The main enemy of the ocean now, according to most environmentalists, is storm drains. For years they were unregulated, but starting next month the state will establish regulations for monitoring and managing urban run-off. "Sixty-eight storm drains empty directly into Santa Monica Bay, carrying everything from spilled motor oil to garbage to animal wastes to pesticides," Gold says. "It goes directly onto the beach without treatment."
After swimming near drains, beachgoers report skin rashes and eye and ear infections, he says. Heal the Bay's rule of thumb: Don't swim within 100 yards of a flowing storm drain, or anywhere within 48 hours after a storm. Unfortunately, only three of the 68 storm drains have signs indicating their presence, and about 10 flow year-round.
Farther south, Huntington Beach's oil spill also has raised anxieties about the state of the shore. In Orange County's worst environmental disaster, 390,000 gallons of Alaskan crude leaked from an offshore tanker, fouling more than 20 miles of coastline, in February. It took five weeks and millions of dollars in cleanup before the area was declared safe enough to be reopened. Moreover, a state report last month estimated that British Petroleum recovered barely a fifth of the crude.
But health and regulatory agencies concur that by far the worst pollution in California is at Imperial Beach in San Diego County. Every day, 13 million gallons of waste water flow down the Tijuana River from Tijuana. Since 1980, the mouth of the river, at Imperial Beach, has been quarantined, limiting beach activity to sunbathing.
This water is a nuisance not just to beachgoers. "Part of Imperial Beach is a federal estuary that is home to several endangered species of birds," says Peter Silva, assistant deputy director of San Diego's Clean Water Program. "It's one of the few salt marshes left on the West Coast. Any water, even if pure," threatens to alter the dynamics of the birds' ecosystem, he says.
The problem goes back to the '30s, when Tijuana and San Diego shared a common sewage outfall pipe. The sewage that Tijuana sent to sea was not adequately treated, and from time to time in the '40s, beaches as far north as Coronado were quarantined.
Tijuana has improved its sewage treatment since then, but its population has mushroomed. Silva says that the American and Mexican governments are soon expected to sign an agreement to treat Tijuana's sewage on the California side of the border and reroute the waste water. Most of the money would come from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
There may be hope, then, for beachgoers and for the least tern and least Bell's vireo (the endangered birds) as well.
SO, IF WE CAN'T TRUST the civility of the crowds or the purity of the water, at least we can be sure there will always be a nice stretch of sandy beach to plop down on, right? Wrong.
As is the natural order of things, beaches up and down the coast are constantly changing size and shape, some vanishing and others expanding. Sand hugs the shore strictly on a temporary basis: All of it is destined sooner or later to move into deep water. In the meantime, the action of the waves is relentlessly urging the sand southward.
Our "improvements" have altered nature's course along the coast. Early this century, at Newport Beach, the Santa Ana River was diverted out of upper Newport Bay and the mud flats of the bay were dredged to give the Balboa Peninsula its beautiful straight beach (the peninsula itself dates only from 1862, when it was created by a single storm) and to create Lido Isle. These are not the only artificial beaches: Mission Bay in San Diego is man-made. In fact, says George Armstrong, manager of the California Beach Erosion Control Program, "almost all the beaches from Santa Barbara south are man-maintained." If they weren't, some of the most popular beach spots would change shape--and maybe disappear.
One of the classic worst cases of meddling with nature on the California coast occurred in Oceanside, in San Diego County. During World War II, the Navy built a harbor for Camp Pendleton; almost immediately the down-coast beaches of Carlsbad and Solana Beach began to shrink. Dredging sand at Oceanside has been necessary ever since. But dump trucks deposit the sand on the beach in single loads, unlike the natural way rivers deliver it. "It's out of equilibrium" says Dana Whitson, principal assistant to the city manager of Oceanside. "The waves remove the bulge at an accelerated rate."