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Orange County

A Downside to Weekend's Downpour

The season's first big rainstorm leaves debris and higher ocean pollution levels.

November 13, 2002|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The first big rainstorm of the season left Southern California with crystal-clear skies and fresh-washed streets. But along the coast, dirty runoff from the storm left some beaches littered with debris and caused ocean pollution levels to spike.

"Everything that goes onto the streets is going to end up in the ocean eventually," said Eric Edwards, an environmental health specialist with Los Angeles County Health Department. Edwards said that along the Los Angeles County coast, weekend water pollution levels were the highest in a year and that it could take several more days before they decrease.

"We expect the bacteria levels to remain high through Wednesday, and we're hoping things will get back to normal by the end of the week," he said.

In Orange County, bacteria readings in ocean water tests performed over the weekend were so high that they exceeded the testing range of 16,000 organisms per 100 milliliters of water.

"It's going off scale," said Larry Honeybourne of the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Bacteria levels normally run high after a storm. But because of the lack of rain in the Southland, there has been no natural flushing of such pollutants as engine oil and exhaust particles that have settled on city streets. Other pollutants flowing to the ocean include fertilizers and animal waste.

Despite the pollution, most beaches remained open -- and offshore winds brought out surfers.

In Ventura, balmy weather and 4-foot swells from the storm's remnants beckoned veteran surfer Roger Rothwell to hit the waves. But after a while in the water, Rothwell complained about burning eyes.

"It's so uncomfortable out there. You can't shake it," said Rothwell, who was among a group of 30 surfers at the beach who complained of eye irritations.

Even though no beaches were closed, officials did issue warnings to swimmers at more than three dozen Southern California beaches, said Chad Nelsen, environmental director for the Surfrider Foundation.

The advisories suggest that swimmers avoid the ocean for at least 72 hours after a storm.

"We would prefer that people not really swim when there are advisories because they're swimming in water mixed with fertilizer and animal waste and everything else that is in the water," said Orange County's Honeybourne.

On Tuesday, lifeguards and beach operations were attacking another byproduct of the storm: the tons of trash that was swept off streets, down gutters and into the ocean.

"The beach is just covered with debris," said Pete Driscoll, a Seal Beach lifeguard. "I took a walk down there at the water's edge, and you can see everything from plants to plastic bottles to Styrofoam cups -- even shoes."

Seal Beach lies downstream of the San Gabriel River, which begins at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and snakes its way through dozens of cities in Los Angeles County before reaching the ocean at Seal Beach.

"If you look at that river," Driscoll said, "you can see the trash from millions of people floating on down from all the cities inland.

"It's just a lot of cities that that river goes through and it all ends up here."

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Times staff writer Massie Ritsch in Ventura contributed to this report.

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