When Mark Gold began as a volunteer at a fledgling environmental organization a quarter century ago, he had no idea that he would soon be embarking on a career trajectory that would push him and the organization to the forefront of environmental politics and make the group’s name synonymous with water quality and protection of California’s coast.
Gold has been the public face of the environmental protection group Heal the Bay for years, and after leading the organization as its executive director since 1999, he will officially step down Monday, Jan. 30 to take on a new adventure.
Gold will be retracing his footsteps back to his alma mater, UCLA, where he will become the associate director of the university’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s Coastal Center.
In an interview with The Argonaut at his Santa Monica office earlier this month, he touched on his time at the nonprofit environmental group, how he views the role that legislators at all levels of government have played in improving water quality and creating cleaner beaches, and the initiatives that Heal the Bay has established and expanded.
Created after a group of budding environmentalists challenged Los Angeles city officials for allowing raw sewage from the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant to poison marine life in Santa Monica Bay in the mid 1980s, the Santa Monica-based organization has grown into a powerful statewide advocacy and educational environmental organization.
And Gold, who came on board in 1986, a year after Heal the Bay was founded, has had a front row seat for the vast majority of its successes, including the group’s first victory when the Hyperion plant was ordered not to allow any more discharge into the ocean.
Leaving the place that he has called home for so long is not easy, the executive director said.
“It’s taken me a long time, because Heal the Bay’s been like my second family. Some of my closest friends work here, volunteer here or are on the board of directors here,” Gold began. “I feel that the leadership of the directors is incredible, the team is second to none in the environmental field and they’ve been ready for a long time to take on more responsibility and become more of a public face for the organization.”
The non-profit recently announced that it has reorganized its management team following Gold’s departure.
Working with Heal the Bay’s late founder Dorothy Green gave Gold a head start on his organizational career with the non-profit, and her lessons and leadership have left an indelible impression on him and on his own leadership style.
“I owe my entire career to Dorothy. She was my mentor,” Gold recalled. “What was great about her was that she made every single volunteer here feel like they were the most important one.
“She had a way of making everyone feel special by putting you to work and giving you responsibilities that you never thought you were capable of doing.”
As an example, he referenced testifying at the Regional Water Control Board on sewage in Santa Monica Bay within two months of his arrival at Heal the Bay. “Pretty heady stuff for a young guy just starting out,” Gold recalled. “And I found out that I really loved the advocacy side of what we do.”
Gold said Green, who passed away in 2008, left behind a legacy that he and the organization try to improve upon every day.
“Her loss was like losing a very close family member,” he said. “And her legacy is still here.”
Gold says during his tenure at Heal the Bay he has adopted a “never except no for an answer on environmental issues” policy, a lesson that he learned from his mentor.
“Dorothy also helped me learn that it’s really easy to criticize on any environmental issue,” he said. “What’s hard, and what takes more courage is to come up with an alternative, to ask, ‘how do you solve these problems?”’
That approach to improving water quality of the ocean through legislation, education and/or advocacy is where the organization has thrived, and the initiatives and bills that have been passed statewide, in which Heal the Bay has had a hand, illustrates the group’s approach to addressing environmental problems.
The group’s work on protecting the ocean from pollutants impresses Friends of the Ballona Wetlands Executive Director Lisa Fimiani.
“Mark brought science-based analysis of Santa Monica Bay’s water quality into the media spotlight, making politicians sit up and take notice and ultimately do something to improve the negative report card health ratings our local beaches were receiving year after year,” said Fimiani. “This has had a ripple effect bringing attention to watersheds all through Southern California, ultimately making our entire coastline cleaner.”
The Beach Report Card is one of Heal the Bay’s enduring legacies.
The annual beach report rates California coastlines with a letter grade and has forced municipalities to become more proficient at harnessing urban water runoff, and has also played a role in helping tourism at the coastal city, said Santa Monica City Councilman Kevin McKeown.
McKeown gives Gold an “A” for his stewardship at Heal the Bay.
“Through Heal the Bay and its coastal water ratings reports, Mark pushed Santa Monica to find urban runoff solutions,” said the councilman. “We now get A ratings for our beaches and that benefit for our residents and visitors is in large part thanks to Mark.”
The program now evaluates beaches statewide, and Gold said it has revolutionized how people look at beach protection.
“There’s been over $100 million allocated for cleaning up California’s most polluted beaches, and I really think the Beach Report Card had a lot to do with that,” he said. “It’s actually used to decide which projects go forward.”
Other programs that began under Gold’s direction include the locally sponsoring Coastal Cleanup Day at area and statewide beaches, the aquarium under the Santa Monica Pier and fighting to have pollution limits included in water regulations.
“The legacy of Mark Gold’s impact on Heal the Bay, and the constituents they reach, will live on long after he leaves the non-profit,” Fimiani said.
Gold feels that state and federal leaders could do a lot more to improve water quality and other important environmental hazards.
“The lack of environmental issues is stunning,” he asserted. “In an election year, nobody is talking about anything good about the environment and what we need to do to protect our individual rights to clean air and clean water. It’s like a non-issue.”
The executive director said there has been no major environmental initiative at the federal level in more than 20 years. “Not since 1990 has there been any real major environmental legislation, like the reauthorization of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act under (President) George H. Bush,” he said.
Gold gives credit to President Barack Obama’s administration for advancing fuel efficiency standards, but regarding water quality, “We’re not going anywhere,” he added.
Mark Abramson has seen how far the concept of environmental health has come since Heal the Bay’s early days. Now a senior watershed advisor at the Santa Monica Restoration Commission, Abramson recalled meeting Gold for the first time in 1991.
“Working with him and his passion was essential to setting me on a new path in my life,” said Abramson, who worked with Gold on regional water quality permits.
The adage “think global, act local” takes on special meaning in this type of environment, and Heal the Bay has worked with local agencies on water quality projects that Gold feels have great potential for long range successes, including a recent stormwater runoff venture with the Los Angeles Public Works Department at Penmar Park in Venice and Proposition O projects in Venice and Mar Vista.
“I think it makes more sense than ever now because the work that you can really get done and where you can see tangible differences are mostly at the regional and local level,” Gold said.
Seeing neighborhoods in Mar Vista and others in Los Angeles becoming involved in their own initiatives like the Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase is very rewarding to him, as well as the low impact development ordinances in the local communities.
“Twenty years ago, you didn’t see the number of environmental groups on this scale,” Gold said. “This is like a new wave, and things like rain gardens in Playa Vista are becoming the new normal.
“We can really look at Santa Monica Bay and see that the ecological health of the bay has improved so dramatically, but we still have a long way to go with things like stormwater runoff.”
One of his biggest disappointments came last August when the Legislature failed to implement a statewide plastic bag ban. The American Chemistry Council lobbied state lawmakers heavily in the last days before the vote and donated money to many who voted against the bill, he noted.
“We never saw that they would drop $2 million over 30 days to in essence buy out the state Senate,” Gold recalled. “That’s one of the reasons that I’ve lost so much faith in the Legislature.
“This was the biggest no-brainer that I’ve ever worked on,” he continued. “But we’re doing it city by city, and that shows you that you can’t give up.”
Gold will still remain a member of Heal the Bay’s board and while he values the time that he has spent at the organization, he is looking forward to his next venture.
“I’m leaving here with no regrets and feel great that I was a part of something special,” he concluded. “I love the fact they keep on making a huge difference, but part of me is always going to be here at Heal the Bay.”