Making waves, and protecting their source
Surfrider's Craig Cadwallader uses facts, not emotions, as he fights against ocean pollution
by Caroline Anderson
Manhattan Beach has long prided itself on being an environmentally friendly city with initiatives like its bans on plastic bags and polystyrene.
One man has been there for all of it: Craig Cadwallader, a resident and the chair of the South Bay chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.
“A handful of people — maybe six over the years — have been the environmental conscience of Manhattan Beach,” said activist Joe Galliani, founding organizer for South Bay Los Angeles 350 Climate Action Group on whose advisory board Cadwallader sits. “Craig is one of those people for sure.”
But Cadwallader, who doesn’t get paid for any of his advocacy, hasn’t limited his efforts to Manhattan Beach.
He has pushed for plastic bag bans in Huntington Beach and Hermosa Beach, where he also threw himself into the campaign to defeat oil drilling last year.
“Very few people worked harder on No on O than Craig,” said Galliani, referring to the oil proposal. “He doesn’t live in Hermosa Beach, but he acted as if oil was going to be drilled in his apartment.”
The South Bay chapter of Surfrider includes the area from Marina del Rey to San Pedro and then inland to Montebello.
Cadwallader, who supports himself consulting small businesses on their marketing and websites, attributes his devotion to wanting to protect the natural beauty of Southern California, where he moved in the 1970s after getting a graduate degree in marketing from Northwestern University in Illinois.
“I’ve seen a lot of the country, and this is the best,” he said while sitting on a bench in the Manhattan Beach Civic Center, occasionally getting up to pick up bits of trash from the ground as he spoke. “I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”
He also credits his mother for fostering his appreciation for the natural environment.
“Every house we moved into, my mother insisted on a natural yard,” he said. “I must have gotten something from her. She was into the natural environment. She wanted it left as close as possible to what was there before the house was built.”
Cadwallader, a surfer, was drawn to Surfrider’s mission in 2002, when he helped some members with his web expertise.
“Their mission is to protect and enjoy the ocean waves and beaches,” he said. “The thing I like is, ‘Protect and enjoy’ — not, ‘Protect and stay away.’”
Much of Cadwallader’s efforts have focused on pushing for environmental legislation.
Sona Coffee, the environmental programs manager for Manhattan Beach and the vice chair of the Long Beach Surfrider chapter, said Cadwallader played a key role in passing the bans on smoking, plastic bags and polystyrene by testifying before the council and providing examples of similar ordinances from other cities.
“He’s been really instrumental in bringing awareness to the issues to the city council,” she said. “Without having a public voice, these issues might not have made the front page so quickly.”
On a personal level, he’s also the reason for her participation in Surfrider.
“He inspired me to get involved in my community,” she said.
While the smoking ban, which Coffee said is one of the strongest in the state, most obviously impacts public health, Cadwallader also sees it as a critical environmental issue.
“Cigarette butts are the number one litter item on beaches worldwide,” he said.
This statistic comes from international beach cleanups.
Because the butts aren’t biodegradable, those that make it into the water are ingested by marine life.
“It becomes a toxic time bomb,” he said. “You can drop one in a fish bowl and it will kill the fish.”
The filters also contain plastic, which is already a problem in the Pacific Ocean. Cadwallader pointed to a recent study by the World Economic Forum that said the amount of plastic in the ocean would outweigh fish by 2050.
“It just stuns me,” said Cadwallader. “Can you imagine people in 2050 saying, ‘What did you guys do to us?’ You go out fishing and you get plastic.”
Cadwallader had similar concerns about the proposal to drill for oil in Hermosa Beach. Although the wells were to be built on land, Cadwallader felt certain the oil could make its way to the water, as it did in the Refugio oil spill in Santa Barbara County two months after the Hermosa Beach ballot measure failed.
Cadwallader estimated that he spent 3,600 hours, or 150 days, working on the project. Part of his work was reading through the environmental impact report, which he said was 12,291 pages, including attachments.
“The oil project in Hermosa Beach was probably the hardest thing I’ve worked on in my life,” he said.
His consulting business suffered. Besides being unable to take on new clients, he lost two after they learned his position on the measure.
Now he’s turning his attention to a proposal by the West Basin Municipal District to build a desalination plant in El Segundo.
Cadwallader believes a plant would be devastating for marine life since the brine removed from the saltwater would be pumped into the ocean. Some people have said that would create dead zones.
Cadwallader wants to encourage West Basin to expand its current water recycling program, which he said would use less energy than a desalination plant.
“Single use water is not acceptable during drought conditions, or anytime,” he said.
At Cadwallader’s urging, the Manhattan Beach City Council sent a letter opposing the plant to West Basin earlier this year.
Those who know the activist — and Cadwallader himself — attribute his effectiveness to his persistence and commitment to the facts.
“I will go anywhere, any time, speak to anybody on any of these issues if I can,” said Cadwallader.
Galliani compared his colleague to the character Spock from the television show Star Trek.
“Craig is a science-based guy,” said Galliani. “He is Mr. Logic. He’s very unemotional on these subjects when he’s working on them.”
It was while Cadwallader was lecturing a group of students, holding up a specimen of water filled with styrene at an event organized by Coffee, that Hermosa Beach resident and activist Dency Nelson first took note of Cadwallader.
“I can see him now, standing in front of the room and passing around this jar of stuff,” said Nelson. “I immediately recognized his passion and knowledge.”
Both Nelson and Galliani said they could always rely on Cadwallader to come prepared with facts.
“He’s like a walking footnote,” said Nelson. “It’s so important for activists to not just be emotional tree huggers, but to appreciate the science. When they step up to the mic, they’re speaking fact, not emotion.”
Educate people, Cadwallader said, and the rest will take care of itself.
“I always believe if you put the real facts in front of intelligent people, they will almost always make the right decision.” ER