Pragmatic Environmentalism

By Giving List Staff   |   January 2, 2021
The capping of Becker Well on Summerland beach, 2019. (photo by Harry Rabin)

In 2011,long before Covid-19 forever changed how we think of nonprofit fundraising events, Santa Barbara-based Heal the Ocean held an “imaginary gala” with “invisible” seats at “dream” tables. On the invitation, super booster Julia Louis-Dreyfus crowed that the event would be “the most unreal party” the organization ever had.

Not only did Heal the Ocean save money on producing the event, but also exceeded its fundraising goal. This no frills, practical approach is the environmental advocacy group’s calling card. 

“We are not complainers,” says Executive Director Hillary Hauser. “We focus on infrastructure, pipes, waste disposal, and sometimes it strikes us funny to realize we are very often just basic plumbers.”

Maybe so, but plumbers with an incredible track record of pragmatic change, using small charitable donations to win significant sums of public dollars to, well, heal the ocean. 

Hillary Hauser and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

The organization was launched in 1998, when Hauser caught wind of something rotten in the waters off surf-famous Rincon Point. The clutch of homes there all relied on septic systems. As tidewater rose and fell the systems steadily leached effluent into the waters – causing surfers to get sick. An early environmental DNA study, the first of its kind and funded by Heal the Ocean, found that 20% of the bacterial pollution in the lagoon there was “human/fecal.” By 2013, after an epic saga of bureaucratic red tape and setbacks, Heal the Ocean had not only secured sewer systems for Rincon, but 130 homes seven miles up and down the coast as well, radically improving ocean water quality, which has made surfing safer – and more fun.

More recently, Hauser and company translated a $10,000 investment in a knowledgeable consultant that helped to sweep into law a 2017 bill authored by HTO ally State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson that allocates $2 million per year to cap old oil wells and other hazards along California’s coastline for a total of $14 million. Serving as cheerleaders to the State Lands Commission, Heal the Ocean led the charge in 2018 for the plugging of the notorious, leaking Becker Well on Summerland Beach, and for 2020, they’re inspiring the plugging of two more leaking wells: Treadwell and NorthStar – scheduled for October 2020.

For Hauser and her team it has never been about lawsuits or quick fixes. It’s about finding solid strategies to heal this neck of California’s coastline. 

“It’s really about practical solutions,” Hauser says. “We always say that to get something fixed, you have to figure out how much it costs, then how to pay for it, then go get the money and just do it. I think that’s why people like us.”


Heal the Ocean | Santa Barbara


Heal the Ocean focuses on wastewater infrastructure – sewers and septic systems – as well as ocean dumping practices that have contributed to ocean pollution. We are focused on Santa Barbara County, but our methods are now serving as a model for other coastal communities across the country.

Begin to Build a Relationship

We know you care about where your money goes and how it is used. Connect with this organization’s leadership in order to begin to build this important relationship. Your email will be sent directly to this organization’s director of development and/or Executive Director.

They Heal Our Ocean

I’ve surfed for years at the Rincon, and am in the water all the time. It is such a relief to know that the septic systems are gone, that we’re not swimming in polluted water like we were doing day in and day out, getting sinus, ear, nose, eye infections and who knows what else. Yes, there are other bad things that get into the ocean, but just knowing that this one big source of contamination has been removed is huge. This is one of the most popular surf spots in California, world known, and the legacy left to this piece of ocean will be there forever. It’s so interesting to hear the younger surfers today, who don’t know about the battles Heal the Ocean went through to get this project done. They were little kids at the time. Think of it, it’s now history!
– Heather Hudson, surfer

Return on Investment

Heal the Ocean’s pragmatic approach ensures that any donation the organization receives will be returned in multiples.
A $25,000 investment in aerial infrared photography showing leaking oil fields off the coast of Summerland was the proof then-Governor Jerry Brown needed to sign Senate Bill 44, which allocated $14 million towards capping aging wells along the California coast.
A $5,000 investment in a consultant allowed HTO to snag $150,000 in state funds to pay for a conceptual engineering study for a recycled water facility in Goleta, and another $150,000 for state-funded conceptual engineering plans for a recycled water facility in Santa Ynez. These studies and conceptual engineering plans have put these agencies first in line for state funding help for the actual building of the facilities. So HTO effectively turned $5,000 into a potential of 50 million dollars.

Board of Directors

Hillary Hauser, President and Executive Director
Jean-Michel Cousteau
Thomas Dabney, Treasurer
Charles Vinick
Heather Hudson, Event Manager
Jonathan Wygant
Tom White