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Health testing way down at California beaches

The monitoring is at its lowest level since becoming law more than a decade ago, putting swimmers, surfers and divers at greater risk of exposure to contaminated water, a Times investigation shows.

August 30, 2010|By Tony Barboza, Los Angeles Times

Health testing of California's beaches has slumped to its lowest level since ocean monitoring became law more than a decade ago, putting swimmers, surfers and divers at greater risk of exposure to contaminated water, a Times investigation has found.

Beaches from San Diego to the Bay Area are being tested less often and in fewer locations; some are going untested for months at a time. Statewide, the number of annual tests for bacteria has dropped by nearly half since 2005, according to a Times analysis of state records.

Beach closures and advisories have also fallen dramatically — in part because there's less pollution, but also because health officials aren't detecting the dirty water that remains.

At calm, sheltered Baby Beach in Dana Point, which attracts parents with young children but also traps contaminated runoff, health officials did not test for five months earlier this year.

In Long Beach, home to some of the most polluted ocean water in the state, 40% of beach sites are no longer being tested, city officials said. State records show that testing at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro is down 80% and 65% in Santa Monica. At San Onofre State Beach at the northern edge of San Diego County, water at the legendary Trestles surf break was tested only four times last year, down from nearly 70 times in 2005.

The culprit is a familiar one: state and county budget cuts. In 2008, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the $1 million the state had provided each year to test hundreds of beaches for bacteria. Since then, emergency bond funds and stimulus dollars have been tapped to keep the testing program afloat, but the money is expected to evaporate by year's end.

Overall, water quality at the region's beaches is almost certainly better than it was in the past, experts say. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent to divert and treat runoff and wastewater before it washes into the ocean. Drought conditions have also reduced the amount of runoff reaching the ocean.

Nonetheless, clean-water advocates say the cutbacks have put people at risk. Those who swim in contaminated water are exposed to gastrointestinal viruses and to pathogens that can cause skin rashes and ear, eye and staph infections. Swimmers are most likely to get sick in poor-circulating water near river mouths and sewer outfalls, especially after rain.

"Water quality absolutely has gotten better during the summer months," said Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay. "But the reality is that less frequent monitoring means there's a much greater chance of someone swimming or surfing in polluted water unknowingly."

Tourism officials have also expressed concern. They say the cost to monitor beaches is inconsequential compared with the estimated $12 billion in tourist-related revenue California beach towns generate each year.

"California's coastline is one of our biggest assets as a travel destination," said Kathryn Burnside, a spokeswoman for the California Travel and Tourism Commission. "What makes sense from a health perspective certainly makes sense for the tourism industry."

Health and wastewater agencies responsible for beach testing defend the scaled-back monitoring as adequate. Some officials said the amount of testing has been underreported, while others acknowledged severe cutbacks.

Schwarzenegger's office said the state has continued funding beach water monitoring at a 90% level despite budget difficulties.

"It is not immediately clear why the number of tests taken by counties have declined this much," spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola said in a written statement. She said the Department of Public Health and the State Water Board are investigating the reason for the declines while they search for a permanent funding source for future testing.

Los Angeles County health officials said their own testing has remained constant and disputed the state's records for the county's coastline.

"We continue to do the tests weekly, and we're not doing less sampling because we don't have money," said Alfonso Medina, director of the county's Environmental Protection Bureau. However, other agencies that test some of the county's beaches may have cut back.

Public health officials say they are unable to gauge if reduced testing has caused more swimmers to get sick. Cases are rarely reported because they mimic ailments such as food poisoning or stomach flu.

The number of beaches in California closed by health officials has fallen 74% since 2005, The Times found. Postings, which alert swimmers to contaminated water, dropped 44%. State and local officials do not know how much of that decline is attributable to cleaner water and how much to less testing. Many beachgoers, however, assume that the lack of signs means the water is clean.

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