Violations for beach water quality are down, NRDC says, but pollution isn't

California beaches violated water quality standards fewer times than usual last year. That's a key finding of a national report the Natural Resources Defense Council released this morning. The conclusion isn't as good as it may sound.

Beaches in the Golden State tested dirty less often than before – particularly in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties – because testers sampled for bacteria at state beaches less often than before. "It's really a case of ‘what you don't look for, you don't find,'" says Noah Garrison, a lawyer for the NRDC.

He adds that the culprit is a shrunken state budget. "We're simply monitoring the beaches less. Often that's in the wintertime, but that's still a concern because people really visit the beaches year-round in California," he says.

Ventura County cut sampling in the winter and spring; Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties saw around 60 percent drops in frequency. Some beaches Orange County used to test daily were tested weekly; overall Orange County's testing dropped by a quarter. Los Angeles County recorded a 38% drop – not as bad as it could have been, Garrison said, mainly because regional water regulators have required sampling as a top priority.

In winter months, stormwater sends bacteria into the ocean as rainfall carries more pollutants into drains. But even in summer months, Garrison says water quality wasn't necessarily improving. "During summer months the percent of samples that did not meet bacterial health standards for L.A. County and for Orange County remained about the same as it was in 2008, or in many cases actually was worse," Garrison says.

The NRDC report points out that known sources of contamination at California beaches are a tiny fraction of the total. Unknown sources make up three-quarters of reported contamination; "no data" counts for 13 percent more. That could be stormwater, or sewage; nobody knows.

Some of the dirtiest beaches are the usual suspects: Surfrider Beach in Malibu, Santa Monica State Beach near the pier, Cabrillo Beach, Newport Bay. Garrison says beaches popular with tourists and locals are vital to the coastal and state economy. "To be allowing them to become a public health threat where not enough monitoring is done so people don't know whether the beach they're swimming at is safe for them to be in the water at, we really can't continue that practice and hope that our economy will continue to thrive," he says.

Federal stimulus money has followed this logic. In Hermosa Beach, the Environmental Protection Agency gave the city 1-and-a-third million dollars to reduce and clean stormwater runoff at Pier Street. The project includes a greywater component; wastewater will be recycled to feed plants in a pedestrian park at the area.

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