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A CLOSER LOOK

He Tests the Waters 17 Times Most Days

If there's a beach closing, sampler Eddie Rabago may be partially responsible. His specimens reveal the amount of bacteria.

May 30, 2000|HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the early morning hours, as he drives his Jeep through the sands of 17 miles of Orange County coastline, surfers and other regulars ask Eddie Rabago one overwhelming question: "Dude, is the water OK?"

The 77-year-old "beach sampler" for the county's Sanitation District cuts a striking figure as he sets out at 4 a.m. from Sunset Beach to Crystal Cove on his five-hour route.

Rabago wears black rubber galoshes and carries a pole that looks like a metal detector except for the innocuous-looking little bottle at the end, which he carefully dips into the salty sea.

"I hope there's nothing here that doesn't belong," Rabago says as he carefully retrieves the bottle and slides it into an ice chest. On a form, he notes the temperature of the water, and makes observations about debris, kelp and anything else on shore. He paces the beach 100 feet both ways from where he took the sample to check for grease--a rare but telltale sign of raw sewage in the water.

Just days before the Fourth of July last year, Rabago made his usual rounds to 17 locations--all scenic California postcard locales. By the holiday weekend, thanks to his samples, miles of beach were closed to bathers.

The discovery of alarmingly high bacteria levels ultimately led authorities to close Huntington Beach much of last summer, stung the local economy, humbled the city's reputation as prime beachfront, and baffled scientists and politicos. It all began with the simple act of scooping 100 milliliters of water into a vial the size of an aspirin bottle.

The sanitation district spends more than $2 million a year on the ar

duous process of monitoring the waters that millions of people love to play in--although Rabago, a part-time worker, earns $12 an hour.

Within six hours of collecting samples, Rabago must deliver his little bottles to the Orange County Sanitation District headquarters in Fountain Valley. Rabago has never missed his deadline to get the samples collected and back in the lab in 16 years of "surfzone" monitoring.

Once the samples are at headquarters, laboratory workers mix each sample with a chemical broth, keep it in an incubator, and watch carefully over the next four days to see if harmful levels of bacteria begin to grow.

If chemists find more than 10,000 total coliform bacteria per hundred milliliters of water; 400 fecal coliform per hundred milliliters, or 104 enterococci bacteria per hundred milliliters, they've got a problem.

Then begins the round of calls that will get signs posted, beaches closed and surfers grumbling.

"Last summer was the worst I've had here at the district, with what happened at Huntington Beach," said Charles McGee, a microbiologist and laboratory supervisor for the sanitation district.

*

Previously, water quality agencies, by law, had to monitor and close beaches only if they found high levels of total coliform bacteria, McGee said. Last July, a new state law required officials also to test for fecal coliform and enterococci.

Although Rabago still takes the same amount of samples, the workload has tripled for laboratory workers at the district. McGee said district workers actually began the additional testing before the law went into effect.

Total coliform bacteria comes from soil, animals, plants and humans; fecal coliform, which includes E.coli and enterococci, are intestinal bacteria that can enter oceans through storm drains or sewage spills. They can cause illnesses ranging from diarrhea, to eye and ear infections to hepatitis.

Studies now suggest the mysteriously high bacteria levels at Huntington Beach came not from broken pipes or sewage-district-related accidents, but from one of the hardest things to control: urban runoff. Talbert Marsh is a likely source. It's a 25-acre wetland on the inland side of Pacific Coast Highway at Brookhurst Street.

"Anything people dump into the streets that goes into storm drains goes into the ocean untreated," McGee said.

*

For most of the year, Rabago and another beach sampler gather vials of water three days a week. But starting Memorial Day, and stretching into late October--as crowds of beach-goers swarm toward the coast--they make five weekday trips.

In 1984, Rabago was a foreman for American Meters, a gas meter company that moved its offices from Fullerton to Philadelphia. For a year, the then 61-year-old Rabago was kept on the payroll, guarding a ghost of a building as the company completed its move.

A friend who worked as a beach sampler for the Orange County sanitation district told Rabago about the work and asked him if he'd be interested. He has been there ever since, rising shortly after 2 a.m. in his Fullerton home, and starting work just after 4 a.m.

"It's the best therapy I could have gotten; it's kept me moving," said Rabago, whose agile motions belie his 77 years.

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