Beach pollution still a problem, NRDC says

Leo Cabrillo Beach, Los Angeles County
Leo Cabrillo Beach, Los Angeles County Chris Austin/Flickr (Creative Commons-licensed)

With a holiday weekend around the corner, the Natural Resources Defense Council is releasing a report placing California’s beaches 22nd among 30 U.S. coastal states in their ability to meet national health standards.

It's the 21st time the Natural Resources Defense Council has issued a national report like this. Last year, the group said California’s violations for beach pollution were down – but that wasn’t good news.

"It became a case of we weren’t finding what we weren’t looking for," NRDC lawyer Noah Garrison says. According to the NRDC, California beaches exceeded pollution standards 11 percent of the time this past beach season.

"We’ve actually seen an increase over the past year in the number of samples that exceeded state water quality standards," Garrison says. "Unfortunately saw the number of closing and advisory days in Southern California double from the previous year."

Rapid testing was one reason Orange County beaches closed more often last year, Garrison says. With federal stimulus money, that county tried tests that offered beachgoers same-day information about contamination.

Most beach areas don’t use those tests yet because they’re still new and expensive; Garrison says the delay inherent in current tests causes problems. "You may be swimming at a beach on Saturday and find out on Monday afternoon that the water you were swimming in was contaminated," he says. "We need quicker testing methods so that people can be told the same day whether it’s safe to go in the water."

NRDC data suggest that three Southern California beaches – L.A. County’s Avalon and Cabrillo beaches, and Doheny Beach in Orange County – were some of the dirtiest in the nation. Those findings overlap with those of Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay’s annual Beach Report Card, though Garrison says NRDC assembles a national picture.

This year both groups pinned Southern California’s worsening beach quality on winter storms that pound pollution out of the pavement and into the sea. "After three very dry years when we didn’t have a lot of rain in the fall and less pollution washed off our city streets and our urban environments and into the ocean, we had much higher rates of pollution in the fall that was picked up and carried into our waters," says Garrison.

Garrison argues that’s why California needs to lessen the effects of development by controlling runoff with rain barrels, gravel parking lots and water diversion. Southern California counties now have rules to encourage green infrastructure, he says – but other places have done more.

"States like Texas, Georgia, Oregon, Washington and Virginia all have guidelines and practices in place to allow for people to use capture rainwater even indoors for purposes like toilet flushing or building cooling water," Garrison said. "In some cases like Texas they even have guidelines for using rainwater as a replacement for potable drinking water."

What California does more than every other state is collect data – 20,000 tests at more than 450 beaches in the state’s database last year. State budget cutbacks may have compromised that data.

Garrison says an NRDC review revealed missing testing records for Orange County. "They provided us with their records of sampling and their sampling results and they did not match up with what the state provided, and unfortunately about seven months of data from mid-January to mid-August were not contained in the state database."

NRDC told the state, Garrison says. The NRDC report says that it’s a good caution for the new custodians of state beach testing data. Publicly funded scientists at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project will take over this season.

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