River wave at Aliso Creek

What starts as a drip turns into a thumper. Photo: Screenshot

The Inertia

There is a showdown brewing in Laguna Beach between boardriders, the city council, homeowners, and environmental groups over the right to manually breach the sand berm at Aliso Creek to create a standing river wave. 

For decades, surfers, skimboarders, and bodyboarders have flocked to Aliso to ride its world-renowned shorebreak and, occasionally, a standing wave that forms when the creek flows into the ocean. The environmental groups, namely Laguna Bluebelt Coalition and Surfrider Foundation, say that manually breaching the berm alters the habitat and can unnecessarily introduce bacterial pollution and toxins to the ocean. The homeowners on Aliso Beach worry that the backed-up creek water threatens their properties. The city of Laguna Beach has yet to formalize a firm stance, but they do have plans to install a camera at the beach (at a cost of $35,000) to monitor, and possibly, thwart those who try to dig out the berm. Each side of the conflict is armed with differing opinions, documents, letters, and studies to support their cases. 

Aliso Creek is a waterway that runs 19 miles through southern Orange County. What makes the creek well-known in the surfing world is the powerful standing wave it creates when it penetrates the berm and flows down the beach’s steep slope to the ocean. The wave occurs year round, as many as several times per month, and can last anywhere from a fleeting moment to 45 minutes. Famous vlogger Jamie O’Brien and Laguna Beach skim icon Blair Conklin have made scores of edits featuring the wave. The creek’s watershed has been extremely urbanized over the years. It houses 160,000 people across seven cities, features a creek-side golf course less than a half-mile from its estuary, and is crossed by Interstate 5 to the east, one of the busiest thoroughfares in North America.

The topic of Aliso Creek’s berm is a decades-old debate that was thrust into the spotlight again last week when a city park ranger issued a $100 citation to Laguna Beach surf and skimboard videographer Greg Viviani who was starting to dig out the berm. Viviani, who goes by @solaglocal on social media, posted a video of the encounter with the park ranger on his TikTok that has been viewed more than a million times. The problem with the ticket, Viviani says, is that there is no specific city law that prevents the public from breaching the creek. The city lifeguards have also permitted boardriders to dig out the berm at times, as was the case during the most recent breach on December 7, Vivani says. The ticket that Viviani received was not for attempting to breach the berm, but for digging a hole more than two feet deep.

The opposition parties disagree, saying a law to prevent digging out the berm already exists. Surfrider Foundation’s California Policy Manager, Jennifer Savage, wrote a letter (page five in this PDF) to the county highlighting their ordinance, 3-8-25, which concerns creeks, canals, channels, and rivers. It declares that it is “unlawful… to dig, move or remove any sand, gravel, rocks, dirt, soil, debris…”

One of the most vocal opponents of the berm breaching is Mike Beanan, a Laguna Beach resident and co-founder of the Laguna Bluebelt Coalition. He has a list of reasons why he doesn’t support the boardriders’ actions. Beanan points out that the California Coastal Commission identified Aliso Creek as a “Critical Coastal Area,” where an impaired body of water runs into a “Marine Managed Area,” in this case, Laguna Beach State Marine Reserve. He also emphasizes a 2008 study that states that from “from 1950 to 1970, the lowest (creek) flows were ‘consistently near zero’” and the stream flow was “not significant and generally amounts to a trickle quantity.” He claims that this is evidence to prove that the filling of the lagoon outside of rain events is almost exclusively due artificial urban runoff from the development of cities up-stream. Finally, Beanan cites the sand berm as essential for an ongoing project to restore the Aliso Creek estuary as a habitat for wildlife.

Conditions behind any standing wave as a river enters the ocean can be…interesting. Photo: Screenshot

“(Laguna Beach) is a small town,” said Beanan. “Everyone knows everyone and no one, including me, wants to walk on anyone. But I swim in the ocean and I don’t want to swim in urban runoff. Sea life doesn’t need urban runoff.”

The boardriders who ride the standing wave take exception to being labeled polluters. As a result, Viviani took it upon himself to represent their interests. Aside from local boardriders enjoying the wave, which he says has historical significance and legacy in Laguna Beach, the birthplace and epicenter of skimboarding, Viviani cites other reasons why manually inducing the flow of the creek is necessary. They include protecting the adjacent homes on the beach from erosion, reducing bacteria that grows in stagnant water, removing a habitat conducive for the propagation of mosquitos, and draining a pedestrian underpass that floods when the water levels get too high in the creek. Viviani has created an online petition that has garnered more than 4,000 signatures.

“The other party says they want a natural break (of the creek) to occur,” said Viviani. “There’s nothing natural about this anymore. You have homes that have been built, you have a bridge with a small opening that constricts the flow of the creek, you have riprap, which is the (piles of) rocks just south of the creek, and also the parking lot. It’s not going to be a natural thing anymore. You are going to have to maintain it and correct the flow to mitigate other problems from arising.”

The berm breaching has not only been done by surfers, skimboarders, and boogie boarders. County, and more recently, city workers have periodically opened the sand berm over the years, and did so as recently as November 18. Viviani depicts this in another viral video on his Tiktok that has received nearly ten million views. 

