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California and the West

Pollution Surfaces at Rincon Point

Health: Discovery of virulent microbes forces Santa Barbara County officials to shut down beach, one of the most polluted in Southland.

October 05, 1998|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RINCON POINT — If surfing were a religion, which it virtually is along much of the California coast, this rocky little nub 15 miles north of Ventura would be sacred shore.

Winter swells peel around the point, grow into thunderous barrel rolls and launch board riders on runs so long and smooth that they become the stuff of legend.

"Rincon's a killer. . . . You can surf anything from a body board to a barn door out here," said Peter Berkey of Montecito, a surfer who pulled off U.S. 101 recently to inspect the waves.

But this year, swimmers and surfers are staying away, because a virulent brew of microbes is lurking inside the tubular breakers.

Santa Barbara County health officials have closed Rincon Point, or posted health advisories, every day except four between Jan. 1 and Oct. 4. The beach immortalized by the Beach Boys song, "Surfin' Safari," and known to surfers around the world as the "Queen of the Coast," now ranks as one of the most polluted stretches of shoreline in Southern California.

The discovery demonstrates that even far-flung parts of the California coast are no longer safe from pollution long identified with urban areas. The problem underscores the difficulty of making the nation's waters fit for swimming 26 years after passage of the Clean Water Act.

The origin of the contamination at Rincon Point is a mystery, although farms, septic tanks, horse corrals and orchards are suspected.

Whatever the cause, more pollution hot spots such as Rincon are bound to surface as new state laws take effect in April requiring more rigorous ocean water-quality testing, setting tougher standards and mandating public notification of hazardous conditions.

"We're going to see a huge rise in beach closures. If people are checking the water more frequently, they are going to find more pollution," said Catherine Kuhlman, associate director of the water division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's California office.

Rincon Point, and the two beaches that flank it on the boundary between Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, is a place of tranquillity and beauty. The only intrusion is a sign warning "Nudity Prohibited."

The danger may arise in the Santa Ynez Mountains, which tower above the beach. Rincon Creek flows past several dozen homes on Rincon Point on its way to the ocean.

Gerry Winant of the Santa Barbara County ocean water-monitoring program wades into the surf off Rincon each Monday and scoops up a water sample at the mouth of the creek. When the sample is analyzed, a shocking image emerges.

Some of the samples contain bacteria counts that are off the chart. Three times this year, Winant's instruments have measured 30,000 coliform organisms--the maximum their equipment measures. The health standard for coliform, an indicator of fecal material at which water is considered contaminated, is 10,000.

As a result, Rincon has been closed 105 days this year. On an additional 168 days, advisories have been posted warning surfers and swimmers to use the water at their own risk.

Excessive bacteria are the most common form of beach water pollution. Last year, 5,199 beaches were closed or health advisories were issued in the United States. About 69% of the time excessive bacteria was to blame, according to data released by the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council and endorsed by the EPA.

Storm water drains, including creeks, streams and flood control channels, are big polluters in rural areas. While laws have been passed to force factories and sewage treatment plants to clean up, there are no requirements to clean storm water drains in places like Rincon Point. A 1996 USC study of 15,492 swimmers at Santa Monica Bay found bathers at storm drains got sick 57% more than people swimming only 400 yards away.

Sicknesses caused by exposure to the microbes resemble flu-like symptoms, including fevers, severe stomach aches, vomiting, respiratory illness and ear, nose and throat problems. Some of the bacteria cause hepatitis and dysentery.

"It's shocking to people how much bacteria is in the water at beaches near places where there's storm water runoff, say a creek or rivers or storm drain," said Mark Pumford, environmental specialist for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which has jurisdiction over water quality in Ventura County.

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Santa Barbara and Ventura counties are poised to launch a joint study to pinpoint the origin of pollution at Rincon. Santa Barbara County has agreed to cover half the cost of the $25,000 study, and the Ventura County supervisors are expected to agree to cover the remainder at their Oct. 13 meeting.

Topping the list of contamination suspects are 72 homes plopped right on the shore in the exclusive Rincon Point gated community. Kevin Costner and other celebrities have homes there that rely on septic tanks.

Judith Meyer, a Rincon Point resident and microbiology professor at Santa Barbara City College, knew something was amiss at the beach by her home. Her son frequently became ill after he surfed, so she began testing the waters. The results stunned her.

"Nobody wanted to admit we had a problem," Meyer said. "They didn't want it to get out of the gate."

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