People enjoy playing in the polluted water of Avalon Harbor, often ignoring… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)
By the hundreds of thousands each year, they sail to Avalon by ferry and cruise ship for diving trips, glass-bottom boat tours and to lounge on the beach in the Catalina Island town 26 miles off the Southern California coast.
Yet the same crystal-clear water that draws tourists also harbors an embarrassing hazard. For most of the last decade, Avalon Harbor Beach has ranked among the most polluted in the state, tainted with human sewage that puts swimmers at risk.
Even though the city of 4,000 has spent $3.5 million testing and rehabilitating sewer lines, the water is no cleaner. A report last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council listed Avalon as one of the 10 most chronically polluted beaches in the nation for failing state health tests as much as 73% of the time.
Researchers years ago zeroed in on the cause: the city's rickety sewer system, made of century-old clay and metal pipes. Because half the lines are flushed with corrosive salt water, some have deteriorated so much they have simply vanished. So human waste flows unchecked into the earth, trickling into the city's groundwater and filtering through the sand into Avalon Bay.
The beach fails state health standards so often that warning signs are posted much of the summer and beachgoers sometimes use them to hang their towels out to dry. The advisories are meant to protect swimmers from pathogens that can cause stomach illnesses, rashes and ear, eye and staph infections, but many go in the water anyway.
The warnings didn't prevent biologists Stephen and Josie Bennett, who got married on Catalina, from going back for their recent one-year anniversary to go hiking and snorkeling in waters that, to Josie Bennett, look "pristine compared to what we're used to in Long Beach."
"You come here and you expect the best: The food is wonderful, the accommodations are great," she said, sitting on a bench overlooking the city's main beach and waterfront. "So you don't expect to be swimming in something that's unhealthy."
Indeed, calling attention to tainted beach water is discouraged in a town where tourism brings in $100 million a year.
"It's like using the S-word: Shark," said Wayne Griffin, president and chief executive of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau. "Those things bring up emotions in people."
Dirty water "has to be damaging" the island economically, said Mayor Bob Kennedy, who suspects it's one of the reasons tourism has been on a slide for a decade.
Like many others in town, Kennedy is connected to the water and those who play in it. He owns a dive shop, swims in Avalon Bay almost every day and operates the new Sea Trek attraction, an underwater walking tour at Descanso Beach, a cleaner stretch of coast outside the bay.
"We're a small community, and here we are spending millions of dollars hoping that we wake up in the morning and everything will be fine," Kennedy said. "Well guess what: It hasn't."
Water quality advocacy groups say Avalon has neglected a glaring public health problem and contend that the only way the city can cure its beach water ills for good is to rebuild its entire 11-mile sewer system, a project that would probably cost tens of millions of dollars. They question the city's ability to solve the problem on its own and say officials long ago should have sought assistance from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works or the state or federal government.
This summer, the city is forging ahead with its own plan: a $5.1-million project to clean, repair and replace miles of sewer lines and make improvements at its sewer plant, its biggest investment yet.
"We haven't ignored the problem, but we haven't solved the problem," said Charlie Wagner, Avalon's chief administrative officer. "And now we're taking a landmark step forward."
But there are serious doubts whether that will be enough.
Avalon's water woes surfaced in 1999, when a new state law required weekly health testing of California beaches from April to October.
Faced with poor results, city officials at first suspected boaters who drop anchor in the marina. That was ruled out because of the city's strict dye tablet program that banishes any boater who releases sewage into the harbor.
Next, they pointed the finger at seabird droppings fouling the water, an idea underscored by a limited city-commissioned study that found no evidence of human waste. For a time, visitors getting off the ferry were handed a pamphlet from the island Chamber of Commerce blaming the pollution on "large populations of birds."
"The city's sewer mains have been checked," it read. "No leaks can be found — anywhere!"
But as early as 2003, scientists found human-specific viruses — tell-tale signs of sewage pollution — in both the beach water and the groundwater close to shore.
In the years that followed, it became increasingly evident to university researchers that human sewage was leaking into the city's groundwater and straining through the sand into ankle-depth water along the beach.