Dangerous Currents

The questionable quality of our coastal waters

by Marc Beyeler


Walk with Donna Frye along the edge of Tourmaline Surfing Park offers a quick lesson in coastal water pollution: Before our eyes is a picture postcard scene of California beach life, but lurking just under the surface is potentially dangerous water pollution.

    Tourmaline lies below the southern coastal bluffs of La Jolla, with a long view of the coastlines of Pacific Beach and Ocean Beach to the south. It is one of the best surfing spots in San Diego. The well-known surf break, formed by uplifted submarine terraces, attracts short- and long-boarders ranging in age from hotdogging teens to the over-50 crowd.

    It is also the place where Donna's husband, Skip, had been surfing the day he came home and said he wasn't feeling right, about five years ago. “This is a man who never gets sick. I said maybe he was just cold and made him some soup,” she recalls. “But he found it hard to get air and was disoriented, as though he was running a fever, only he wasn't. He had to sit in a chair all night with the window open to breathe.

    “The next day we went to the doctor and he said he had seen a girl with the same symptoms the day before. Then one of Skip's friends, who had been surfing with him, came down with the same symptoms. It was a virus. Nobody else had it except people who had been in the water.” A storm drain empties into the water directly in front of the surf break.

    “I've lived in San Diego since 1957. I'm married to a surfer and surfboard shaper, and we have watched as our coastal waters have become increasingly contaminated. For a decade or more we shared stories about getting sick after water contact. So I just got fed up with everyone complaining and started Surfers Tired of Pollution.”

    Years of phone calls, meetings, and hearings have now begun to pay off. Indeed, because of hard work by Donna Frye and many other citizens up and down the coast from Humboldt Bay to Tornales Bay, Morro Bay, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and San Diego ocean water pollution is now a hot issue. Moving beyond complaint, a diverse coalition of citizen stewards has emerged, and it has compelled government to respond, at both state and local levels.

    Perhaps because they have intimate experience with the effects of ocean water pollution, surfers have taken the lead in documenting the problem and initiating action. Others have been alerted while taking part in local creek restoration work, land trust activities, or other “place-based” conservation efforts. Local groups test or monitor streams or offshore waters, and also enlist school children. The children learn about their watersheds, then educate parents.

    The growing numbers of citizen stewards play an important role in building programs to control water pollution that flows to beaches from many diverse sources. The continuing participation of citizens in their communities will be crucial to improving and maintaining good water quality along our shores.

Surfers and swimmers as lab rats


    Donna Frye stops at the open storm drain that runs along the north side of the Tourmaline Beach parking lot. It had been sending runoff into the surf zone for years. Waste motor oil, pesticides, and animal and human waste flowed into waters where small children play, where people swim and ride the waves. She had seen children in the water by the storm drain. There were no warning signs.

    Because they own and operate a business, the Fryes were reluctant to take on an activist role: “Unfortunately, pollution gets political,” Donna explains, “But after a while we agreed we had no choice.”

    To document the problem, she launched the Ocean Illness Survey. People who had suffered symptoms associated with water contact were encouraged to report them to the County Environmental Health Department by mailing a form on a postcard.

    To Frye's dismay, however, “it didn't seem that anyone was listening not until ocean pollution became an economic issue.”

    In January 1997, a New York Times travel advisory warned about health hazards from storm drains in La Jolla. Soon after, city and county officials agreed to post warning signs at storm drain outfalls, perform DNA testing to determine the source of the bacteria, and divert polluted runoff. Since then, the City of San Diego has built concrete channel that takes dry-weather flow from the storm drain outlet emptying at Tourmaline and several other beaches into the sewage treatment system. “This simple action has already resulted in a reduced number of reported water contact illnesses” in dry weather, Frye says.

    These experiences close to home have propelled Donna Frye onto a larger stage. She is now San Diego pollution control coordinator for the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC), attending more and more meetings, working for state legislation, watching land use issues in her watershed, flying to Washington occasionally. “It's a difficult balancing act with our business,” she says, “but our customers are very understanding.” www.donnafrye4council.com)

From point to nonpoint


    Tourmaline exemplifies the pollution problems of many California beach communities, especially those in urbanized watersheds. “We call ourselves 'end of the pipe' people,” says Frye.

