After 20 years, California’s whale tail license plates remain one of state’s most successful environmental programs ever

What started as a simple picture of a whale’s tail emblazoned on a specialized California license plate decades ago has morphed into one of the most successful environmental programs in the state.

The Whale Tail license plate — celebrating its 20th anniversary — continues to be popular among motorists. Since 1997, 243,000 plates were sold and the program has raised $95 million, according to the California Coastal Commission, the state agency that doles out cash from the Environmental License Plate (ELP) fund.

As expected, on a per capita basis, sales are highest among coast dwellers. Yet the whale plates are surprisingly popular among inland motorists in Southern California, said Chris Parry, the commission’s public education manager.

ZIP code data shows motorists from the San Gabriel Valley, San Bernardino and Riverside counties are among the top purchasers of the specialized license plates in the state, Parry said.

The money is used for the cleanup of beaches, rivers, creeks as well as anti-pollution education programs aimed at school-aged children, she said.

“For instance, the San Gabriel Valley is actually a pretty good market for us,” she said. “There is a strong connection to the coast from the people of the San Gabriel Valley because they travel to the coast; it is a popular thing to do, especially in the summer.”

In 2009, the latest year of geographic data available, Los Angeles County led with 26,577 plates on the road. Orange County was second, with 16,770, followed by San Diego County, 14,135 and Ventura County, 4,593. In the Inland Empire, there were 6,028 licenses in Riverside County, and 4,362 in San Bernardino County.

Many inlanders visit Los Angeles and Orange county beaches, she said. They want to ensure the ocean waters are clean, too.

Another reason for the high numbers of inland motorists is the expansion of the annual California Coastal Cleanup Day held last weekend.

At one time, the day was only for picking up trash on the beach — now it includes cleanup of the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana rivers, tributaries that empty into the ocean and often carry pollutants.

“It’s for the whole inland watershed, not just the coast,” Parry explained.

Heal The Bay runs both the yearly cleanup that’s now in its 32nd year, as well as a monthly program called “Nothing But Sand” that has grown from 100 people to 700 people per month.

The program will celebrate the 20th anniversary Oct. 21 at Playa del Rey at…

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