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A brief reprieve


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Many decades ago, I supplemented my meager college income by continuing my post-Vietnam military service in the Coast Guard Reserves. I was assigned to the Morro Bay detachment that at the time assisted the Coast Guard Cutter Cape Hedge in its multiple duties.

On weekends and for a few weeks every summer, I "commanded" an inboard-powered Starcraft Cruiser and a Boston Whaler to patrol the waters between Cayucos, Morro Bay, and as far south as Port San Luis at Avila. Sometimes we boarded the oil tankers anchored off Cayucos, making an interesting leap to the ship ladders as the waves lifted our small craft 6 feet up or down as we boarded.

One of the most interesting parts of our duties was "policing," in a friendly sort of way, what we called the "Bakersfield Navy"—Central Valley dwellers making their pilgrimage to the coast in the summer to avoid the valley heat for a few weeks of fishing and beach weather. The problem was many treated the ocean like a large lake, which it isn't. The sea is beautiful to an artist and tourists, but I came to see it as a vicious, unpredictable killer waiting for people to make a small mistake that could quickly result in disaster.

I terminated small boat voyages awash in gasoline, fumes, dirty spark arresters, inoperable fire extinguishers, and no life jackets or life jackets so old they were fossilized in locked compartments. Operators were five or six "sheets to the wind," having lived on beer for the last 10 hours. One was a floating bomb.

Other times we assisted in rescues as tourists overloaded small boats with adults and children, attempting to exit Morro Bay through the breakwater channel, to be suddenly overturned by an unexpected powerful wave. Few had lifejackets on or properly fitted, especially for children, and there were more than a few tragedies. Some years, 10 percent of boats leaving Morro Bay became casualties.

Humorous events are permanently embedded in my memory, like a July holiday weekend when a sailboat ran aground at nude beach Pirate's Cove in Avila (I had no shortage of crew volunteers to go ashore to take a report). The same weekend, a great white shark was spotted by fishermen on the Avila Pier, estimated to be about 17 feet. So we herded adventurous swimmers closer to shore while trying not to panic the public.

We also helped extinguish a fire on the pier that day started by fireworks and aided by strong northwesterly winds. Getting our craft under the pier to extinguish the fire was interesting. We ended the day wet, but more than 100 people evacuated the pier to watch from the beach. People love to get close to nature, but sometimes nature isn't very nice in return.

One example of this is the Oceano Dunes, which just received a sort of reprieve from the Coastal Commission to continue to exist as an off-road vehicle recreational area for another year. Presumably, local officials and State Parks will find a way to effectively mitigate the health hazards posed by ultra-fine blowing dust to local residents, according to the State Air Resources Board. There's a lot of controversy over how much of a hazard really exists, what's mostly responsible, and if or how it can be fixed to accommodate permanent residents and today's land version of what I would describe as the "Bakersfield Navy."

As of this week's press time, six people have lost their lives this year doing stuff that would have gotten me a well-deserved "Darwin Award" in my youth. Obviously, there are some serious problems requiring more law enforcement oversight and a stronger presence in the field. That will cost money, and the governor seems to have lots to spend this year on everything except making life better for Californians—like fixing the Oceano Dunes.

I've read the science reports on the dust hazard, and I previously suggested treating some of the newer housing developments like a Superfund site—a la "Love Canal"—where the government bought out the town and moved everyone away from a permanent chemical hazard in the water.

Older residents who've lived here 30 years or longer likely weren't warned about blowing dust when they bought their residences, but for newer residents, California realty law is draconian on disclosing hazards to potential buyers. The problems of the dunes are exacerbated by the thousands of eucalyptus trees cut down, which likely provided some windbreak protection, to make room for developments.

There's plenty of room for blame and not many good options.

The Oceano Dunes has been subjected to prevailing winds blowing dust inland for thousands of years, and that will continue to happen despite our objections. Mitigation will take determined effort, and effective results will require decades to manifest.

Those in peril from respiratory distress from the dust will remain in peril regardless of restrictions put upon dune riding or even closure to vehicles. They will have to decide if they are willing to risk remaining.

The state's responsibility is to decide if they can legally and morally allow them to remain. It's like the fisherman in his floating bomb. He didn't want to leave the water; he still had beer to drink. We persuaded him otherwise. Δ

Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.


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