    But though the dirty water does arrive at some beaches via pipes or, rather, culverts it collects in the storm drains from many different sources. It is therefore called “nonpoint source pollution.” Since the 1970, government regulatory actions have significantly diminished the amount of effluent from “point” sources, such as sewage treatment and industrial disposal pipes. Now, most of the pollution reaching streams and the ocean is nonpoint source. Septic systems animal waste from streets washed by hoses or rain into gutters, pesticides from lawns and agricultural fields, used motor oil, and many other landbased contaminants contribute. Nonpoint sources are hard to identify and much harder to control.

    The growing chorus of citizens demanding attention to the problem has recently led to several important new mandates. Water quality at heavily used beaches must now be regularly tested and monitored in California, from April to October. And, perhaps as significantly, funds have become available for remedies.

    In spring 2000, California voters approved Propositions 12 and 13, bond measures that allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to address the problem, with such remedies as source reduction and upgrades of on-site septic systems. Members of the State legislature have provided additional general fund monies for related programs. The Coastal Conservancy, for example, was allotted $3 million this year for innovative “treatment controls,” to be carried out with local partners.

Growing problem or just better data?


    Statewide, beach closures and advisories increased more than fourfold between 1991 and 1998, from 745 “lost” beach days to 3,273, according to the State Water Resources Control Board and the Coastal Commission's Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Plan. The annual beach pollution survey of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Testing the Waters 2000, found 3,547 “reported” beach closure “incidents” along the coast in 1999.

    The beaches of Huntington Beach were off-limits for nearly the entire summer. In its annual report card on beach water quality from Santa Barbara to Orange County, Heal the Bay, a citizens group in Santa Monica, gave most southern California beaches “A” grades in dry months. During the rainy season, however, many beaches failed.

    Do these figures prove that beach water quality has been deteriorating? Not necessarily, say many public and environmental health officials; they merely reflect increased testing, monitoring, and reporting. Citizen activists and environmental organizations disagree. “Way too much energy has been spent on this pointless debate,” says Surfrider's executive director Chris Evans. “With greatly increased development in the watersheds, it's just logical that water quality would deteriorate because of urban runoff.”

Volunteer monitoring: “Surfer Epidemiology”


    For the past several years, the only information available on some of southern California's most popular beaches came from Surfrider's volunteer Blue Water Task Force, launched in 1990 because surfers were getting sick but public health agencies were not regularly testing water quality at most public beaches.

    Surfrider's Santa Barbara chapter, for example, began monitoring all south coast beaches in 1992 with seed funding from the Deckers Company, which makes a popular brand of beach sandals in Carpinteria. Not until two years later did Santa Barbara County allocate funding to its Environmental Health Department to conduct seasonal water quality tests at more than a dozen heavily used swimming and surfing beaches. In Ventura County, regular official beach water testing began only at the end of 1998.

    In Santa Monica, ocean water quality has been a major focus for Heal the Bay from its founding in 1985, according to Mark Gold, executive director. The group has been publishing its beach report card for almost ten years. Last summer it launched a web version for all of southern California, from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border.

    “If our vision of a restored Santa Monica Bay is to be at all a success, we must have strong volunteer programs,” said Gold. “Heal the Bay has built a large constituency of citizen stewards. In the long term, we know it's practices and behavior which need to change; our citizen volunteers are part of that change.”

    For example, he said, Heal the Bay runs a volunteer monitoring and testing program for Malibu Creek where it drains into Malibu Lagoon, with the help of Coastal Conservancy funding.

A Tough Problem to Fix


    As information gathered by citizen volunteers accumulated, the Legislature took note. In 1997 a bill by Assembly Member Howard Wayne of San Diego was signed into law, requiring that water quality be monitored at heavily used beaches next to storm drains.

