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California and the West

Spring Cleaning Kicks Into High Gear at Beaches

Coast: Crews are scrambling to remove an unusually large amount of El Nino debris, everything from dead goats to old refrigerators.


With temperatures starting to sizzle and people heading to Southern California beaches to welcome back summer, cleanup crews are scrambling to gather up the remaining souvenirs of an El Nino season that everyone is ready to forget.

Along the coastline from Ventura to San Diego counties, the scenario is the same: Beaches are littered with seemingly everything from driftwood to dead goats, all courtesy of a stormy winter and spring. Cleanup efforts are underway--a blur of dump trucks and tractors, along with crews shoveling, raking and sifting through refuse.

"It feels pretty good to be back in control," said Huntington city beach division crew leader Tim Turner as he reviewed his work. "It was pretty depressing when we first started. . . . I thought we would never finish . . . but in comparison to how it was, the beach is pristine again."

The debris is more than just an eyesore. It could pose a hazard to shoeless beach-goers, and no one wants to let the ocean sweep the pollution back in. It ranges from everyday litter such as cups and cans to more unusual junk, such as refrigerators, tires, uprooted trees and parts of marina docking.

In Santa Monica, cleanup crews came across a portable toilet and the remains of boats. In San Diego, maintenance crews found six dead goats and one whale washed ashore.

The debris came from all over, flushed out through storm channels, rivers, canals and other outlets that dump into the ocean. Some of the muck found on Orange County's shore came from as far as Ventura County, said Turner, who added that maintenance crews collected more than 2,000 tons of junk along Huntington Beach's nearly four-mile stretch of coastline.

But what to do with all this trash? Most of it is going to the local dump. Huntington Beach State Park had planned to pile it all up and burn it, but officials opted instead to haul it to a landfill, citing safety reasons.

For the first time, Ventura had its debris--more than 1,000 tons--hauled to a recycler and turned into mulch. The city's parks manager, Mike Montoya, believes that is a better way to go than the beach bonfires of past years.

"We're on the cutting edge. I don't know of anyone else recycling it around here. It's environmentally appropriate," he said.

Montoya said the problem with bonfires on the beach is that the wood "is still slightly moist when it's burned. So what occurs is a long, slow smoldering process. Offshore winds blow the ash inland."

In Santa Monica, beach grooming involves county firefighters leveling the sand berms used to protect homes during stormy weather. Maintenance crews have hauled away 196 tons of debris. "And that's not even a dent in the pile," said crew leader Paul Davis.

"It's going to be months before we get it all cleaned up. But the beach should be all ready for the crowds by Memorial Day weekend," he said.

More than 10,000 tons of debris have been gathered along 42 miles of San Diego coastline, according to beach maintenance manager Dennis Simmons. Crews "are about halfway done cleaning up the mess out there," said marine safety officer Charlie Wright. "They're working long hours to make sure it's all done by the beginning of summer," he said.

Some beachfronts fared better than others.

Most of the cleanup along San Clemente's beaches was done before Easter, said marine safety and recreation manager Lynn Hughes.

"What debris remains is more of a minor nuisance," Hughes said. "Our big problem is that the storms washed away a lot of beach sand, and luckily, it's beginning to return."

In Newport Beach, animal control officers have been responding to something other than debris washing ashore: sea lions, harbor seals and baby elephant seals, said officer Mike Teague. Some are dead, some are injured, and others are just pooped out.

"This is something that happens yearly, but we have seen a higher number of them this year. The storms were pretty rough on them this winter," he said.

The dead are buried, the injured are taken to Friends of the Sea Lion in Laguna Beach for treatment, and others are left alone.

"Some of them are just coming ashore to get some rest. They kick back for a while and then they're off again," he said. Teague warned beach-goers not to get too close to the animals. Those who disturb them violate a federal law and can be fined up to $10,000.

And just because they're cute doesn't mean they're harmless.

"People who try to pet them can get bitten quite severely," Teague said.

Many workers, like Turner, said they couldn't remember the last time the beaches were left so disheveled by winter.

"This was larger debris than I've ever seen before. My guess is that it came from the mountains of Santa Monica and Ventura, down through the storm channels, got blown out to sea, and with strong currents, ended up here," Turner said.

Over at Huntington Beach State Park, supervisor Tim St. John said he's thankful the end is near.

"We hope to be done cleaning the beach up in a couple of weeks," St. John said. "That is, if El Nino doesn't come back."

Correspondent Brenda Loree contributed to this story.

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