By UW Sustainability | Apr 28, 2016

Barbara Clabots of the Seattle Surfrider Foundation was the introductory presenter at the University of Washington's Earth Day celebration. Clabots is a social scientist focused on improving ocean conservation. Locally, she serves the community as Seattle Surfrider's Volunteer Coordinator to improve water quality in the Puget Sound, leading a program to eliminate cigarette litter. When she's not in the water or in the mountains, you can find her on Twitter @Women_and_Fish. Below is the text of her Earth Day presentation.

I am here today with the Surfrider Foundation - to tell you why Earth Day is actually Ocean day to me. Most of our Earth is not land, it’s water. And I am in love with water- I’m not talking about drinking water, I’m talking about salt water and fresh water. I’m a swimmer, surfer, wakeboarder, general open water junkie. I always pack a swimsuit when I go to the beach - yes, I mean here in Washington. I pack a swimsuit when I go for a hike because there is nothing that makes me feel more alive than glacier-fed alpine lakes. And good luck trying to stop me from jumping off channel markers. So… yes, the water IS cold here, but the clarity, calm, and joy I get from it is just what I need to stay in love with water.

And I’m willing to bet that everyone else here today is in love with water, too. You may not know that yet, but think about it for a second. You are probably mesmerized when you see the ocean, you have probably spent hours fantasizing about turquoise waters and white sandy beaches, and you probably giggle like a kid when your toes touch a wave. It’s human nature to be in love with water because it makes us happy. Dr. Wallace J. Nichols calls it Blue Mind, and we’ve all got one.

J. Nichols’s work has shown us that access to clean water for recreation provides significant benefits to our health.  Being near, in, on, or under the water reduces stress, anxiety, depression and even PTSD. We know this because there is a growing body of literature called neuroconservation that shows how human happiness and well-being is directly connected to our access to the environment. So at the core of our relationship with the natural environment, we are all in love with the water, and because the water brings us joy, we have a responsibility to protect it.

Through volunteering with the Surfrider Foundation, I have been able to put my passion for the ocean into action. The mission of Surfrider is to protect and enjoy oceans, beaches, and waves through a powerful activist network. We are all kinds of recreators- surfers, kayakers, stand up paddlers, beach camping, tidepooling, general water addicts.

The members of Surfrider are deeply connected to our waters because we cut our bare feet on garbage left on the beach. We get sick when the bacteria count is too high from overflowing sewers. And we lose our source of health and happiness when a new pier destroys a surf break or an oil spill makes the water too toxic to swim.

Surfrider chapters all around this region take direct action to protect our public beaches. Our chapter in Tacoma has spent years working to pass a single use plastic bag ban. Our chapter in Port Angeles pays for port o potties at surf spots in rural areas. Our chapter in Bellingham monitors water quality at a State Park, so they can warn the public not to swim when the bacteria count is too high. In Seattle, we are educating the public that cigarettes are the #1 litter item found on beaches globally. Every year, every beach. Cigarette butts are toxic and plastic, they are not harmless nor biodegradable, and all the ones that wash down the sewer end up in our ocean. So we have to push for change.

If you’d like to learn more about Surfrider, I have a table here today with some very well informed and passionate UW students who can answer your questions. We are handing out blue marbles to recognize the efforts of people who are doing something good for our ocean. If you are already taking action in some way to protect the ocean, please come visit Annalee, Corina, and myself, so you can join the blue marble project.

Surfrider has developed the leading national model of citizen engagement, because people tapped into their love for the water make the most effective ocean advocates. When you feel a beach is kind of like your back yard, you can’t help but have a passion to care for it. When you know that it’s YOUR health at risk if we don’t have clean waters to swim in, you start to care a whole lot.

The Clean Water Act and the Public Trust Doctrine together say that the beach and ocean is a public resource; it is ours to swim in, it is ours to fish in, and it should always be clean enough to do both. Unfortunately, we know that most of our waters don’t meet that standard- some scientists say only 30% of our waterways are fishable and swimmable.