    Documenting a problem at the beach is one thing, however; finding a way to fix it is quite another. There is much disagreement on what sources are culpable and to what degree, as well as on what should be done.

    For instance, it is generally agreed that old, failing, or inadequate residential septic systems contribute to coastal water pollution. But to what extent? How can the problem be resolved? Who will bear the costs? These are hotly debated questions at Rincon Point in southern Santa Barbara County.

    One of the best winter surf breaks anywhere was formed when Rincon Creek deposited a fan delta of cobble and sand along the shore. Local surfer Tom Curren, many times a world champion, ranks Rincon among the top 10 surf spots in the world. Seventy-two homes stand on Rincon Point, with separate septic systems.

    On a recent weekday afternoon, several local clean water activists met me at the end of the short trail descending from the parking lot toward the smooth breaking waves: Keith Zandona, chair of Surfrider's Santa Barbara chapter; Paul Jenkin, chair of the Ventura chapter; Hillary Hauser, cofounder of the Santa Barbara-based nonprofit Heal the Ocean; and Joel Smith of CURE (Clean Up Rincon Effluent), an advocacy group of regular Rincon surfers. They all knew that many of the old septic systems on Rincon Point had not worked well at times, and sometimes did not work at all.

    CURE was started almost three years ago by “three surf guys who had gotten sick,” said Smith, who has been surfing Rincon and other spots in Santa Barbara for more than 30 years. “For us, things came to a head in the summer of 1998, when Rincon beach was posted for closure for a good part of the summer.”

    That year was one of extraordinary rains, and many of the county's southern beaches were closed some or all of the summer months. Rincon Point was posted safe for water contact on only 35 days. Hauser said Heal the Ocean was formed that same year, in response to the closures.

    At Rincon Creek, innovative “DNA typing” of bacteria revealed the culprit: human bacteria. Fingers pointed at the septic systems. But it was not possible to determine how much these septic tanks were contributing to the problem (“if at all,” critics contend).

    Frustrated that government action was simply “taking too long to address the problem,” Heal the Ocean representatives approached the Rincon Point owners association with a proposal to study the costs and complexities of hooking homes to a nearby sewer system specifically, that of Carpinteria, a few miles upcoast.

    The homeowners' representative, Steve Halstead, said they were “interested in the sewer hookup as the most appropriate solution based on the specific conditions of our situation.” These homes sit on very small lots, with poor soil and a very shallow water table. “We do not believe that retrofitted septic systems were the answer,” Halstead said.

    Based on a preliminary engineering report financed by Heal the Ocean, the homeowners, Santa Barbara County, donations from Surfrider Foundation chapters in Santa Barbara and Ventura, and proceeds from the fourth annual Clean Water Classic, a Surfrider fundraising competition held at Rincon, the homeowners voted for a sewer hookup. The Carpinteria Sanitary District began the process of expanding the district and developing a financing plan.

    Then came a snag: A few of the residents filed a lawsuit against the Carpinteria Sanitary District, seeking a fuller environmental analysis of alternatives. The District put its plans on hold. The plaintiffs and proponents disagree over the role of the septic systems in causing the water pollution. Opponents of the sewer hookup also argue that transferring the effluent to the end of the outfall pipe may not be a real solution. In addition, questions over the cost-effectiveness of the proposed hookup are unresolved.

    In the wake of this controversy, at least three other communities along Santa Barbara County's south coast have suspended efforts to evaluate the costs and feasibility of connecting to nearby sewer systems to solve septic tank problems similar to those at Rincon. These communities include 100 homes in Carpinteria and 770 at Hope Ranch, just west of the City of Santa Barbara, the largest residential area on the county's south coast served by individual septic systems.

    Assembly Member Hannah Beth Jackson's AB 885, signed by Governor Gray Davis in September, requires that standards be developed for the operation of individual septic systems. “We need to make sure that if these systems are to be used, that, at a minimum, they do not contribute bacterial contamination to our coastal waters,” explained Jackson, who represents Santa Barbara.

