For the first time in years, the dirtiest
beach in Santa Barbara County has been deemed clean several months in a row.
And birds, long considered the main polluters at Arroyo Quemada beach,
may be the ones solving the problem.
County tests found Arroyo Quemada clean for the last 14 weeks,
and San Francisco's Heal the Bay, which dubbed Arroyo Quemada the most polluted
beach from Sonoma to San Diego last year, gave the beach good grades for
the last eight weeks. The group interprets bacteria samples differently.
Either way, the beach that sits in the shadow of the Tajiguas
Landfill has never experienced a similar clean streak since testing began
more than three years ago.
The timing couldn't be better for Tajiguas officials, as
they try to persuade the public to expand the life of the dump for 15 more
years until a new site is found. The expansion has proven a hard sell
because critics say the nearly-full landfill pollutes the ocean, and the
terrible record at Arroyo Quemada is a strong point of proof.
The county always said sea gulls - drawn to Tajiguas to eat,
and to the beach to loaf - were the prime polluters at Arroyo Quemada. In
fact, DNA tests this winter showed that 80 percent of the bacteria in the
surf at Arroyo Quemada was from birds.
So the county decided to do something about the perrenial
pests, with a program unlike any other in the state.
They hired a falconer from the San Francisco Bay area to
fly his birds of prey above the 100-foot face of garbage at Tajiguas, just
26 miles up the coast from Santa Barbara. The falcons scare away the
gulls but are trained not to kill them.
"The results were fairly dramatic," said Kathy Kefauver,
the county planner on the Tajiguas expansion project. "They arrived
April 6 and we started seeing improvements the following week. I don't
know of anything else that would cause the dramatic drop in bacteria levels.
The falcons were the only thing that changed."
The gulls don't bother going to the beach anymore, either.
"The difference between this summer and last is remarkable,"
said Jim Griffith, a Tucson, Ariz., resident who vacations in the tiny, private
community of Arroyo Quemada every summer. "Last year, down at the
lagoon, there were at least a couple hundred of the things. Now there
may be a few, or there may not be any. I can't believe that it's working."
The clean beach reports did not quell criticism from the group
Heal the Ocean, the dump's most ardent critic.
Hillary Hauser, the group's leader, said it was simplistic
to say the dump isn't polluting the ocean because of the news at Arroyo
"I think it's wonderful that the beach is open," she said.
"But the fact is that they're not looking at the whole picture. They've
got groundwater pollution up there and they're trying to steamroll this landfill
expansion on the falcons' back."
She said the beach might seem clean because there has been
no rain to carry any pollutants downhill from Tajiguas, where the South
Coast dumps its trash. Officials from the county's Solid Waste Division
countered that dry weather in years past never helped Arroyo Quemada raise
its failing grades.
The beach failed tests 86 percent of the time in 1998, 71
percent of the time in 1999, 69 percent of the time in 2000, and 80 percent
of the time in 2001.
Heal the Ocean will voice its concerns when the Board of
Supervisors takes up the Tajiguas expansion at its Aug. 6 meeting. The
hearing is scheduled at the County Administration Building's board hearing
room at 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara. Public comment is welcome.
A few changes have been made to the original proposal in
response to public comments. Workers say they will limit the amount
of land dug up at one time to decrease the chance of landslides. They
intend to plant sycamore trees near the bottom of the landfill to block any
views of the garbage from Highway 101. They also plan to limit to business
hours the time they blast away at soil used to cover the garbage.
Mark Schleich, director of the county Solid Waste Division,
said falconer Jeff Diaz will continue his job at least through the end of
the year. Then he will evaluate the success of the pilot program.
The cost of falconry is not insubstantial. Mr. Diaz
is paid $50 per hour, or $96,000 per year, for his full-time work. He
works hard for his money, though, never really leaving his Spartan perch near
The 41-year-old stands on a bumpy expanse of dirt with only
his border collie, Max, and his falcons for company. He eats cold cuts
out of a cooler for lunch.
Mr. Schleich said the cost was well worth it.
"It's a lot cheaper than shipping our trash out of the county,"
he said. "I mean, it's demonstrated that the landfill isn't polluting
Eventually Mr. Diaz said he won't have to work Tajiguas full-time
because the gulls will be trained.
Sea gulls normally follow a lead "alpha" gull. They
pass on learned behavior to their offspring. Eventually, the county
hopes that, with occasional reminders from the falcons, the gulls will just
The county hired falconer Jeff Diaz this spring to fly his birds at Tajiguas.
He will continue his job at least through the end of the year. From
above, sea gulls used to plague the beach at Arroyo Quemada. Residents
now say the beach is empty.