Our waters are at risk due to pollution, and we have to work hard so they are clean enough to swim in. We allowed industry to pollute Seattle’s only river - the Duwamish - and we are decades from having a river that is clean enough for swimming. And yet every year, sometimes twice a year if we’re lucky, senators try to defund the BEACH act. It’s the primary source of funding so that the Department of Ecology can test bacteria and algae levels at our swimming beaches. When our senators vote against testing for water quality, they put at risk YOUR health, YOUR child’s health, YOUR dog’s health.

Our public access to the beach is also at risk, and points of access diminish every year as waterfront plots are sold and the fences go up - here, Mexico, Bali, everywhere with a coastline. Waterfront property owners-- and we see this alot in California-- build fences, close roads, and have people arrested for trespassing even though it is our public right to access the beach. Our one lawyer at Surfrider works to enforce the Public Trust Doctrine every day to defend our right to the beach, and fortunately, we pretty much always win.

Whether our beaches exist at all as we know them is at risk due to coastal erosion and sea level rise. Much of these changes are caused by human choices. Developers are still building mansions on our coastal dunes, right here in Washington, even though those homes are not safe from sea level rise. And when they get washed away, those homeowners will get our tax dollars to rebuild, again and again, on a beach where they never should have built in the first place.   

Even though water quality and access to the beach are at risk, we know these problems are not insurmountable. In the face of these challenges, we have to have Ocean Optimism. I am hopeful because we have a growing movement of water lovers who have become coastal defenders. These are our beaches, these are our waters, and we are going to take care of them, because we want to swim in them for the rest of our lives. We know that the Surfrider model of citizen engagement works to catalyze change, because we focus on practical, direct solutions to environmental problems.

To show you that citizen engagement works, and since this is a university, I’m going to give you an assignment to go to the beach and tap into your love for the water. Does that sound good to you?

Okay. So you are going to go to Long Beach Peninsula for the 4th of July. There are 60 miles of accessible coastline that draw tourists from all over Washington for the festivities of Independence Day. And every year, beachgoers have bigger parties and leave bigger messes. From driving over the nests of seabirds, to illegal fireworks, to burning couches, the party goes on and on and seems to be getting worse. Even though the beach is the property of the public, what can park rangers and local cops do when there are thousands of people partying on the beach for the weekend?

Locals have begun to take action, and yet they need your support. Last year, 700 volunteers with the Grassroots Garbage Gang collected 37 tons of garbage left by the partiers. In the city of Westport, volunteers collected 75 tons of garbage that weekend. They handed out garbage bags, fundraised to get dumpsters, and spread out on the beaches to gather whatever the tide hadn’t swept away. The locals who care have been fighting regulations which allow free and unrestricted camping on the beach with very little law enforcement. It’s something you have to see to believe - so please GO to the beach for the 4th of July, document the problem yourself, and create some practical solutions.

What’s going on in Long Beach is just one way we can see how our environmental institutions aren’t working that well. Our ocean needs YOU. The capacity of young people to create change is enormous- your ability to learn quickly, your interest in creative solutions, your passion for justice - YOU can make the changes we need to have clean waters. And please, do not wait to be the executive director or policy advisor or lead scientist. Do not wait for the older generation to give you permission to create practical solutions to environmental problems. Don’t undersell yourself. The ocean needs you NOW.

And when you fight to protect our oceans and beaches, don’t forget the Surfrider mission- you need to enjoy it as well. Scream with joy as you jump in, grin like a fool as you run barefoot on a beach. Relish the peaceful sound of waves and the mesmerizing sight of the horizon. Enjoy the one ocean we have on our one blue planet. It’s a free source of endless happiness, if we just protect it.

I’d like to close with a quote adapted from the works of a Jesuit scholar, Father Pedro Arrupe.

 What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love with the water, stay in love with the water, and it will decide everything.

Thank you so much for your time, and have a Happy Earth Day!