After years of fighting to protect endangered bird habitat at the Santa Ana River mouth from the area’s illegal dog beach, environmentalists are declaring a key victory.
The State Lands Commission, which leases the rivermouth to the Orange County Flood Control District, last month unanimously approved new lease terms that require the county to enforce laws that prohibit letting dogs roam free on a stretch of beach that includes bird habitat. In addition, the short, 2-year length of the new lease is intended to serve as leverage to make sure the county follows through on enforcement. As part of the agreement, the county must submit an enforcement report in one year.
How soon enforcement is stepped up — and how effective it will be — remains to be seen, as the commission vote did not result in an immediate end to the rivermouth being used by dog owners. On Oct. 29, eight days after the lease’s approval, two people and their dogs were observed in the area during a mid-morning visit by the Orange County Register.
But environmentalists say the it’s the biggest move yet to protect the rivermouth nesting grounds used by the endangered California least tern and threatened western snowy plover, located at the coastal border of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach.
“It’s still an incomplete step because we have a manpower shortage in terms of enforcement personnel,” said Dan Silver, executive director of the Endangered Habitat League. “But it’s an important step. Up until this time, the county denied it had jurisdiction to enforce its ordinance throughout that area. The lease agreement makes it explicit that the county has enforcement responsibility.”
Dogs have been a problem in the rivermouth area since the 1960s for the least tern and snowy plover, which nest in the sand and are attracted to the area’s habitat, according to Scott Thomas of the Sea and Sage Audubon Society. As a result, a fenced preserve for the birds was erected upcoast of the rivermouth at Huntington State Beach.
The birds have continued to nest between the two jetties at the rivermouth itself, but are often scared away by the presence of rollicking dogs and their owners. Environmentalists’ concerns have grown in recent years as the area’s use as an informal, off-leash dog beach has grown in popularity The closest legal dog beach is 5 1/2 miles to the north in Huntington Beach.
In 2016, the county publicly announced it was going to make the area an official, legal dog beach, but then backed off because of environmental concerns. However, those concerns remained as owners have continued to let their dogs romp throughout the area.
In July 2020, the state Coastal Commission approved additional “No trespassing” signs and required the county Sheriff’s Department to submit annual enforcement reports.
“However, these efforts have been limited to verbal warnings only and no fines have been issued,” according to a report issued last month by the State Lands Commission.
Those measures have not been effective deterrents, but citations and fines would likely be more successful, the Sierra Club’s Penny Elia told the commission at the meeting.
County Flood Control District engineer Jim Boles told the commission that thousands of warnings had been issued by sheriff’s deputies and the district was continuing to work with the Sheriff’s Department on enforcement. Boles said the district agreed with all the terms of the new lease with the exception of its 2-year length, citing the “significant resources” it takes to prepare a lease application. The previous lease was 20-years long.
The commission approved the short lease anyway.
“The limited 2-year lease will allow the commission to reevaluate the effectiveness of this protection and enforcement framework, and adaptively manage the situation accordingly,” Drew Simpkin, a commission land management specialist told commissioners.
The county actually had two leases with the commission prior to the new one: a 20-year land lease that ran until 2029 and a 5-year dredging lease that expired in August. The channel needs regular dredging, performed outside of nesting season, in order to maintain the river’s flow into the ocean.
The commission said it would grant a 2-year dredging lease but only if combined with a new, 2-year land lease.
The new lease also allows for state enforcement of the bans on trespassers and dogs. Although the state Department Fish and Wildlife only has two wardens for Orange County and, according to environmentalists, is already stretched too thin when it comes to enforcement, the Lands Commission and Coastal Commission said they will explore the possibility of providing dedicated funding to the department for patrolling the rivermouth.
Another avenue being pursued by environmentalists involves the nearby stretch of Newport Beach city beach that is typically used to get to the rivermouth beach. Activists want the city to enforce dog restrictions for its beaches and keep dogs off that passage.
“Our work is just getting started,” said the Sierra Club’s Elia. “Now, we’re going to the city.”
Additionally, environmentalists have called on the city to establish a dedicated dog beach someplace where nesting birds aren’t an issue. Elia told the Lands Commission that beaches at the Newport Beach Pier and Big Corona Beach were good candidates for dog beaches.
Meanwhile, one of the most outspoken advocates of maintaining the rivermouth dog beach claims that officials can’t declare the area off limits to the public. Newport Beach’s Mike Glenn points to the California Constitution’s declaration that state land below the mean high tide line is public beach.
“It’s a constitutionally enshrined right,” he said. “They can’t take that land away.”
He said he’s received two of the four trespassing citations issued in the area — his came when he refused to leave — and has posted online excerpts from court documents showing the cases were both dismissed, although the reason is not stated.
However, Lands Commission spokesperson Sheri Pemberton said the Constitution’s public beach provision doesn’t always apply, particularly when there are safety issues. That includes the rivermouth and the more obvious example of industrial ports.
“Although the commission prioritizes and promotes public access, it does not always mean that the public is entitled to unfettered access to sovereign land, whether under the Constitution or any other source of law,” Pemberton said.
Source: Orange County Register