Where Bacteria Meet the Beach

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Chuck Hasley has been surfing San Diego since 1957, riding the thrashing Pacific alongside dolphins, seals and boogie-boarders. Over the years, however, he’s had to increasingly share the surf with an uninvited guest -- untreated sewage.

"It’s getting like surfing in a toilet," Hasley, 65, said on a cloudy morning as he pointed to a brown foamy surf that once was so clear he could see 12 feet down.

In 1998, beaches statewide were closed for a total of 3,273 days - compared with 745 days in 1991, according to the most recent data available from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Sewage spills and urban runoff caused the majority of the closures. A combination of growing populations and aging sewer systems are exacerbating the problem, increasing the runoff of muck from streets, rooftops and lawns into storm drains and eventually to The ocean. The increase in beach closures also can be traced to heavy rainy seasons during El Nino years and improved bacteria-level monitoring. And the problem seems to be getting worse for California’s 740-mile coast, according to Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, which monitors the coast between Santa Barbara and Orange counties. "I wish I could say that things are getting better, but I can’t," Gold said.

 The bacteria often show up in the ocean as a dirty foam, says longtime diver, fisherman and surfer Scot Cherry, 40. "You can turn your back, looking for the next wave, looking out at the horizon and the big Pacific and you're turning your back on all the things that are troublesome," Cherry says. "And to have that violated by the lack of care by what is being done to our ocean is heartbreaking."

Under a new state law in effect for this dry season, April to October, coastal counties must test ocean water weekly to determine whether bacteria and pathogen levels are low enough to allow swimming and fishing. The law applies to beaches with more than 50,000 visitors annually, most of which are in Southern California.Environmentalists, however, note that sewage spills and runoff contamination don't occur only at popular beaches.

"It's pretty much a problem all over. ... (Cities) have had a lot of people screaming for a long time but they haven’t had a Huntington Beach thing to wake them up," said Chad Nelson, environmental programs manager at the nonprofit Surfriders Foundation. Nelson referred to Orange County’s famed Huntington Beach coastline, which last year saw a three-mile stretch closed for more than 60 peak summer days due to elevated bacteria levels.

Assemblyman Howard Wayne, a sponsor of the new law, hopes it will be a wake-up call and help protect the state’s $14 billion beach tourism industry, which accounts for a fifth of California’s total $67.9 billion travel and tourism industry. "If you have a good time on vacation, you’re going to tell a few people. If you become physically ill because of contamination, you're going to tell everyone you know," Wayne said.

There is no data on how many people fall ill by swimming at polluted beaches but it is common knowledge among surfers that nasal, throat and ear infections are no fluke. Bill Booth, who has been surfing since 1961, knows the flu-like symptoms well, having suffered headaches, ear infections and the sniffles. He no longer surfs after a heavy rain and worries more. Than ever these day about getting sick. "It’s getting to the point where you think, God, do I want to live with this?" said Booth, 53, from San Diego.

San Diego County is among those counties with the most problems with sewage spills – 88 percent of 1998 beach closures were due to sewage spills -- and also has one of the more consistent Testing programs in the state. Chris Gonaver, spokesman for the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health, noted that much of the surf is safe for humans -- pointing out that most pollution spreads across only about a 100-yard stretch of beach. "The public should feel very comfortable that if we do not have signs posted that the water is perfectly safe," Gonaver said. "The water quality has not changed, it’s just the way we are looking at the water quality."

At least nine of California’s 17 coastal counties tested beach water for swimmer safety at least once a week in 1998. Other counties, though they attract coastal recreation, did not have regular monitoring programs. The inconsistent reporting paints an unfair image of counties with testing programs, warned Janet Hashimoto, chief of the monitoring and assessment office, water division for the federal EPA’s BEACH program. "Any kind of reporting is always skewed to those who are more vigilant. But it doesn’t mean they’re better or worse than other places," Hashimoto said. "Those that don't monitor at all will make it look like they have no problems at all." (6.11.2000) http://www.lasvegassun.com/sunbin/stories/text/2000/jun/11/061100375.html