Environment & Science

NRDC beach report: Stormwater, sewage to blame for near-record California beach pollution

A file photo of Huntington Beach.
A file photo of Huntington Beach.

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California’s beaches remain among the most polluted in the country, the Natural Resources Defense Council announced. The group’s annual study found that Golden State beaches account for a quarter of shutdowns around the country.

Stormwater runoff and raw sewage remain Southern California’s worst enemies at the beach, the NRDC says. About 11 percent of water quality samples from public beaches around the state violated health standards last year. Sometimes that had to do with raw sewage spills, but mostly, elevated bacteria levels were to blame.

According to NRDC water resources attorney Noah Garrison, in these parts, urban runoff causes problems even in the dry summer months. "That’s because people over water their lawns or water their cars or other commercial processes go on that still allow runoff to occur," he said.

Capturing that runoff and sending it to treatment facilities before it hits the waves does screen out trash, debris and other health hazards. Low-flow diversions, used to route runoffs away from urban waterways, improved results at Santa Monica Canyon. Last year, a monitoring station found 40 percent fewer violations of water quality standards compared with previous years. Garrison said diversions like that work in the dry season.

"Unfortunately that’s not a solution, with the huge amount of runoff that occurs in rainfall events," Garrison added. "But for these dry water conditions, particularly during summer when people are likely to be at the beach, it really can change the amount of bacteria pollution we see."

In wet months, his organization argues, trapping rain as close to where it falls as possible is the best pollution prevention tactic. The Ventura region has required new building and development strategies known as green infrastructure or low impact development to encourage that.

Garrison said the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica have added new rules, too. "There’s definitely a noticeable swing in that direction," he continued. "We think as time goes on and more green projects are put in place we will see it have a significant impact on what we see at our beaches and people will be able to go swimming more often and know that it’s safe to get into the water."

Gravel driveways, trash screens and rain barrels are growing more common in Southern California, Garrison said. He said green roofs, a roof covered with dirt and grass, soak up water and save energy. "At the same time, they shade the roof [and] cool building interiors by reducing the amount of sunlight and sun’s heat that enter the building, and they really reduce the amount of energy that’s needed for building cooling."

Orange County’s Doheny Beach and Avalon Beach on Catalina are two repeat offenders in the NRDC report. But Garrison said the organization found better results in Huntington State Beach, Bolsa Chica and parts of Newport Beach — these sites are among just a dozen rated with five stars in the country.

While California ranks 21st out of 30 states for water testing results, the Southland counties of Ventura, Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego are pretty aggressive about warning people when tests find that bacteria and sewage may harm swimmers. The trouble, said Garrison, is that the lab tests local officials use are slow to reveal water quality problems.

"The current method for testing the water takes anywhere from 24 to 48 hours to produce results. So people may go swimming on a Saturday in contaminated water and they won’t know it’s contaminated till Monday morning."

Rapid testing could return results the same day, he said. Orange County successfully demonstrated the accuracy of same-day tests two years ago. A similar pilot program in LA County is still working out the kinks. And for now, same-day results cost more than the slower tests.