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RECREATION : Surfers Put Ocean Waters to Test : In dry weather, the Surfrider Foundation performs a weekly analysis to determine levels of coliform bacteria.

April 15, 1993|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You won't find Delia Gorey surfing off the Ventura County coast right after a storm. She prefers to wait at least 48 hours. Gorey's husband won't hit the waves for 72 hours after the rains.

As far as the couple are concerned, these are strictly precautionary measures.

"I've gotten sick from being out in storm water," said Delia Gorey. "When you come in contact with polluted water, especially with your head, which has all the major orifices of the body with the exception of two, those orifices are perfect entryways for disease."

Gorey is chairwoman of the Ventura County Surfrider Foundation's Blue Water Task Force. Since October, members of the environmental group have kept a close watch on the coliform bacteria level in ocean water from the Rincon to Oxnard shores. Coliform bacteria comes from fecal matter.

The task force administers the EPA-approved tests weekly in dry times and up to three times a week when it's raining. As rain washes out storm drains, more bacteria finds its way to the ocean.

During the dry months of late 1992, said Gorey, 20% of the tested water samples contained levels of coliform bacteria considered unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1993, the totals have been 80% in a wet January and 60% in a drier February. March results aren't in yet, but Gorey anticipates that fewer than 50% of the test sites will be found unsafe.

But the gradual decrease has done little to assuage Gorey's concern.

"I'm alarmed that the water is unusable after storm events," she said.

Dr. Tom Millington, an east county family practitioner specializing in the care of ocean divers, has seen an increase this year in an ailment he calls "diver's ear." He attributes it to the increase in coliform bacteria in the ocean.

"Water from the contaminated bacteria gets in the outer ear," he said. "It can lead to a real severe earache and a swollen outer ear." Millington said swimmer's ear is usually more common among warm-water swimmers.

"Swimmer's ear is caused by a couple of different fungi and bacteria. One of the bacteria is pseudomonas. It usually lives in temperate water. So normally you don't see (ocean) swimmers with swimmer's ear," he said. "Just the fact there is so much more bacteria in the water (means) it gets in the outer ear, pools, and starts to cause the infection."

Coliform bacteria could cause stomach problems as well.

"If you get a mouthful," said Millington, "probably the most you'll get is mild stomach flu symptoms--cramps, diarrhea--for 24 to 48 hours."

Of course, coliform isn't the only concern. When it comes to ocean pollutants, any number of things can rear their ugly heads after a rain. Rain itself collects air pollution as it falls in a process called "atmospheric scrubbing." Rain also washes materials from the ground into gutters and then out to sea.

The Surfriders are working with the county flood control office on a plan to put out warnings against dumping garbage in street gutters.

"Every time we let a dog (defecate) on the street, it winds up down the gutter and into the ocean," said Gorey. "We want people to get the picture that what happens on the streets ends up in the ocean." The plan is to have high school students stencil these warnings next to gutters throughout the county.

Gorey said state legislation requiring certain businesses to file storm water pollution prevention plans with local governments has helped the situation somewhat. Dan Radilescu, of the Los Angeles Regional Water Board, said the goal of this legislation is to cut down on the pollutants carried by storm water.

"Nothing is allowed to go into the storm drain except natural pollutants, and even that we try to minimize," he said. "In dry weather, there are all kinds of dust and spills. All the garbage is washed into the ocean in the first storm. We're trying to minimize that kind of pollution."

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