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Surf's up, and sewage too

Local health officials' poor communication about spills needlessly endangers L.A. swimmers.

January 28, 2007

THERE'S NOTHING like a day at the beach. A peaceful snooze in the sunshine on white sands, some sandcastle building, a little swim through the raw sewage, rocked by warm waves of concentrated fecal bacteria....

L.A. and the state have made strides in cleaning up the filthy waters at local beaches, passing tough anti-pollution laws and spending millions to better control urban runoff. But forget about great white sharks; just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water comes news that the sewage-spill warning system is horribly broken.

A county audit shows that Los Angeles County has records for just 19 of the 208 major sewage spills since 2002. Local water officials are supposed to report a spill to the county if they think it will affect local beaches, and it's possible they didn't report every spill. Still, it beggars belief that more than 90% of the county's sewage spills in the last five years had no effect on beaches. These spills either went unreported or the reports simply disappeared into the black hole of the county bureaucracy.

The result is that coastal waters weren't tested after the spills, beaches weren't closed and beachgoers may have found themselves unknowingly swimming in contaminated waters.

There is no need for more laws to protect the public. If anything, there are already too many, creating varying notification requirements that lead to confusion and communication breakdowns. The problem is a total lack of coordination.

County Supervisor Don Knabe is expected on Tuesday to seek approval of the fixes recommended by the audit, including creation of a program to coordinate and follow up on spill reports. The board should expedite those changes.

Meanwhile, though it isn't really swimming season yet, those concerned about beach safety can check out Heal the Bay's website at www.healthebay.org. It contains a report card grading water quality at California beaches -- though it won't help in the event of an unreported spill because it's only updated once a week.

A few rules of thumb: Don't even think about swimming in Long Beach in the summer. Ditto for the beach between the Santa Monica Pier and Will Rogers State Beach. Other spots in L.A. County vary, though you're usually OK if you're not too close to a pier or a big storm drain. But if there has just been a storm, do your wading in the tub, not at the beach.

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