Itâ€™s the state of Californiaâ€™s job to oversee the dunes that stretch south from Oceano to San Luis Obispoâ€™s border with Santa Barbara County. Every day, state officials collect fees, police a myriad of offroaders visiting from around the state, and try to protect the areaâ€™s remaining enclaves of sensitive flowers and plants. Those same officials have also started what looks like a dump for portable toilets and fence material in that same stretch of dunes.
To get to the â€œstorage area,â€? as state officials call it, drive south on the beach from Pier Avenue and the parkâ€™s main entrance. On your left side are ocean-view homes and the dune preserve. After you cross the creek and at about the third mile marker, the dunes open up. Hang a hard left, and drive several-dozen yards past the brick-and-mortar restrooms.
The â€œdumpâ€? is not hard to miss: Itâ€™s tucked into a hollow, hidden from the ocean by grass-fringed dunes, and enclosed by a sagging fence. What makes it easy to see are the piles of 70-something blue, white, and gray portable toilets.
A handful of them are usable, clean, and stand on wood pallets. Others are tipped over against the fence, pulling it down. About a quarter of the toilets lie jumbled together on their sides; many are missing doors or are half buried in sand. Others are completely ruined: crushed, splintered, useless.
Near one pile, a detached urinal sits, almost completely covered in sand.
On the seaward side, signs and fence posts used during the March to September snowy plover breeding season are neatly stacked. But the rest of the area is devoted to rolling hills of rusting wire fencing.
Ray Monge, the deputy district superintendent for the park, said that, despite the junkyard appearance, the fencing is used to block off areas of the beach during the plover season.
And the same goes for the toilets. The functional ones are used around the park during holiday weekends. As for the potties that are piled together, he said, all chemicals and waste have been pumped out and theyâ€™re stored in this â€œeasy accessâ€? area so officials can â€œsalvage parts.â€?
â€œWhen they get ruined, we put them in there. What the plans are for moving them out, I donâ€™t know,â€? he said.
Dena Vellman, an analyst for the park, said itâ€™s been awhile since sheâ€™s been out to the storage area so she couldnâ€™t comment on its current condition, but she estimated that most of the portables have been there for about 10 years.
â€œThereâ€™s no way we can keep them from getting sand on them,â€? she said.
Other park officials offered similar estimates for how long the area has been used for storage. But if rain has been leaching through the wrecked toilets for that long, what kind of bacteria and fecal creepy-crawlies are down in the sand?
Steve Carnes, the supervising environmental health specialist with SLO County, says thatâ€™s probably nothing to worry about. He said heâ€™s never been to the storage area and doesnâ€™t know how water pools around the junked outhouses, but he does know that the Central Coast weather is actually a pretty good disinfectant.
â€œIf there wasnâ€™t much in them and they sat out in the wind and the sun and all that for awhile, there probably isnâ€™t going to be a whole lot of bacteria,â€? he said. â€œAll of it is probably pretty sterile unless itâ€™s pocketed and [the wind and sun] canâ€™t get to it.â€?
Officials at the park serviceâ€™s main office, at the ranger station, and at the maintenance office were unable to say if there were plans to clean the area up. Kurt Linsey, head of the maintenance department, was unavailable for comment.
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.