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Riding the Waves --and the Sludge

Pollution: In winter, they surf the best surf--and the worst water. And they get sick. And they still surf. That's life.

February 23, 1996|DENNIS ROMERO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The sickness hits you slowly. Your body winds down like a turntable unplugged. Your muscles ache as if they've been bruised in a pro wrestling match. Your throat feels like Sam Kinison's must have after a show.

It all starts with a morning of surfing in Venice. The jetty is firing off fun little faces that break right-handed. It's the day after a storm, so the swell is swell. Except for all the trash in the water that collects near the right-angled jetty--which forms nature's own toilet bowl.

A friend duck-dives under a wave and comes up with a black trash bag on his foot. You surf around a milk carton. After a set of waves, the water froths like a boiling bowl of pasta, leaving sticky orange bubbles on the surface. Later that night, you sleep . . . until the next night.

As sure as the swallows come back to Capistrano, surfers ride the sludge of Southern California. It's an annual ritual. Winter brings the best surf--storm surf. But storms bring funky runoff, sewer overflow and trash from inland. Eighty percent of local ocean pollution, experts say, comes from runoff.

"A lot of the best surf happens in the worst water," says Steve Hawk, editor of Surfer magazine.

And every year, surfers get sick. They've grown so accustomed to the ritual of sickness, they give surf breaks narcissistic names like "putrids."

They're toxic surfers--guys like Paul Gomez, who in 1994 became so ill after surfing the Santa Ana River jetties in Newport Beach that he was hospitalized and required a CT scan.

That same year, Jason Murphy sued the city of San Diego after he contracted a bacterial infection from--he said--surfing down-current from a leaking sewer pipe. He lost his case, mostly because it's been nearly impossible to prove that your infection comes from that there water. Around that time, legendary surfboard maker Al Merrick watched as his sweat pants disintegrated after he walked through water of dubious quality at the Santa Clara River mouth in Ventura.

"One time I got impetigo from surfing out at Malibu," says Lee Westfall, 44. He used to get sick two to three times a year, he says. "Now I've been staying out of the water when it rains."

*

"Taxi Driver" is playing at the Nuart theater in West L.A., and Robert De Niro tells us that he wishes a big storm would come and wash away all the filth of the city.

He means it metaphorically, but that's what's happening this night in L.A. as the movie rolls along in its own rainy melancholy. All the trash, all the car oil, pesticides, dirt, smog that we produce in this 16-million-person region is getting washed directly into the Pacific.

The next morning in Venice, a baby's blue balloon, wrinkled and partly deflated, floats north along the high-tide line like Forrest Gump's feather. It bobs over a yellow Penzoil bottle, plastic foam cups (7-Eleven, El Pollo Loco and Carl's Jr.), an empty packet of Buzz Herbal Drink ("Be Alert, Look Alive, Think Fast") and two dead pigeons.

The trash line becomes a border between urbanity and the ocean frontier. We try to invade, but the ocean just piles the wall higher.

Dark, fluffy clouds loom like wet swaths of cotton. The ocean is brown and angry. A sandpiper picks through blackened sand and hot-steps it away from a plastic Baggie offered up by the tide. Airplanes soar overhead, spread out like proud Olympic divers.

Only steps away, on the edge of a beach parking lot, a black trash can is at the ready. But it is surrounded by an empty trash bag, a cardboard box, a cigarette butt and an empty box of Haagen-Dazs Vanilla & Dark Chocolate Ice Cream. The trash can is half full--or half empty, depending on how you look at it.

Twenty-five paces away is surfer Roy Ballard, manning his otherwise unpopulated surf shop, Ocean Echo. "I think it's a shame," he says, "that we're trying to be such a tourist attraction and yet have some of the dirtiest beaches in the world."

*

Each winter, it seems, more surfers get sick. Common ailments include flu-like symptoms, bowel disorders, eye infections and respiratory infections. Although groups such as Heal the Bay say the water is actually getting cleaner, surfers always seem to come out of the water with strange strains of infection.

"There's just too many anecdotes," says Surfer's Hawk.

"Over the long term, we are making strides," says Pierce Flynn, executive director of the Surfrider Foundation, an environmental group of ocean users. "But overall, it's not acceptable. There's more guys in the water."

One problem with trying to correct the situation is establishing a legal link between illness and the ocean. Although doctors say the only other way surfers could get some of these ailments is by licking a toilet, an indisputable connection to dirty water has yet to be made.

Still, more politicians are recognizing that there is funky water and that it hurts the environment, the economy and tourism. Surfrider is working with area governments to divert runoff into sewage treatment plants and to add trash-catching booms to area rivers and filters to gutters. And when Caltrans designs new freeways, it will now have to take trash and runoff into account.

In the meantime, health officials say surfers should stay out of the sea for three days after a storm. But, stubborn as they are, surfers will continue to be the environment's measuring stick.

"Surfers are the people with the highest exposure to ocean water and the ones with the highest risk," Flynn says. "Surfers are the canaries in the coal mine."

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