The exasperation experienced by all sides of the issue is reflective of the jurisdictional headache that Aliso Beach has been subject to. Up until March of 2023, the beach was under Orange County’s jurisdiction and managed by OC Parks who would periodically open the berm.  Aliso lifeguards had, at times, prevented the public from digging out the berm, while other times, they permitted it. In 2022 the California Coastal Commission called for the County to do more about enforcing laws regarding breaching the sand berm, demands which appear to not have had much practical impact. Since March of this year management of Aliso Beach has transferred over to the City of Laguna Beach, which has included the topic of breaching the berm on the agenda of city council meetings. At the same time, the Laguna Beach police chief is on record saying that, as the law currently stands, he has no legal basis to cite or arrest people for breaching the berm.

In the past few years, perhaps no one has surfed the standing river wave more than Laguna Beach professional surfer/skimboarder Blair Conklin. Having graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Environmental Studies, Conklin is among those who take issue to the opposition groups calling the boardriders polluters, which he says is “completely false.” Conklin, as well as Viviani, brandish a technical report done in 2021 by several Orange County agencies to investigate the matter as per an order from the California Water Quality Control Board. The report found “no evidence that the recreational subset of berm breaching has caused an unsafe condition in water quality.” It goes on to conclude that manually breaching the berm “simply speeds up the inevitable breaching that occurs due to tidal action and erosion.” KTLA 5 News in Los Angeles also highlighted the same report in a story published four months ago. 

Jamie O’Brien, with Aliso Creek at its fullest. Photo: Screenshot

“(The opposition) is concerned about pollutants entering the ocean, which is a valid concern that we all have in common,” said Conklin. “The great news is that there’s been a lot of work upstream that has led to less pollutants in the creek flow and the ocean, so it’s actually cleaner than it has ever been. (The opposition’s) point of view is that we can limit pollutants entering the ocean, but under the current system of how the creek flows, these pollutants are going to end up in the ocean whether it’s the public breaching it or not. No matter what there is going to be breaching of the berm from natural tide swings or rain. And there’s always a constant flow between this creek and the ocean, whether it’s the tide pushing up water or the creek seeping through the sand berm. That’s where I have a real issue with the group that is targeting wave riders. I don’t think that that’s the proper way to go about this.”

The Laguna Bluebelt Coalition has the support of Surfrider Foundation, however when reached for comment, Surfrider Foundation downplayed their role in the matter, saying that they “were not significantly involved,” recommending we speak to Beanan. Another supporter of Beanan’s position is Laguna Beach resident Paul Naude – an influential figure in the surf industry as the CEO of Vissla and the president of the Surf Industry Members Association (and its environmental fund). 

“I get that (riding the wave) is fun, but I’m totally opposed to this deliberate ocean pollution,” Naude told The Inertia. “The damage and pollution caused by this illegal breaching is significant and I’m amazed that any surfer would engage in this practice. The City of Laguna Beach has committed to enforce an ordinance to stop this illegal activity. If they don’t, it’s very likely that action will be taken against them for allowing a Marine Protected Area in their own city to be deliberately polluted. (Previously), I thought Orange County did a terrible job enforcing their own ordinances.”

“A lot of work has been done upstream to clean the water, but it’s not clean yet,” added Naude. “The thing is, agencies don’t test for toxins from urban runoff like fertilizers because it’s expensive. They test for bacteria and just say that it seems ok. At the end of the day, there is a lot of work being done to restore Aliso Creek to make it a working estuary. The sooner that happens, the better.” 

Conklin and Viviani both acknowledge that the creek flowing into the ocean can have a negative effect on the experience of beachgoers. Strong currents can sweep inexperienced swimmers out to sea and the famously blue water of Laguna Beach turns brown from the runoff. Seventy percent of lifeguard rescues at Aliso occur on this part of the beach. Their proposed solution is to only break the berm during non-peak beach hours.

However, Beanan is clear that there is nowhere to meet in the middle, rhetorically asking, “Why would you compromise on the ocean’s health?” Instead, he urges the local boardriders to divert their attention to bringing an artificial standing wave facility to the area. He also proposes a solution to the water that backs up at the creek mouth: fully utilizing the capabilities of the Aliso Creek Water Reclamation Facility. The facility is a water treatment system 1.5 miles upstream from the ocean that, according to its website, “recovers and treats urban runoff from Aliso Creek…to reduce the salinity of the recycled water supply.” Beanan says the plant is capable of pulling much more water from the creek than it currently does, which would have a “huge effect” on the water levels, but the current permits don’t allow them to take that amount of water out of the creek.

After hearing about Viviani’s citation, Conklin, who says he’s been involved in digging the berm around 10 times, is going to hold off on the activity until an official decision is made by the city. Viviani is currently in talks with the City Council about holding a town hall with all relevant parties to come up with a solution. Regardless, locals will continue surfing the wave when it flows. The question that remains is whether the future flows will be induced by the boardriders, the city, or nature.

The City of Laguna Beach did not respond to request for comment.


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