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A Great Beach -- Just Don't Swallow

Doheny is again rated the state's most polluted, but many surfers and swimmers don't care.

May 22, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla | Times Staff Writer

Doheny State Beach is once again flunking its environmental report card, but beachgoers don't seem to mind.

The Dana Point surf mecca was rated the most polluted beach in California for the second straight year in a report released Wednesday by Heal the Bay, a Santa Monica environmental group. The shoreline waters, where runoff from nearby creeks collects, routinely posts high levels of bacteria, particularly after storms.

But determined surfers and those who visit the beach infrequently say they aren't bothered by the water's potential health risks, which tend to be greatest in fall and winter.

"As long as it's not raining, the water's pretty clean, actually," said Charlie Thomas, 53. The San Juan Capistrano resident was spending Wednesday afternoon giving son Jack a surfing lesson on the northern end of the beach. He expressed little concern about any harm the water might hold for him or the 13-year-old.

"As long as you don't swallow too much of it, it's fine," Thomas said. Minutes later, as the teenager hoisted his surfboard and headed down the beach, he warned, "Just don't swallow, Jack!"

The 13th-annual beach report card consistently has placed Doheny among its 10 worst beaches since it began more closely monitoring Orange County beaches in the late 1990s.

Monica Mazur, supervising environmental health specialist for the county environmental health department, said bacteria levels begin to rise at Doheny in the fall and then taper off in the summer, just in time for beachgoers. She said that although efforts have been underway to limit creek runoff, researchers monitoring the water have not pinpointed the exact cause of the bacteria.

One potential cause, she said, is droppings from the thousands of gulls that descend upon Doheny beginning in September.

"There are more birds concentrated on that beach than on any other Orange County beach," Mazur said.

The birds' stay coincides with elevated bacteria levels, although current testing methods can't detect whether the bacteria comes from birds, dogs or humans. Mazur said the department hopes to begin using microbial source tracking, which would show the source of the bacteria, within five years.

"If we know where it's coming from, then we can begin looking at 'Well, where do we have to focus to get rid of [it]?' " she said. "If it's the birds, then we may never get rid of it."

The most affected stretch of beach is known as the Boneyard, where slow-moving water allows bacteria to accumulate. Nestled into a rocky alcove at the northern end of the beach, the Boneyard gets sluggish, gently rolling waves, making it an ideal classroom for surf lessons.

"I learned to surf here, but I don't come here anymore because I know it's not that clean," said Sherri Scarantino, 38. On Wednesday, she brought her two children and niece to sun at the beach. When she learned of Doheny's status as a polluted beach, she became worried, having let niece Adele swim in the water just moments earlier.

"We're going to go home and take a shower right away," the San Juan Capistrano resident said.

Scarantino said she'd like to see warning signs -- currently posted peripherally around the beach -- situated closer to shore and warning more stringently of the dangers. Mazur said the most common health problems from exposure to bacteria-laden beach waters are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and ear, eye and nose infections.

Dana Point surfer Ryan Joshua, 19, said most locals have known for years about the beach's pollution and take precautions. He said he has gotten some infections from the water, and tries to protect any open cuts.

"There's not much you can do with the population of the harbor right next door," he said of the water's contamination.

On Wednesday, Michael Smith, 38, of Laguna Niguel brought his children Karch, 9, and Kendall, 5, to the Boneyard to teach them how to surf. While he knew the beach has a reputation as unclean, Smith was not too concerned.

"We'll go home and shower, but that's about it," he said. "We're not going to get out the scrub brushes and clean under the nails." Nor will he stay away for fear of high bacteria levels.

Another popular spot for children, Baby Beach, located less than a mile away from Doheny, also made Heal the Bay's report card, coming in fourth.

In addition to Doheny Beach being picked as most polluted in the state, it is the second year in a row the environmental group awarded Doheny its "Beach Bummer" crown, a title bestowed upon the beach with the poorest dry-weather water quality.

"It's kind of a shame because it's a beautiful beach ... and it's one of the best beaches around to learn to surf," Smith said. "If the water was perfect, it could be a nice little spot."

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