Surfrider Flush With Cash, Not Without Controversy

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Sacramento correspondent Brian Joseph had an interesting post on the Register's OC Watchdog blog last week about the explosive growth of the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation. Confirming with a group that follows the membership and money generated by nonprofits, Joseph reported that Surfrider has quadrupled in size since they started the battle against extension of the 241 Foothill-South toll road.

In 1997, before the toll-road controversy, Surfrider reported revenues of about $1 million. In 2007, the most recently available year on the nonprofit disclosure site Guidestar, Surfrider reported $4 million in revenues. During that time, staff salaries have increased by more than 500 percent, expenses by nearly 400 percent and public donations have jumped from $337,000 in '97 to $3 million a decade later, Joseph reports.

Surfrider, which was founded in 1984 to advocate for clean beaches in Malibu, today boasts more than 60 chapters worldwide with more than 50,000 members total. Joseph reports that the executive director earned $170,000 in 2007, when $400,000 was spent on fund-raising consultants. Given the success in mortally wounding the toll road and ocean education and awareness programs for all, particularly children, that seems like money well spent.

But there have been controversies along the way.


Some accuse Surfrider of routinely overstating health threats posed to swimmers and surfers.

Surfer magazine chided a Surfrider press release that called Trestles one of the 10 best surfing spots in the world.

Founder and ultimate soul surfer Glen Hening has warned that as Surfrider has become more mainstream, it has pulled away from its original purpose. "The idea was to really say something serious about the values of serious surfing as it benefits our society," he told blogger Jim Benning in 2006.

Hening, who wanted to introduce surfing to inner-city children, says the group became less concerned with riding waves. He was particularly annoyed at Surfrider's board for removing a line in the group's mission statement calling for the "enhancement" of surfing spots, which could mean using sand bags to create new wave breaks.

There has been criticism at the local chapter level as well.

South Orange County Surfrider just yanked the funding of Laguna Beach High School's award-winning ocean water testing program, which for eight years collected ocean water and tested for bacteria weekly, even winning an award from the federal EPA in 2006. According to an April 2 Coastline Pilot story, the chapter decided against spending $25,000 to fund the water testing programs at several local schools, including Laguna Beach.

Surfrider and Laguna Beach have a history as rocky as the village's picturesque shoreline. Officials at the San Clemente-based headquarters in 2002 openly chastised the Laguna Beach chapter's co-founders  Briggs "Corky" Smith and Tex Haines of Victoria Skimboards fame before dissolving their chapter and recognizing a new one soon after.

When the Long Beach-Huntington Beach Surfrider Chapter split in two in the 1990s, members announced publicly each area needed its own chapter to tackle its unique pollutions and erosion problems. However, other members secretly confided the split was due to the strong push by Long Beach members to remove their harbor entrance's breakwaters. If that happens, Huntington Beach dissenters feared, trash and pollution contained in Long Beach waters would wash up in Surf City.

Despite the waves that have been churned up along the way, there is no denying Surfrider has been a positive force in strongly advocating on behalf of clean water and beaches. Its Blue Water Task Force has undertaken water-quality testing and storm-drain stenciling to warn people against dumping pollutants, and the foundation frequently undertakes major projects our government should be performing, such as documenting physical characteristics of beaches around the country to help gauge changes along coastlines.

Who knows? Given its healthy coffers, maybe Surfrider can bail out our government some day.

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