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Putting a rush on water tests

January 30, 2006|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Because some people can't resist when the waves are calling, surfers have been pushing for faster release of water quality tests so they can be sure when the water is free of sewage spills and urban runoff.

In California, state law mandates that public health officials test the waters at popular beaches at least once a week during peak tourist seasons. Some local agencies test more often.

Standard culture-based tests have an incubation period of 18 to 24 hours, which means the soonest that results are available is a day or so after samples are taken.

But Matt McClain, a spokesman for the Surfrider Foundation, a nationwide coastal protection group, said bureaucratic delays often keep results from showing up on government websites for three to five days.

In response, the foundation recently launched a website ( that combines government test results with the results of water tests taken by Surfrider volunteers using EPA-approved techniques, he said.

The site also offers weather information with hourly runoff warnings.

This combination of data, McClain said, gives surfers more up-to-date results, reducing by days the time surfers must wait to find out if they are wading into contaminated water.

They may soon get same-day water quality test results. The State Water Resources Control Board and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project are evaluating several new tests that can produce results within two to four hours. The most promising measure molecular material in the water instead of waiting for the incubation of live bacteria.

State officials hope to approve one or more of the rapid test methods for use by public health officials in the next year.

"It does look pretty promising," said state water board spokesman Chris Davis.

Still, the results are useful only if people heed them.

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