A $60,000 water circulation pump installed by the county two months ago so far has failed to reduce pollution that has kept Marina del Rey's only public beach closed since October.
The pump was installed April 8 with the hope that it would help reduce fecal bacteria counts to safe levels, allowing the county to reopen the beach by the end of April. But county officials now say it is unlikely that swimmers and windsurfers will be allowed to enter the waters off the beach before the end of June.
The beach, at the western end of the marina's Basin D, was closed by county health department officials when a sewage spill at the nearby Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant contaminated beaches up and down the Santa Monica Bay coast.
Bacteria levels returned to safe limits several days after the spill at every beach except the marina. The high bacteria levels at the marina's beach have forced the county to keep it closed ever since.
The presence of fecal coliform bacteria indicates the placid waters at the beach are contaminated with feces from warm-blooded animals, said Satoshi Miyata, a senior sanitary specialist for the county's Department of Health Services. He said the health department is unable to determine if the source is human, other mammals or shore birds.
"If the count is high I would not go in there," Miyata said. "If you drink that water you could certainly get ill."
The pump, installed in 10 to 15 feet of water just outside the swimming zone, mixes air from the surface with cleaner water from deeper in the marina and forces it toward the beach at a rate of 1,100 gallons a minute. Mixing the water with air adds oxygen to the water, which can retard the growth of the bacteria.
"The pump approach is the most expedient approach. It was designed to enable us to open the beach," said Larry Charness, chief of planning for beaches and harbors, which administers county-owned Marina del Rey.
However, the pump has been shut down numerous times since its installation, Charness said. "There was a problem with the (water) intake. Material was getting into the pump and blocking the flow, so we added a screen," he said.
The pump has operated continuously since May 19. Bacteria counts initially dropped within federal safety limits but quickly rose again to hazardous levels, Charness said.
The beach cannot be reopened until water samples taken at five locations near the beach are below federal limits for three consecutive weeks, he said.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency limit for fecal coliform bacteria is 400 per 100 milliliters of water, said the health department's Miyata.
Five water samples taken at the beach on May 16 contained from 3,000 to 16,000 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water.
Tests taken May 23, four days after the pump resumed operation, showed a dramatic reduction. Bacteria levels ranged from 110 to 300, all within the safety limit.
But tests taken on May 31 show a sharp increase in bacteria, with one test within safety limits but the other four tests running as high as 9,000 bacteria per 100 milliliters.
"We attribute this to the pump not running long enough to stabilize the bacteria level in the water," Charness said. Results from water samples taken last week will not be available until Monday or Tuesday, he said.
"If all goes well we will not be able to open the beach before June 27," Charness said.
Until then, lifeguards will continue to prevent people from entering the water at the beach, dubbed "Mothers' Beach" because mothers with small children often used the beach's shallow waters.
The closure of the beach is not only an inconvenience to swimmers but a financial blow to two windsurfing equipment businesses that have county permits allowing them to operate windsurfing schools in the placid basin.
"This is incredibly detrimental to us," said Jeff Lengyel, owner of La Planche in Santa Monica. La Planche usually takes in almost $1,000 a week from windsurfing classes conducted off Mothers' Beach during the summer.
"It is like one of the arteries of our business has been severed," he said.
Tara Schweitzer's Windsurfing West conducts windsurfing classes year-round at the beach. During the summer season Schweitzer usually takes in about $1,800 a week from windsurfing lessons.
"It's a loss of revenue and it also hurts the sport in this area," she said.
"This is the only place you are allowed to teach (windsurfing) in Los Angeles County," Schweitzer said. "It is a good place to teach because it is shallow (with) flat water, and the wind blows lightly out of the right direction."
Schweitzer said she is convinced that the contamination comes from boat owners illegally dumping their sewage into the marina.
But Charness said: "We don't know of any major violation of the harbor ordinance on sewage."
He said county workers have checked all sewage lines running through the area and ruled them out as the source of the pollution. Officials also do not think the current contamination has anything to do with the October sewage spill from Hyperion.
Charness said the county will probably hire a consultant to do some "environmental detective work" to find the source of the pollution at the beach.
"I think if we don't identify the source we will never solve the problem," Charness said.