Health warnings were removed from Los Angeles-area beaches Friday afternoon for the first time in six days, but the unsafe bacteria levels could return the next time heavy rains wash the residues of urban life off streets and into the ocean.
Los Angeles County health officials, after reviewing water samples taken Wednesday, declared the surf safe everywhere except inside Marina del Rey, where the tidal action needed to recirculate and dilute the contaminated seawater is weakened by breakwaters.
Although the beaches will be open this weekend, questions remain about the need for closing such a long stretch of coast--from Malibu south to San Pedro--and for keeping the beaches closed over a prolonged time period.
Signs were first posted to warn swimmers and surfers of a potential health hazard after an overflow from Los Angeles city sewers during heavy rains last weekend. Tests at the time by the city and Los Angeles County Department of Health Services found levels of bacteria far in excess of the maximum allowed by state regulations.
However, the two agencies disagree markedly on whether the bacteria was due to the sewage overflow or due to contaminated runoff from storm drains.
County health officials have maintained that the beaches were posted because of the sewage overflow, which occurred near Marina del Rey. Jack Petralia, acting chief of environmental management, said the posting was part of a new policy to alert the public immediately after sewage leaks and to keep the warnings in force until full bacterial tests can be performed.
The signs were posted so widely "as a precaution," he said, and they stayed up until Friday because of the lag time in analyzing the tests. The water in Santa Monica Bay was actually safe as of Wednesday, the county tests found.
Los Angeles sanitation officials, who believe that the city was erroneously blamed for the high bacteria levels, complained earlier this week that the bacteria in Santa Monica was due to contaminated storm drain runoff and they offered more evidence Friday to back this up.
City biologists, who test Santa Monica Bay waters daily, said that samples of storm runoff down Ballona Creek last Saturday contained much more enterococcus bacteria than the 4.1 million gallons of chlorinated city sewage that overflowed. The finding refutes an assertion by county health officials that high levels of enterococcus found in the bay were from the sewage, Deputy Mayor Mike Gage said.
On Thursday, the city had released tests that showed the storm runoff also carried far higher levels of another bacteria, coliform, than the sewage that overflowed. Both types of bacteria are taken to indicate the presence of human waste.
Scientists and the federal Environmental Protection Agency have known for many years that the runoff that flows down storm drains in urban areas poses a serious problem. In its rush to the ocean, the runoff collects animal droppings, dripped oil from streets, tainted soil, toxic metals and the residue that falls to the ground daily from the exhaust--in Los Angeles at least--of millions of automobiles.
These contaminated rivers of rainwater flow unchecked into the Pacific, and some studies have shown that during a storm the runoff can empty more pollutants into local oceans than even the huge pipes that dump treated sewage off Playa del Rey and San Pedro.
"Fecal coliform over the years has always gone up right after a storm," said Jack Anderson, director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, which conducts research for state and local agencies.
City Sanitation Director Delwin Biagi said this week that he has asked county health officials many times to alert the public that surf on local beaches contains possibly unsafe levels of bacteria after storms.
The EPA, after completing a four-year, $28-million study that identified toxic metals and other pollutants in urban storm runoff, has proposed regulations that could force cities and counties to spend millions--even billions--to protect the oceans.
But county health officials said they consider the evidence of a threat from storm runoff unclear, and have repeatedly said the beaches were posted only because of the sewage.