Heal the Bay CEO Ruskin Hartley sets his sights on oil drilling, plastic pollution and global warming

Ruskin Hartley comes to Heal the Bay after leading San Francisco’s Save the Redwoods League

Ruskin Hartley comes to Heal the Bay after leading San Francisco’s Save the Redwoods League















Thirty years ago, Santa Monica Bay was in trouble. Water pollution had killed off fish and would make swimmers sick. The city’s Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in Playa del Rey was dumping sewage water into the bay before fully treating it.

Then came Heal the Bay. Formed by local activists in 1985, the Santa Monica-based environmental watchdog group has won a number of battles since those early days. The Hyperion plant was ordered to change its ways the very next year, and the organization later succeeded in tightening regulatory pollution caps for coastal waters. In 1990, Heal the Bay began publishing its beach report cards and organizing regular Coastal Cleanup Days to keep trash out of the water — efforts that now include as many as 15,000 volunteers each year.

As Heal the Bay approaches 30, the organization has a new leader at the helm. Ruskin Hartley, an environmental planner trained as a geographer, became CEO in September.

Hartley comes to Heal the Bay after a six-year stint as executive director of Save the Redwoods League, a San Francisco-based organization focused on studying, restoring and protecting old-growth forests in California. A native of England, Hartley had held several management positions with Save the Redwoods League since 1998. Under Hartley’s leadership, the group preserved 70,000 acres of redwood forest, raised $100 million in public and private support and launched the Redwoods and Climate Change Initiative, which studies the impacts of global warming on ancient forests.

At Heal the Bay, Hartley will work on growing membership, developing new fundraising models and executing a five-year strategic plan that includes confronting the effects of climate change.

“Santa Monica Bay, in many respects, is the Yosemite of the sea,” Hartley said. “It was an honor and a calling to help protect ancient redwoods, one of California’s true natural icons. I couldn’t be more excited to join Heal the Bay and help protect some other special places — our beaches and oceans.”

— Gary Walker

How healed is the bay compared to 30 years ago?

The ocean is definitely healthier than it has been in decades by any measurable standard.

Our Coastal Cleanup Days have removed tons of trash from our coasts and oceans. Shark species have returned to Santa Monica Bay largely because of the work that Heal the Bay has done in advocating for improved water quality. As the ocean has recovered after years of being abused, we’ve been able to establish nurseries for sharks.

There’s a direct link between what Heal the Bay has done and the health of the Santa Monica Bay. We can measure the improvement in the water quality of the bay over time because of Heal the Bay’s advocacy on storm water and urban pollution. [The number of beaches with high pollution levels fell from 29 in 2006 to 14 in 2013, according to the group.] This organization has never been about “just trust us.” It’s always been about science-based advocacy.

Sea birds need the Ballona Wetlands. Does Heal the Bay have a position on Ballona restoration?

There has been a nexus between water quality and open space for us for years. This is an incredible opportunity to restore an amazing resource, and we think it can also be an educational tool for children and the public at large.

I’ve been involved in enough restoration projects to know that sometimes it can get ugly. If you’ve ever known anyone who has had heart surgery, sometimes afterward they don’t look so good. But they eventually heal. We hope that’s what’s going to happen at Ballona, and we’ll be a strong supporter for that to be realized.

Environmental Protection Agency scientists recently visited the wetlands over concerns about climate change. How does global warming impact your work?

Climate change is going to affect everything that we’re doing — and especially in the wetlands, which scientists are now telling us can be really good buffers against flooding and other consequences of climate change. The two primary impacts of climate change that we’re seeing are sea level rise and the acidification of the ocean.  Venice, for example, is at risk of high [tidal] undulations, and the infrastructure around it as well. This is where local and state governments have to be serious about protecting our coasts. We need to be investing in our water infrastructure.

Acidification and the changing chemistry of the ocean obviously are going to have a very large effect on marine life. We’re seeing changes in weather patterns and these types of events, like sea level rise and flooding, are likely to continue.

What is Heal the Bay doing to improve beach report card, especially for the perennially low-scoring Mother’s Beach?
We’ve seen great improvement in the most recent water quality surveys. In areas near drains, like at Dockweiler Beach and Ocean Park, we’re still seeing some level of pollution but there’s been improvement in the last couple of report cards. Mother’s Beach has always been problematic, but we’re going to continue our advocacy efforts that include our coastal cleanups and working with other organizations to improve our beaches’ water quality by limiting the amount of pollution that gets into our watersheds.

What is your position on the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board’s recent vote to eliminate copper-based undercoating on boats?
We support the water board’s decision. It seems like a reasonable solution to a problem that has been building up for several years. We realize that for some boat owners this could represent a financial hardship, but we also know that the water board is looking for grants and other forms of financial assistance to help some of the boat owners defray some of the cost of repainting their hulls. Having clean water is a public good, and I think responsible boat owners understand that.

What are some of your short- and long-term goals?
There are always new threats. One of the big issues is oil drilling off of our coasts. There’s a proposal to drill 30 wells in Hermosa Beach, and citizens there have stood up for their community for years and said they don’t want oil drilling of their coast. This issue is not confined to Hermosa Beach; anyone who cares about Santa Monica Bay should be worried about this. And for us, [advocating against oil drilling] has become a line in the sand.

We will again be supporting a statewide ban on plastic bags. There are many sources of ocean pollution, but plastic has become not only a symbol of [ocean pollution] but also a symbol of waste in our society.

One of our roles has been to be a watchdog, and we will certainly continue to do that. I believe that when we take steps to clean up our water, our quality of life will take another step forward.§