A Community Septic System

    Design solutions to septic tank problems may exist. One is about to be tried in the tiny Sonoma County town of Monte Rio, which lies on both banks of a two-mile reach of the Russian River and on the tributary Dutch Bill Creek, ten miles from the river mouth at Jenner. While an estimated 95 percent of the residents live there year round, Monte Rio Beach and the town are also popular vacation and visitor destinations.

    Individual septic systems, nearly all old and substandard, serve this community. They pour contaminants, including bacteria and nutrients, into the Russian River, which drains directly into coastal waters. Chronic public health problems and water pollution have been attributed to these antiquated systems. After several years of water quality testing identified serious water pollution problems, both Sonoma County and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board began to develop a long-term solution for Monte Rio and the adjacent small communities of Northwood and Villa Grande.

    For the past two years, Sonoma County has taken the lead in evaluating feasible alternatives that would address both the community's needs and coastal resource and water quality protection. The effort, which analyzed sewer hookup alternatives and upgraded septic systems, found in favor of a community septic system that would eliminate discharges into the groundwater and into the Russian River. Current plans call for some 600 parcels to be hooked up in an area surrounding downtown Monte Rio. The proposal, however, remains controversial, with vocal opposition.

    “The proposed community septic system represents an innovative approach,” according to Sonoma County Supervisor Mike Reilly, whose district includes Monte Rio. “If we succeed in eliminating the septic problems here along the Russian River, other small rural communities may be able to use this model to develop their own plans. This project has the potential to greatly aid our efforts to improve coastal water quality along the Sonoma Coast and more generally along the California coast.”

    Statewide planning is also moving ahead. Earlier this year, at a signing ceremony on Santa Monica Bay, federal and state officials celebrated the federal approval of the Plan for California's Non-point Source Pollution Control Program. California is the first state to win this approval. The Plan, which the US Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found meets the requirements of the Clean Water Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act, was adopted jointly by the State Water Resources Control Board and the Coastal Commission. It identifies more than two dozen state agencies with varying responsibilities for implementing 61 management measures to address nonpoint source pollution in the state. (The Coastal Alliance gave the state a “B” grade for this Plan because it “has yet to prove an ability to efficiently target and address nonpoint pollution problems.”)

    Plans don't mean much, of course, without staff and money to carry them out. But that situation is being remedied somewhat. An increase in both funding and staffing for coordinating nonpoint source pollution programs at the State Water Resources Control Board and the Regional Water Quality Control Boards is provided for in the approved state budgets for fiscal years 1999 and 2000. A new Interagency Coordinating Committee has been formed. The state's first five-year implementation plan is being revised and expanded to address a range of new initiatives. Several state agencies, including the Coastal Conservancy, are developing more and better partnerships with local citizens and governments to implement innovative approaches. New financial resources will be available thanks to the voters' passage of the “water bond,” Prop. 13, and the “park bond,” Prop. 12, for pollution prevention, source reduction, treatment control, and natural resource protection and restoration. From Proposition 13 alone, nearly $300 million will go into cleaning up nonpoint source pollution in watershed and coastal resource improvement projects.

    Donna Frye, one of the citizen leaders who catalyzed this flow of money and programs, cautioned, however, that “state and local governments cannot do it by themselves. Involving citizens in developing solutions will be necessary if we are to be successful in controlling nonpoint source pollution. Changes in behavior and practices are required, and everyone has to play a role.”

    She continues to recruit new citizen stewards. Some college students recently asked her to help with a project they might do for a class while also helping their community. She suggested that they look into the water quality impacts of a controversial development proposal in Santee, some 20 miles upstream from Pacific Beach. They did, found that it would aggravate the watershed's nonpoint source pollution problems, then presented their research results at a press conference in Ocean Beach, at the mouth of the San Diego River. “They made the connection between downstream and upstream,” said Frye. “And the community voted against the development. This was their first involvement in local politics.”

    Marc Beyeler manages the Coastal Conservancy's Coastal Water Quality Program projects. This article is reprinted from the Conservancy's publication, California Coast & Ocean, Autumn 2000, vol 16, #3. www.coastalconservancy.ca.gov