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Southland Is U.S. Leader in Beach Closures

Pollution: The region's shore had one in three of the nation's beach shutdowns in 2001, up since 2000. Strict monitoring is one reason.

July 25, 2002|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California is the "national epicenter" of coastal pollution, with one in three U.S. beach closures and warnings occurring between Rincon Beach in Ventura County and the Mexican border, a national environmental group reported Wednesday.

The Natural Resources Defense Council's 12th annual "Testing the Waters" study shows that beach closures and warnings due to pollution were up across the nation and in California last year. Orange County led the way with 1,592 closures and advisories in 2001--81% higher than the previous year.

Each of Southern California's four coastal counties had more closures and warnings than any state. Health officials say California leads the nation in testing coastal waters in a proactive effort to safeguard the public.

"It's true that part of that reality is because we do a better job monitoring," said David Beckman, a senior attorney with the environmental group's Los Angeles office.

But more than "5,000 closures and advisories in four counties is still a significantly big problem by any manner of arithmetic," he said.

Monica Mazur, spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Care Agency, attributed much of the jump to the new practice of including data from shorelines where creeks empty into the ocean. Creeks carry urban runoff, and high bacteria counts tend to be found at their mouths. The number of sewage spills that hit local beaches also rose from 40 to 51, and resulted in more closures in 2001 than the previous year, she said.

Beckman said authorities in other states are following California's lead, better monitoring coastal waters and alerting the public when beaches are unsafe. Still, the council's report said municipal agencies must do more to curb runoff from streets, homes and businesses that is tainting coastal waters.

Regional water regulators are imposing tougher restrictions on such runoff. But builders and many cities and counties in Southern California are fighting new measures, arguing that the cost is too great and there is no proof the measures will prevent coastal pollution.

Council officials said that argument is shortsighted.

"The equation is devastatingly simple," Beckman said. "Pavement causes pollution and pollution closes beaches."

Jeff Hobbs, spokesman for the Coalition for Practical Regulations, which represents 46 cities in Los Angeles County and is fighting new runoff regulations there, disagreed.

"You won't find one city official in Southern California who says, 'I don't support clean water,' " Hobbs said. "We are on the same side as the environmentalists who are pushing for this. We want clean water. But we don't think unsound and flimsy science is the way to do it."

Solutions aside, the report documented 13,410 closures and advisories at ocean and freshwater beaches across the nation in 2001, a 19% increase over 2000. High bacteria levels, indicating the presence of human or animal waste, prompted 87% of the closures and warnings.

In California, there were 6,568 closures and warnings, plus 13 extended and 36 permanent closures, a 14% increase over 2000 and the fifth consecutive annual increase. Coastal tourism pours about $52 billion into the state's economy and supports 707,000 related jobs.

More stringent monitoring requirements explain many of the early increases, but testing standards have been stable in recent years, council officials said. Health officials began monitoring 14 new beaches, which led to 124 additional closures and advisories. More rainfall in 2001 also was cited as a contributing factor.

Southern California accounted for most of the postings and warnings. In addition to Orange County, Ventura County saw an 80% jump in closures and postings, reporting 1,540 in 2001. In Los Angeles, there was a 17% dip to 1,046, and San Diego saw a 31% decline to 931. Beckman attributed the drops to year-to-year variations, efforts to curb urban runoff such as a new treatment facility in Santa Monica, and a change in how beaches are monitored in San Diego County. Testing locations were moved from the mouths of storm drains to a distance away, allowing runoff to be diluted before the water is tested.

Council officials praised the Los Angeles and San Diego Regional Water Quality Control boards for enacting tough new runoff rules in Los Angeles, Ventura, San Diego and southern Orange counties. Some members of the two boards criticized cities, counties and builders that are fighting the regulations.

"The long-term good of the many must outweigh the short-term greed of the few," said H. David Nahai, a member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Builders and municipal officials said the rules are questionable.

"It's ridiculous to think anyone wants dirty water," said Tim Piasky, director of environmental affairs for the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California. The group supports regional solutions, rather than regulating on a site-by-site basis.

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