Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Heal the Bay's Beach Report Card: 5 things to know

Patt Morrison and I talked about beach water quality today - as well as the specific problem of sportfishing along the southern California coast I have a friend here in LA who goes to the beach like its her job in the summertime. I told Heather I'd be talking on the radio today about beach water quality issues, and she said, plaintively, "But everyone's trying to barbecue!" Don't let me ruin your barbecues. But with summer coming and the Heal the Bay beach report card out, you do want to keep some background facts in mind as you check your favorite beaches' grades along the coast (something you can do not only on a yearly basis, but on a weekly one, at Heal the Bay's tricked out site). Without further ado, your Memorial Day list of five things to know about your beaches. 

1. The LA River is still a fecal bacteria freeway. It's got a thousand-square mile drainage, for crying out loud. And where does it come from? Uh, everywhere. 

So as a consequence, the place you don't want to be is Long Beach. According to a document on file with the state water board: 

Bacteria sources in the Los Angeles River Watershed include anthropogenic and nonanthropogenic sources and point and nonpoint sources.  Each of these sources contributes to the elevated levels of bacteria indicator densities in the Los Angeles River Watershed during dry and wet weather.  

Point sources are places everyone expects water to get discharged from - treatment plants. Nonpoint sources includes wildlife & birds, onsite wastewater treatment systems, equestrian activities, and yes, people. 

Until everyone stops treating it like a sewer, what comes out of it is gonna be a little gross. State regulators are stepping up action - they're on track to approve a TMDL (= total maximum daily load - a limit) for bacteria. They're scheduled to do that next month. 

2. It's clearer, and clearer, and clearer, that storm water management is the key problem to deal with. Again, from the state water board: 

While there are many sources of indicator bacteria, discharges from the municipal separate storm sewer system (MS4) are the principle source of bacteria to the Los Angeles River and its tributaries in both dry weather and wet weather.  During the dry weather, discharges from storm drains and tributaries contribute roughly 13% of the flow in the Los Angeles River but almost 90% of the E. coli loading. 

Translation: when it's stormy, the stormwater is the problem. When it's not stormy, the stormwater system's STILL the problem. 

This year’s (April 2010 – March 2011) report shows 46% of the 324 statewide locations monitored during wet weather received fair to poor (C–F) grades. In Southern California, 50% of sampling locations earned fair to poor wet weather grades. Is the message getting through, as Heal the Bay hammers this every year? Maybe. LA's stormwater project, for example, actually has enough poems not only to have a stormwater poem contest, but to have some winners.  

3. Nobody really tests for viruses. Kind of like in This is Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tufnel says, "you can't really dust for vomit." We do know that testing for what they test for is the most reliable method approved. In 1995, an epidemiological study from USC, the Orange County Sanitation District, the city of Los Angeles and Heal the Bay, done as part of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project, established a link between indicator bacteria and stuff that makes people sick. Virus testing is still really unreliable. So's fast bacteria testing. Which brings us to: 

4. EPA is gonna make new recommendations about bacteria testing by the end of this year. Cause they have to: it's the requirement of a consent decree with the Natural Resources Defense Council - Mark Gold talks about this in his Spouting Off blog:

Conference participants asked if the new criteria would be as protective as the existing ones. (Current criteria are based on an 8 in a 1,000 risk of stomach flu for swimmers at freshwater beaches and 19 in 1,000 for ocean beaches).  Also, they asked if the criteria would allow states, cities or counties to develop site-specific rules.  And would beach monitoring programs be required to use rapid methods to quantify fecal bacteria densities in a few hours rather than waiting until the next day?

Beach advocates are hoping and expecting and praying to get a look at new proposed testing procedures next month in New Orleans. But I don't think expectations are too high for too many changes. 

Gold's blog also talks about work by Heal the Bay and Stanford University to find funding for a predictive model for beach water quality. Other parts of the country are already doing that sort of forecasting publicly. 

5. It's not at all clear who's going to pay for beach funding in the future. Except in Los Angeles. This might be the biggest beach bummer of all: everything fundingwise has been a little bit of a mess since 2008, when the Governator's budget-balancing efforts included vetoing funding from the state for beach testing. The state water board put the funding back, at least through last summer. Then the state approved reccovery act money to get through last fall. Funding's covered - again by the state water resources control board - through the end of this year. That's the extent of long term plans. 

Heal the Bay's report card points out that there is no secured state source of funding for beach monitoring in 2012 - and argues that federal money - half a million dollars from the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act is "woefully inadequate."

If you're in LA, you're in luck. "Los Angeles County has been able to continue sampling and protecting public health as before," writes the Heal the Bay team "This is due to the structure of the program, sewage treatment plant and stormwater permit monitoring requirements, and the shared monitoring responsibilities between agencies in the county."

And if you're out anywhere from Mexico to the central coast today, have a great time - and report back here with the conditions you see at your favorite spots!