are trying to resolve," Allen said.

Illegal dumping

Every weekend, hundreds of recreational vehicles congregate on the Oceano Dunes. Each one has three tanks. One contains fresh water; another holds used fresh water, called gray water; and the third holds sewage.

Each tank also contributes significantly to the weight of the vehicle. Campers are anxious to get rid of as much of that weight as possible before leaving the park. Doing so decreases the chances of getting stuck in the sand and having to dig out — a common occurrence — and increases their gas mileage on the drive home.

So the temptation exists to dump the tanks into the sand -- which is illegal -- rather than dispose of their contents at a dump station.

Park visitors can empty theirtanks free of charge at a dump station located at Le Sage Drive, a block north of Grand Avenue.

Dumping any kind of liquid in any state park, even fresh water, is illegal because it leaves behind a variety of pollutants, from bacteria to soapy water. Dumping on sandy beaches can be particularly harmful, because the polluted water percolates into the sand and quickly reaches clams, sand crabs and other sea life.

According to records provided by Rey Monge, deputy park superintendent, nine citations were issued for dumping sewage or gray water from 2004 to 2007. The park's records don't differentiate between the two types.

During that same time, there were 10 reports of dumping that did not result in citations. That occurs when a suspect cannot be identified or it turns out that it was fresh water that was dumped.

Rangers say it is impossible to estimate how much illegal dumping goes on that is undetected but believe that it has gone down in recent years because of increased enforcement and because some concessionaires now offer pumping services, said Ranger Kyle Trahan.

The Pismo Beach-based business Yo, Banana Boy! deploys a fleet of lime green trucks in the park that will pump out an RV's tanks for $30. The business also sells water, firewood and ice.

Fines of $3,400 can be levied for dumping gray water. Fines for dumping sewage are higher.

Because the environmental harm caused by dumping fresh water is minimal, rangers typically warn offenders without issuing a citation.

The issue of illegal dumping became more public recently when anti-ATV activist Nell Langford videotaped an RV dumping its tanks and then posted the clip on YouTube. Rangers watched the video, investigated and determined it was fresh water that was being dumped.

The video can be viewed at: www.youtube.com/watch? v=g _BFpDMaUs0.

At the request of state water quality officials, the county Depar tment of Environmental Health recently added a water quality monitoring site two miles south of Pier Avenue in the park. Water samples are taken weekly and tested for several types of bacteria.

No samples from this site have shown any unhealthy levels of bacteria. This would indicate that dumping of sewage is rare, Zilke said.

"We are not finding that there are water quality problems," he said.

The sampling does not test for petroleum products and other pollutants, however. Without such testing, the county relies on complaints and enforcement by rangers to safeguard against chemical pollution, said Rich Lichtenfels, supervising county environmental health specialist.

Endangered species

A handful of rare or endangered birds and fish live in Oceano Dunes. Protecting these rare wildlife species has been a major undertaking for state parks.

Endangered species have historically generated the most controversy. They have spawned numerous lawsuits by environmentalists who want the state to impose greater protections.

Two shorebirds have dominated the debate: the Western snowy plover and the least tern. The birds are vulnerable to human activity, because they nest primarily in the open sand --right where people want to drive their ATVs.

In an effort to protect them, park officials fence off 300 acres of the park and reserve them strictly for plover and tern nesting -- no people allowed. Biologists also monitor the birds to track their nesting and fledging success.

"We have one of the most cutting-edge endangered species programs in the state," Zilke said. "We've had excellent success over time with a few bad areas."

Least tern nesting has been one of the park's big successes. The park fledges far more least terns than Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, Zilke said.

Over the past four years, the relatively small population of least terns at Oceano Dunes has produced 150 fledglings compared to 25 fledglings from three nesting sites in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Snowy plovers have had a few bad years recently in terms of fledging success. The department believes that plover nesting areas in other state parks can compensate for losses sustained in Oceano Dunes.

Environmental scientists who monitor the bird populations are puzzled by the occasional bad plover years. The tiny birds live in a very hostile environment and are preyed upon by many other animals, so it is impossible to identify a cause for poor nesting years.

Another endangered species flashpoint in the park is Arroyo Grande Creek. The creek flows into the ocean 2,000 feet south of the Pier Avenue entrance, and all vehicles entering the park must ford the creek in order to reach the main riding area.

Two federally protected fish species--steelhead trout and tidewater gobies -- live in the waterway. Environmentalists fear that vehicles are running over the fish.

Several attempts have been made to find a new access point that would eliminate the need to cross the creek. However, parks officials have concluded that the environmental damage that would be caused by building a new road through fragile dunes habitat outweighs the problems caused by the creek crossing.

Parks officials minimize fish/vehicle conflicts by restricting crossing to the tide line, going north and south, where the creek is at its widest and shallowest. No one is allowed to drive up the creek.

"It's a violation for people to drive into the creek and stay there," said Ranger Lisa Remington. Violations carry a fine of $460.

Trash and weeds

From almost anywhere you stand in the Dunes, pieces of wayward trash are visible. Mostly it's bottles and cans but can include things such as plastic grocery bags and discarded barbecue grills.

For many park visitors, it's not camping unless you have a campfire. Wood, and only wood, may be burned in a campfire, but campers are tempted to throw trash into the fire, rangers say.

Unlike wood, trash does not burn completely and leaves behind charred debris. Wooden pallets are another no-no, because they are held together by nails.

Preventing littering is an unending chore for rangers and park volunteers. All campers are given trash bags when they enter the park. Signs warn against littering.

Beach cleanups are held regularly, particularly after busy holiday weekends, Remington said. ATV riding groups, such as Friends of the Oceano Dunes, frequently organize these cleanups.

An important part of this effort is patrolling the fence line between riding and nonriding areas. Windblown trash often gets hung up on fences.

Rangers are often frustrated to find full trash bags sitting on the beach rather than being placed in trash bins.

Well-intentioned campers evidently assume someone will come along and pick them up, but more often than not birds tear the bags open and scatter the trash.

"People need to complete that last step," Remington said.

Large trash bins are located at the end of the OHV riding area. Recycling bins are also located there.

Litter isn't the only unwanted thing that makes its way into the park. Like many coastal areas of the state, Oceano Dunes has a problem with invasive plants taking over parts of the park, such as veldt grass, cape ivy and ice plant.

These invaders grow rapidly and force out native plants. The park has spent about $200,000 over the past two years removing these invasive plants, Zilke said.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.