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THE STATE OF THE BEACHES : Winter's storms may be only a dim memory, but after months of cleanup, there are stretches still littered with debris.


See piers splinter. Watch the Ventura and Santa Clara rivers swell and top their banks, tearing loose trees, picnic tables, tires, chemical drums and refrigerators, then belching these great gobs of gunk into the ocean. Powerful surf deposits the sodden mass on county beaches, leaving splintered-wood jumbles 10 feet high, trees jammed into jetties, golf balls, strawberries, snakes and rotted high-top sneakers.

The record-breaking series of storms that began Jan. 3 produced the worst flooding in the county since 1968, and left behind a mess that awed even experienced hands.

"Every winter leaves debris on the beach and every spring we have to clean it up," said Ventura Public Works Director Ron Calkins. "But those efforts are dwarfed by what happened this winter."

Steve White, lifeguard supervisor for the state Parks and Recreation Department, had one word to describe it: "incomprehensible."

With summer nearly upon us, we embarked on a beach patrol to see how humankind has undone nature's damage. We spent days surveying the beaches, a selfless task undertaken to spare you the inconvenience of loading up the car, the cooler and the sun block only to arrive at a beach that resembles a brier patch.

The following is a rundown of beaches, from the county line on the Rincon down to Port Hueneme:

La Conchita/Mussel Shoals: During the storms, these beaches received little mention, overshadowed by the events just across the Ventura Freeway, where huge chunks of muddy hillside were slurping into the living rooms and streets of La Conchita.

In contrast, La Conchita's beach weathered the storms fairly well. The beach in front of the small Mussel Shoals community is clean. Just to the north, along the wall that rises up along the freeway, there's more debris, some of it quite large: whole trees and big branches, bark peeling, undersides blistered white by the sun.

Most of the big stuff, however, is clustered around culverts. Away from the culverts, the debris thins out into broken sticks and bamboo, though there's still a substantial amount of it. The good news: The beach below the high tide line is clean and smooth.

"The debris is disappearing--it's gradually washing away," said Florence Reynolds, a Mussel Shoals resident of 13 years. "I think this beach is going to be beautiful all summer long."

Oil Piers: This beach, about a mile south of La Conchita, gets its name from the two oil piers that jut into the water. Long ago, someone spray-painted the words "Keep Clean. No Trash" on the guardrail along the road abutting the beach. Mother Nature must have paid attention. The beach between the piers is fine, white sand. Just to the north of the northernmost pier (a beach popular with Jet Ski riders), there is some debris, but most of it is well up and away from the beach, a sinuous line of broken sticks and branches marking an ultra high tide.

The Rincon Parkway: The beaches along the Rincon Parkway are small and washed clean regularly by the tides. There's no debris on them at all, though oftentimes there's no beach, either, making it a damp place to stake a towel.

Faria Beach: The surf here is mostly calm, and low tide exposes some great tide pools, so this is a popular family beach. Faria has been scoured clean, again because high tides generally reach right up to the rock wall that abuts the old Pacific Coast Highway.

Ventura Pier: The pier took a tremendous beating during the storms: about 60 of its pilings washed up on the beach, each of them roughly 45 feet long and weighing over a ton. This didn't do much for the beach surrounding the pier, which was already being drowned in debris spewing out of the Ventura River.

The area north of the pier, to Surfers Point, is the responsibility of the city of Ventura, as is a span of beach that extends roughly 100 yards south of the pier.

In terms of debris, this area was the county's ground zero.

"When I first saw the beach around the pier, I knew it was going to be an incredible amount of work," said Ventura Parks Supervisor Terry Murphy. "We'd cleaned up from storms before, but the material was smaller. It wasn't whole trees."

The city started cleanup the week after the storm, first picking up hazardous waste materials--propane fuel canisters, unlabeled drums, oil containers--along with trash. California Land Clearing of Ventura was hired to haul the big debris off the beach and dump it at Oxnard's Bailard Landfill. City workers, federally funded work crews and volunteers separated trash, rocks and wood, which were hauled off, too. The city also hosted what was informally dubbed "Woodstock '95" for two weekends, when the public was allowed to drive onto the beach near the pier and take wood, a program Murphy said saved the city $16,000.

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