The winter was cold, the spring cloudy. The headlines were of war, disease and the lousy economy. Memorial Day weekend, that annual rite to welcome summer to Southern California, is arriving just in time.
For some, "summer means life," said Mike Abdelmuti, 58, owner of Jack's Surfboards near the foot of the municipal pier in Huntington Beach -- "Surf City" to anyone who knows anything about the sport. "It means life for everyone down here."
For others -- the dedicated year-round beachgoers -- these are the final days to savor solitude before crowds of lotion-slathered sun worshipers, tourists and summer-break kids descend.
Michael Olcott, 44, who lives in a Santa Monica apartment across the street from the sand, was one of those enjoying a last uncrowded day Wednesday.
"I don't like coming here when there's scads of people," he said, stretched out on a sheet on the beach.
"It's no good for roller-blading."
"It's nice weather today. When I got home, I thought I'd just go down and enjoy the sun," he said, surveying the sparsely populated beach. "This makes you appreciate California."
Nearby, Albuquerque native Sandy Lipiz lazed in a black bathing suit and sunglasses.
"I want to go home with a tan," the 57-year-old said.
They were the advance guard. If the weather holds, the real onslaught will begin Saturday with millions of people hitting Southland beaches, and continue through Labor Day in September.
Water quality experts say bathers and surfers should find the cleanest water in four years -- with a few notable exceptions. On the other hand, they may also find fewer lifeguards. State and local budget cuts are likely to reduce lifeguard service hours. But the sand and restrooms should be clean despite maintenance reductions, say shoreline stewards from Ventura to San Clemente.
"Our towers are in place, lifeguards are hired, and we've been concentrating on getting the beaches clean and ready for service," said Joe Milligan, the lifeguard supervisor for 10 miles of state beach in northern Orange County.
"Don't drink and swim. Don't overestimate your abilities. Enjoy the weekend."
In Huntington Beach, whose shoreline was closed for much of the summer of 1999 due to bacterial pollution from a still undetermined source, the city's beach maintenance department supervisor, Larry Neishi, said a budget cut of $42,000 has postponed summer preparations this year until June 15. Work crews usually begin cleaning the beach, restrooms and parking lots during Easter week.
"We should be back on track soon," Neishi said. "Luckily, we had a cool spring, and we did not get hit that hard."
About 8 million people visit 3.5 miles of city beach every year. About 40,000 to 60,000 people are expected this weekend if the weather is good.
"We want to go to work," said Kyle Lindo, the city's marine safety chief. "Our guys are antsy. They are ready for some good, sunny summer days."
Already, the early crowds have staked out spots for their recreational vehicles along Pacific Coast Highway at Rincon Beach Park in Ventura County.
"If you don't have a site right now, you're out of luck," said Pam Gallo, operations supervisor for Ventura County Parks, which also operates the campgrounds at Hobson and Faria beaches.
For the most part, beachgoers will find good water quality this summer, according to Heal the Bay, the Santa Monica-based environmental group. The group unveiled the results of its 13th annual Beach Report Card on Wednesday at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, one of the beaches that has defied the trend toward better water.
Over all, California beaches from Oregon to Mexico had the best water quality in four years during dry weather, the report card said. During and directly after rain, however, California beaches had the worst water quality in four years, they added.
Mark Gold, executive director of Heal the Bay, attributed the improvements to a $78-million state bond issue -- the Clean Beach Initiative -- that has raised money to reduce coastal pollution. He blamed the decline of water quality during the winter months on a series of unusually intense storms that sent more toxic urban runoff into the ocean.
Heal the Bay sampled about 300 beaches in 15 counties to assess the health risks to humans. The grades are based on the daily and weekly bacterial counts found in the surf zone.
The report card concluded that about 70% of the beaches received A's for very good water quality during dry weather. Bs were given to about 16% of the locations. The rest received Cs, Ds and Fs for fair to poor water quality. Overall, about 64% of the beaches received failing grades during wet weather, compared with 7% during the dry periods.
Among the 10 most polluted beaches were Surfrider Beach in Malibu, Cabrillo Beach in the Port of Los Angeles, Channel Island Harbor Beach Park at Hobie Beach in Ventura and Baby Beach in Dana Point Harbor.
The designation of the worst part of the coast--the "Beach Bummer" award -- went to Doheny State Beach from North Beach to Poche Beach in southern Orange County.
The two-mile length of sand, with a stagnant pool known as Polio Pond, was cited for especially poor water quality, which presents increased risks due to high visitor counts.
Heal the Bay said some of the most polluted water was at sheltered beaches or coves frequented by families. Less than half the enclosed areas received an A during dry weather.
"If it goes by the name Kiddie Beach, Mothers Beach or Baby Beach, those are exactly the places you don't want to take your children," Gold said.
Times staff writers Greg Griggs, Hilda Munoz, Daren Briscoe and William Lobdell contributed to this report.