Those are the kinds of thoughts that Skip's wife, Donna—who has more faith in people's ability to clean up their own messes—tries to temper. While Skip has evolved into a quiet role model for many surfers, Donna—loud, proud, and a veteran activist—became galvanized by the clean water issue after she and Skip opened Harrys' back in 1990. "People kept coming into the surf shop with a variety of ailments," she recalls. "First I was skeptical. 'Oh, the swell's up, sure you're sick!'" But then in September 1995, Skip came in from surfing in water unusually brown and murky. Normally healthy as a seahorse, Skip felt dizzy and short of breath, and was so weak he couldn't drive home. "I did some research and found out that nearly all the popular surf spots were in front of storm drains or river mouths," Donna says. "We actually mapped them and tried to find out what was in them."
Donna explains all this in her husky Lauren Bacall voice. Her deep tan, straight blond hair, and ready smile give her a surfer-girl facade, but that quickly fades when she starts reeling off TMDLs, BMPs, and other arcane nuances of clean water regulations. What they found in 19 storm drains along some of San Diego's most popular surfing beaches was disgusting: Total coliform bacteria counts—which should be below 1,000 organisms per 100 milliliters of water for safe swimming—as high as 1.6 million organisms; counts of sewage-loving fecal coliform—which should be below 200 organisms for safe swimming—as high as 240,000. Armed with hard data, Donna launched a tireless campaign to get warning signs posted by the storm drains, fix leaking sewer pipes, require more stringent beach-water monitoring, and divert the worst offending drains into the sewer system.
Her activism eventually catapulted her onto the city council in 2001, one of the few Democrats to win a seat in the largely Republican town. Such is the power of her clean water message that Donna has twice nearly won the mayor's seat, losing by 8 percent last November to a former police chief. With city hall wracked with scandals and mountains of debt from the previous administration, San Diegans chose the conservative cop over the radical clean water activist.
Donna takes it all in stride. Since she began her campaign in the mid-1990s, the city has experienced 70 percent fewer sewage spills and 60 percent fewer beach closures. The beaches are better, she says, but there's much more to be done, like restoring the San Diego River and upgrading the Point Loma wastewater plant to secondary treatment.
"One of the jabs against me was, 'She may know clean water, but what's she know about running a city?' " Donna says with that husky laugh. "Let me tell you, dirty water, dirty politics, it all comes from the same source."