Closing a gap health officials say left people vulnerable to disease-causing microbes in the surf, Ventura County supervisors on Tuesday approved a program to routinely test the water and warn beachgoers of pollution hazards.
The unanimous decision is tacit acknowledgment more needs to be done to protect people from pollution, and it ends years of protests from surfers and others who complained fever, nausea and diarrhea after a beach trip were almost as common as sunburn.
"It's a major win for not just surfers, but all beachgoers. It's a benefit for tourists and residents," said Brian Brennan, a Ventura city councilman and member of the Surfrider Foundation, which has long pressed for public notification about ocean conditions in Ventura County.
Beginning Oct. 1, weekly water samples will be collected at 15 Ventura County beaches. Although specific beaches have not been selected, likely candidates include Rincon Creek, Silver Strand and Hueneme.
Beaches swarming with excessive levels of bacteria from human waste will be posted with keep-out signs. Similar warnings will be available by Nov. 1 via the Internet, press releases and a toll-free hotline, said Donald W. Koepp, director of the county's environmental health division.
Though graced with miles of beautiful shoreline, Ventura County is the only place in Southern California that does not routinely test for pollution and alert people of the danger. Such steps are taken only during sewage spills.
Increasingly, however, the worst sewage pollution emanates from a multitude of small sources, from leaky septic tanks to recreational vehicle discharges to migrant workers and transients defecating near streams.
Regardless of the source, it all flows downhill via gutters, creeks and rivers that spill into the ocean. The worst pollution is typically found at storm drains and the mouths of rivers. Said Koepp: "We're at the end of the pipe."
"[The ocean] used to be a place you went to to heal and de-stress, but the problem is getting worse and worse," Bill Stratton, a frequent swimmer at Faria Beach near Ventura, told supervisors. "Wouldn't it make sense to start dealing with the problem before we become the Bangladesh of beaches?"
Although beachgoers have long voiced those concerns, it was a pronouncement by Dr. Robert W. Levin, the county health officer who warned of an unacceptable health risk, that ultimately swayed the board.
But the supervisors expressed serious reservations about who pays for the program, expected to cost $207,000 in the first year.
County and state funds will ensure the program continues through June 30 of next year. However, a state law that mandates the program begin not later than April 1999 has an escape provision that allows counties to discontinue it if Sacramento fails to provide sufficient funds.
"Every time something comes up, it's the good old county that gets to do it. We need some more partners here," Supervisor Susan K. Lacey said.
As part of the conditions for approving the program, the supervisors directed county agencies to secure agreements with other local governments to help pay for the program.
They reasoned that cities should help pay since they benefit from tourism dependent on clean beaches. Other revenue sources to be explored include fines paid to the state for sewage spills and assorted violations of the Clean Water Act.
Among communities that test ocean water quality and have expressed interest in participating in a wider program are the city of Ventura and Santa Barbara County.
In an Aug. 4 letter, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gail Marshall asked Ventura County to participate in a joint program to monitor water quality at Rincon Beach, one of Southern California's most popular year-round surf sites.
A meeting to discuss that program, among other water quality concerns, is scheduled for 6 p.m. tonight in Carpinteria.
The program the supervisors approved Tuesday does not require cleanup of the pollution sources that lead to beach closures. That is an ongoing job involving local, state and federal agencies that will continue for years.
"A lot of people think once we have this program, our beaches will be clean, like there's a magical connection," Lacey said.
Nonetheless, Levin praised the decision to begin posting pollution warnings as an important first step toward cleaning beaches.
"It leads to a cascade effect, where over the years, attention focuses on those polluted areas and how to clean them up," Levin said.