At the beach: ecology and economy

America's Finest City? San Diego is first - in beach closures.

by Carolyn Chase
he San Diego Bay and the north part of San Diego County are fed by a series of rivers that are short by California standards: the San Luis Rey, San Diego, San Margarita and Sweetwater Rivers. These rivers and the streams that feed into them make up the arteries in our region's watershed. What flows into and through them ends up on local beaches, bays and wetlands. How our natural arteries are doing and what exactly is flowing into them has been the focus of several reports last summer concerning the importance of coastal zones for both the economy and our health.
Three reports, Testing the Waters V, State of the Coasts and Changing the Course of California's Water, indicate trashed beaches and contaminated water are degrading ecosystems and costing states millions in tourist and commercial revenues, as well as jobs. In undeveloped areas, the rivers have been heavily mined for sand and gravel. In urbanized areas, the streams have been channeled and are vulnerable to illegal dumping. County beaches are impacted by local sources of pollution as well as by sewage-contaminated waters flowing north from Mexico's Tijuana River.

On the beach

San Diego County had by far the largest number of polluted beach closings statewide with a total of 296 "events" plus 1 "extended" and 3 permanent closings. High levels of microbial pathogens (disease-causing microorganisms) from human and animal wastes are the primary causes of beach closings. These wastes enter coastal waters from municipal sewage treatment plants, combined sewer overflows, "sanitary" sewer overflows, urban stormwater systems and as polluted runoff from land. By a wide majority, most San Diego beach closings were related to "sanitary sewer overflows."
Population growth has far outpaced Tijuana's ability to process sewage, so an average of 3 million gallons of raw sewage are diverted into river and ocean waters every day. Warning signs are now permanently posted from the south end of Seacoast Drive in Imperial Beach south to the border. The International Treatment Plant project is progressing and the advanced primary treatment works portion is expected to be on-line in December '96.
Swimmers can contract illnesses from several pathogens that may be found in polluted waters. Viruses are believed to be the major cause of swimming-associated diseases and are responsible for gastroenteritis and hepatitis, the two most common swimming-associated diseases worldwide. Gastroenteritis can also be caused by bacteria and is a common term for a variety of diseases that can have one or all of the following symptoms: diarrhea, stomachache, vomiting, nausea, headache and fever. Other bacterial diseases that can be contracted by swimmers include: salmonellosis, shigellosis, and infection caused by E. coli (a toxigenic type of fecal coliform bacteria). Other microbial pathogens found at varying concentrations in recreational waters include amoeba and protozoa, which can cause giardiasis, amoebic dysentery, skin rashes and "pink eye" condition. AIDS and many other diseases are not carried by enteric pathogens (those that live in the human intestine) in contaminated water.

A royal flush

The region's climate - usually dry and temperate with sporadic heavy rains - has raised particular concerns about the consequences of "first flushes," i.e., the initial rains after a dry period, which wash anything and everything down the streets and storm drains and into the surf and beaches. Researchers are trying to determine just how much of the water quality problems associated with runoff occur in the first hours of the first storm of the season. The results could shape efforts to control pollution. San Diego County, 18 cities and the San Diego Unified Port District, which share a single stormwater pollution permit, are expected to receive a new permit from the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, outlining additional efforts that will have to be made to reduce pollution in runoff.
Testing the Waters V, the Natural Resources Defense Council's (NRDC) fifth annual beach survey, reports 910 California beach closures in 1994, 336 of which were directly or indirectly related to polluted runoff. Each year, tourist expenditures along the California coast total $38 billion. Beach closures are one example of how polluted runoff puts these tourist dollars at risk. According to the report, closing a San Diego beach for two days costs the local and state economy $30,525. These costs were determined by applying a "lost use value" per person per day to the number of people denied use of the beach each day of closure. The losses represent what users, on average, would have been willing to pay to use the beach had it not been closed. This figure does not include any consideration of economics losses to businesses that serve the beach or beach users.
State of the Coasts, the Coast Alliance's state-by-state analysis of America's coastal resources, also underlines the relationship between a healthy coastal environment and a healthy economy. For example: This report shows that coastal land use regulations in the Pacific Coast states, "have shaped, not prohibited development. In the 15 years following passage of California's Coastal Act, San Diego County was the second highest-ranking county in the country in the number of new multi-unit residential construction projects." (Source: Building Along America's Coast: 20 years of Building Permits, 1970-1989, U.S. Department of Commerce)

Fed up

The "Coastal Zone Management Act" (CZMA), like much other federal environmental law, is up for reauthorization by the Congress. Having worked and surfed along the coast, local Congressman Brian Bilbray is also touting the appropriate role of federal legislation.
"Having served as a coastal commissioner during my time in local government, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand how the CZMA can improve both the environment and the economy of coastal communities," he writes. "By sharing decision-making authority with those locally-elected officials who actually implement a given law in their state or community, the CZMA has played a major role in brokering compromises between the need for conservation of sensitive coastal areas and the demands of rapidly growing and developing coastal communities." He continues, "I am planning to draft legislation to require coastal authorities to publicly post the level of toxins and contaminants present in the ocean, so that people can make informed decisions about their recreational activities."
A third report, Changing the Course of California's Water, published by The Lindsay Museum and funded by the U.S. EPA, focuses solely on California's polluted runoff problem. Like its national counterparts, this report also indicates strong linkages between the California environment and economy. According to the report, 50 to 80 percent of all water quality problems in California are due to stormwater pollution. At risk are such coastal economic engines as the 140 million annual visitor days logged at beaches statewide and the annual $500 million Southern California sport fishing business.

A pound of prevention

Polluted runoff is created unknowingly by individuals every day. If contaminants are kept out of streets and gutters, substantial beach and ocean pollution can be prevented. Once washed or blown into gutters and storm drains, pollutants are carried through flood control channels to the ocean. Because water from flood control outlets is not treated before reaching the ocean, these pollutants enter the surf at the recreational beaches used by millions each year.
To prevent watershed pollution:

Carolyn Chase is chairperson of the City of San Diego Waste Management Advisory Board, a member of the Peñasquitos Canyon Citizens Advisory Council and recipient of the mayor's 1994 Spirit of San Diego Award for the Environment.

What's on the beach?

he 1994 International Coastal Cleanup Results report from the Center for Marine Conservation documents the types of debris that threaten marine species. The data is the result of a world-wide collection effort performed by 215,000 volunteers. They covered 7,992 miles of coasts, beaches and waterways in 61 countries. More than 8 million pieces of trash were collected over a three-hour period, weighing in at more than 4 million pounds.
At the top of the "Dirty Dozen" list are cigarette butts, of which 1.5 million were picked up by volunteers. Close to a quarter million of straws and beverage cans were also collected.
One hundred and five animals were found entangled in different kinds of debris, particularly plastic. Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships at Sea regulates the dumping of debris from ships and the Center has called on countries to ratify this. Seventy-four countries are parties to this treaty.

Trash in paradise - paper plates, aluminum cans and other refuse from
a picnic litters this otherwise pristine lava-covered beach in Hawaii