Citing a UC Irvine study that shows water-quality testing in the ocean to be virtually worthless, environmentalists are urging the state to adopt better techniques for determining when swimmers and surfers are at risk.
The study found that because Orange County's ocean testing requires 24 hours to obtain lab results, warnings are posted at beaches long after bacteria levels have risen -- and sometimes after they have returned to normal.
Clean-water advocates are pushing for testing devices that would provide instant readings so that health officials could post warnings when contamination levels are high. The new devices are expensive, however, and must be approved by the state.
The university's findings are documented in the first of two studies released last week by Stanley B. Grant, professor of environmental engineering and chairman of the department of chemical engineering and materials science.
The second study focuses on the pollution that plagued Huntington Beach in 1999 and traces its origin to urban runoff flowing down the Santa Ana River and bacteria seeping from Talbert Marsh, a reclaimed wetlands along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach.
The study offers the latest explanation for Huntington Beach's shoreline contamination, which kept the city's beaches closed for much of the summer of 1999 and dealt a blow to its "Surf City" tourist economy.
Grant said the study doesn't pinpoint the cause, but rather provides a mathematical model that helps explain how pollutants reach the surf zone.
Runoff from the river and marsh goes into the ocean and from there moves parallel to the shoreline by the surf and currents, frequently contaminating an area more than 3 miles wide.
"Bottom line is the ocean is a recipient of pollution from myriad sources, and some things are surprising, like the marsh," Grant said.
The 20-acre estuary is an incubator for bird waste that is eventually washed into the ocean by storms and high tides. Grant's previous studies have shown that high tide causes ocean water to rush 2 1/2miles inland along the Talbert Channel. When the tide subsides, it pulls pollutants out to sea.
"It's a very complicated system," Grant said. "And there's a lot of different things going on, including the regrowth of bacteria at Talbert and also a lot of regrowth of bacteria in the sediment in the river."
Grant's water-testing study offers more ammunition for those urging the state to change its methods, said Ken Schiff, deputy director for the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project Authority.
"The biggest beef is the 24-hour delay," Schiff said. "The problem is: You take a sample on Monday and you don't get the sample back until Tuesday, and then they post the beach about bacteria on Tuesday and the water may be clean by then."
Grant said he understands that Southern Californians see their beaches as the state's "crown jewel." The idea of swimming with bacteria "bothers people at a visceral level," he said.
Roger von Butow, founder of the South Orange County Watershed Conservancy, said current monitoring forces beachgoers to guess: "As a surfer, do I go down to the water's edge, peer into the muck and say to myself: 'Do I feel lucky today?'"
Counties started testing ocean water in earnest five years ago, when new state regulations went into effect. The impetus came in 1996, when a Santa Monica Bay study found for the first time that runoff from storm drains was making swimmers and surfers sick. But health officials don't actually look for viruses and other disease-causing organisms, because that would require tests that are costly and cumbersome. Instead, they test for bacteria that indicate the presence of sewage.
And even that takes a day.
Schiff said the coastal water research authority, a group funded by the EPA and the region's sanitation agencies, is at the end of a two-year, $1.5-million state contract to develop a faster test.
So far, about eight methods have been tested from various universities and private health firms, and the authority is drawing up scientific protocols to challenge each. In June the results will be submitted to the state, which must certify the findings and implement the new technologies, possibly within three years.
Even if Orange County had such a test, it couldn't be used, said Larry Honeybourne, program chief for the Orange County Health Care Agency's water quality division.
"Right now the only thing approved are these 24-hour methodologies, but [the coastal water research authority] seems to have seven to eight promising technologies," he said.