Beachcombing: 'Beach Runners' keep California's shores free of nasty bacteria (photos)

Beach Water Quality Tester - 1

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Pravin Patel, a lab technician in the Environmental Monitoring Division for Los Angeles County, takes samples of the beach water in Marina del Rey on Monday, Aug. 5.

Beach Water Quality Tester - 2

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Patel stores the beach water samples in a cooler before bringing them back to the Environmental Monitoring Division lab at Hyperion Treatment Plant.

Beach Water Quality Tester - 3

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Lab Technician Pravin Patel takes four different samples from four different areas of Mother's Beach in Marina del Rey. Patel and other Environmental Monitoring Division technicians test the water from Long Beach to Malibu.

Beach Water Quality Tester - 4

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Patel uses a long metal rod with a container attached to gather samples of beach water. He's been doing this for the Environmental Monitoring Division for ten years.

Beach Water Quality Tester - 5

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Patel notes the temperature of the water, the wind direction and weather condition at the beach.

Beach Water Quality Tester - 6

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

At the Environmental Monitoring Division lab in Hyperion Treatment Plant, Pravin Patel will mix the samples with a bacteria food solution.

Beach Water Quality Tester - 7

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Patel pours the lab's clean water into containers, which will be mixed with bacteria food and the water from Mother's Beach in Marina del Rey.

Beach Water Quality Tester - 8

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Patel adds bacteria food to each container. After 18-24 hours, bacteria from the beach water will grow.

Beach Water Quality Tester - 9

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Patel holds samples of beach water that have incubated for an 18 to 14 hour period. Most bacteria they find is not harmful to beach goers. Patel estimates that a beach is closed because of a spill or other contamination one to two times each year.

This story is part of our summer series "Beachcombing," in which KPCC reporters will explore the ecology, economy and culture of Southern California's beaches and coast. Let us know what you think in the comments below or on KPCC's Facebook page.

Most people taking a dip in the Pacific Ocean don't think about the millions of micro-organisms swimming around with them.

But Pravin Patel does.

He's a "beach runner," a nickname given to the government workers who drive to shores from Long Beach to Malibu collecting water samples for testing. It's their job to make sure runoff, sewage leaks and other pollution aren't mucking up California's coasts with harmful bacteria and viruses.

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To do that, Patel must wade out into the waves in rubber boots and use a long pole with a cup on the end to scoop up water. Patel, who works for the City of Los Angeles, takes as many as 15 samples a day in different spots along the coast. He marks his progress on a beat-up old clipboard.

"It's my favorite clipboard," Patel said with a laugh. "So I am not going to lose it."

He says working on the beach is no vacation. Sometimes his vehicle gets stuck in the sand. Sometimes people or animals block his access to the water. He has stumbled across feces, sanitary napkins and lots of other nasty stuff while on the clock.

"Not easy at all," Patel said.

Most beach pollution comes from human activity, though that activity can be miles away from the shore. Grime from city streets can wash into the ocean after a heavy rain, as can excess fertilizer from inland farms.

The result is that nasty viruses and bacteria sometimes get into coastal waters.

"There's adenovirus, norovirus, campylobacter, just to name a few of them," said Amanda Griesbach, a scientist with the non-profit environmental group Heal The Bay.

Violently ill

These bugs can make a person violently ill. A 2006 study found people getting stomach bugs from bad beach water in Los Angeles and Orange counties are responsible for $50 million a year in health costs.

One problem with the current water testing system is that it can take a day for the results to be ready, Griesbach said. There are newer, faster testing methods, but she said they haven't been widely adopted yet.

Still, all these efforts to monitor and clean California's coasts have paid off. Over the last 10 years beach water has gotten dramatically better.  Griesbach said last year was one of the state's cleanest years on record.

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