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California and the West

Beach Closings Reach Record Levels in State

Environment: Survey finds 3,547 instances of pollution problems last year.


California's fabled coastline is far more polluted than previously thought. From San Diego to San Francisco, hundreds of new areas were closed or posted last year because of dangerous ocean bacteria, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council released Thursday.

Beaches along the state's 1,100-mile coast were closed for the day or posted with warnings a record 3,547 times, more than half of the national total of 6,160, according to the study. And while the nation saw a 15% decline in reports of polluted beaches from 1998 to 1999, California's numbers grew 8%.

The problem is particularly acute in the Southern California counties of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Santa Barbara, the report found.

Some of the increase was the result of changes in state law that went into effect last year, requiring more stringent monitoring. California now has one of the toughest programs in the country. But that testing shows the water we swim, surf and fish in is often loaded with pollution.

"The more we look, the more problems we find," said Alex Helperin, an attorney with the environmental watchdog group.

On any given day in Southern California, miles of beaches were off-limits or posted with signs warning that water contact could cause illness. The ocean off Rincon Beach and Rincon Point, legendary surf spots in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, was a health hazard for 116 days last year. Sewage, animals droppings and urban runoff regularly fouled Doheny State Beach, a bird-watchers' paradise off Dana Point, spiking bacteria counts to unsafe levels for nearly half of 1999.

The survey of 230 coastal and Great Lakes communities was conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and data were compiled and analyzed by the council.

Reaction to the numbers was mixed, with many state officials and academics saying the study was a troubling but accurate snapshot, especially of often invisible pollutants contained in runoff. Los Angeles County officials, who were cited in the report along with Orange County for underreporting the number of beach advisories, said the watchdog group is overstating the problems.

But Carl Safina, a recently named MacArthur Fellow for his study of the world's oceans, said that the study should be considered a "minimal estimate" and that he believes pollution problems are much worse in California and elsewhere.

"Most people think that . . . ocean pollution comes from oil spills and from ships, which is a tiny percent of what actually gets into the ocean," Safina said. "Much more pollution gets into the ocean from farms, livestock, farm pesticides, lawn chemicals and human sewage and industrial chemicals that get into air and then fall into the ocean. [Runoff] is by far the biggest source of ocean pollution."

Runoff was cited as a major problem in the Golden State--at least 47% of high bacteria counts were caused by pollutants that washed off streets and lawns into storm drains that eventually dump into the ocean, according to the study.

"Runoff is the No. 1 threat to public health and water quality at this time in California," said Mary Nichols, the governor's secretary of resources. "We've made major progress in other areas of toxic pollution. In our storm water runoff, we see both chemicals and biological pathogens that are harmful to people and harmful to the environment. . . . It's absolutely critical to get this problem under control."

The problem is particularly acute in Southern California, which included four counties that reported the highest number of beach closure and posting days. Santa Barbara County reported 1,392 postings last year, almost all because of urban, agricultural and creek runoff. San Diego came in second with 685 closings and postings. More than 75% of Orange County's 502 postings were because of elevated bacteria from contaminated runoff.

More than 90% of Los Angeles County's 460 postings and closures were from elevated bacteria from unknown causes, suspected to be runoff. Los Angeles has "one of the worst storm water problems in the nation," the study said.

Los Angeles County health officials disputed that conclusion.

"The overwhelming majority of beach areas are safe and good every day of the year, except when it rains," said Jack Petralia, director of environmental protection in the county's Department of Health Services. He said some runoff problems, such as pollution after rain storms, is simply unavoidable.

Others state officials found the California numbers particularly disconcerting because they had expected a turnaround last year.

State officials and activists knew the 1998 numbers would be high, because heavy El Nino rains flooded sewage systems and washed loads of pollutants into the ocean. But 1999, a La Nina year with near drought-like conditions, which means fewer sewage problems and runoff, should have shown far lower numbers than 1998, according to the report. The expected drop occurred across the rest of the nation, but not in California.

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