For the fifth year in a row, Los Angeles County is home to the dirtiest beaches in the state, with repeat offenders Avalon on Santa Catalina Island and Santa Monica among those with the highest levels of fecal bacteria in ocean water, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report to be released today.
"The problem's not going away," said Michelle Mehta, an attorney with the nonprofit organization's water program.
Also among the top 10 foulest shores were Doheny State Beach south of Dana Point Harbor, Ocean Beach at Vicente Street in San Francisco, Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro and Rincon Beach Creek mouth in Ventura County.
Coastlines in Laguna Beach, at Bolsa Chica State Beach and Huntington City Beach were singled out as particularly clean.
Samples were taken from nearly three-quarters of California's public beaches from April through October 2007. Monitors collected most samples from ankle-deep water at least once a week at sites near storm drains or other contamination sources. Across California, these contained unhealthful levels of enterococcus, total coliform and fecal coliform bacteria -- found in human and animal waste -- 7% of the time, down from 12% the previous year.
Bathers in tainted water can contract gastroenteritis, ear infections, skin rashes or other symptoms, Mehta said. Dirty water can flow into the sea from storm drains and sewage systems, especially in rainstorms.
In Los Angeles County last year, the number of days in which beaches were closed or had safety advisories posted was down 18% from the previous year.
While the declines sound encouraging, Mehta cautioned that conditions might actually be getting worse. Because the amount of rainfall last season was much less than the previous year, experts had expected beach conditions to improve more dramatically.
State water board officials, however, pointed to water quality improvements, particularly in dry weather when the beaches and surf are the most crowded. For instance, the state has spent more than $74 million on beach cleanup efforts, such as diverting urban runoff into treatment plants.
The biggest challenge is fighting diffuse pollution sources, such as people dumping contaminants down storm drains, said Leslie Laudon, a State Water Resources Control Board manager. Individuals can take steps to protect beach water by turning off sprinklers and picking up dog droppings.
Beach warning and closure days in Orange County increased 5% since 2006; closures and warnings dropped significantly in Santa Barbara, San Diego and Ventura counties.
"There's been a huge effort by . . . the county and cities to try and divert or treat urban runoff," said Larry Honeybourne, an environmental health program manager with the Orange County Health Care Agency. "Things are slowly getting better -- we still have challenges out there."
Honeybourne cited a wastewater treatment plant at Salt Creek in Dana Point, with another treatment project underway at Poche Beach near San Clemente. The report also highlighted a federal settlement approved this year to reduce toxic runoff from 1,000 miles of Los Angeles and Ventura county highways with sand traps, catch basins and absorbent pavement.
Authors of the report called for quicker water test results. It can take as long as 48 hours after collecting water samples before swimmers and surfers are notified that beaches could be unsafe. The state water board has spent about $3 million to study methods to more quickly test fouled water in Avalon and at Doheny State Beach.
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Thumbs down for swimming
Seven of the 10 beaches with the worst water quality in 2007 were in Los Angeles County, according to a study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Four of them were around Avalon on Santa Catalina Island.
Ten worst beaches
By percent of samples that exceeded bacterial standards for enterococcus, total and fecal coliform.
*--* Rank Site County Percent 1 Avalon Beach, north of pier Los Angeles 83% 2 Doheny State Beach, north beach Orange 55 3 Avalon Beach, near Busy Bee Cafe Los Angeles 55 4 Santa Monica State Beach, pier Los Angeles 52 5 Ocean Beach, at Vicente Street San Francisco 50 6 Avalon Beach, south of pier Los Angeles 48 7 Cabrillo Beach, Cabrillo Beach station Los Angeles 40 8 Santa Monica State Beach, -- Santa Monica Canyon Los Angeles 39 9 Rincon Beach Creek Mouth Ventura 38 10 Avalon Beach Los Angeles 38 *--*
NOTE: Results are based on samples taken from April through October 2007 at 323 public beaches in California. Of these beaches, 96% were monitored at least once a week.
Source: Natural Resources Defense Council