America's Finest City has America's most polluted beaches
by Carolyn Chase and NRDC
NRDC report shows 1,347 California beach closings and advisories from
pollution in 1995: 437 more than in 1994. San Diego Tops list with 338 closings
and advisories and 3 permanent closures
he American public's straightforward distrust of government
seemed well-founded when upon returning to "America's Finest City"
I received a report noting that San Diego's beaches were the most closed
and most often polluted, and the figures were rising, not falling.
While it's popular to point to Mexican sewage as the
main source of the problem, a glance through the report of beach closings
reveals that the vast number of sewage-related closings are too far north
to be Mexican sewage. No, it's relatively pure homegrown waste.
What's the deal?
The past few years have seen rising sewer fees - but
where is our sewer system for the 21st century? Not here in San Diego. Compared
to Tijuana, this is a sanitary paradise; compared to the rest of the country,
the beaches are still - as so well put during the America's Cup sewer fiasco
a few years back - "where the effluent meets the affluent."
It's closing time
The state of California features some of the most popular
beach spots in the country for tourists and residents alike. Yet these beachgoers
are not assured of safe swimming water. Beach closings and advisories along
California's beaches topped l,300 for 1995 - up 437 from 1994, according
to the sixth annual Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report, Testing
the Waters VI: Who Knows What You 're Getting Into?
Among California's highest list of closures and advisories
were: San Diego with 338 closings and advisories and three permanent beach
closings; San Francisco with 331 closings and advisories; Santa Barbara
with 224 closings and advisories and three permanent beach closings; San
Mateo with 180 advisories and closings and one permanent beach closing;
and Orange County with 132 advisories and closings.
Testing the Waters V noted that disease-carrying
organisms, primarily from stormwater runoff and sewage overflows, prompted
3,522 closings and advisories last year at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches
across the nation. This is an increase of 50 percent over 1994's figures.
The NRDC report surveyed more than 32 coastal and Great Lakes states as
well as U.S. territories.
While California has set standards for beachwater quality
in the California Code of Regulations (CCR), and does require posting of
closings and advisories as well as regular reports to the state for violation
of CCR standards, monitoring and closure proceedings are left up to the
counties. Some counties, such as Ventura, Mendocino, and Santa Barbara,
do not have a regular monitoring program in place.
In 1995, nine of California's 17 counties and the Pt.
Reyes National Seashore regularly monitored their ocean and bay beachwater
for swimmer safety. These nine counties are: Alameda, Los Angeles, Monterey,
Orange, San Diego, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo, and Santa
Cruz. In addition to regular monitoring, Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Cruz
and San Diego counties also issue rainfall advisories. But several counties
that support robust coastal recreation, including Santa Barbara, Ventura,
Marin, Mendocino, Del Norte, Contra Costa, Humbolt and Sonoma, do not have
regular recreational beach monitoring programs.
A higher standard
The report also notes that the California code includes
only a standard for total coliform, which is an indicator bacteria that
is not necessarily disease-carrying itself, but is present when disease-carrying
pathogens are present. Both the EPA and the National Technical Advisory
Committee reject this standard as inadequate.
California's State Water Quality Board has a California
Ocean Plan that does contain standards for enterococcus and fecal coliform
- bacteria born in animal and human waste that can cause illnesses or indicate
the presence of other harmful bacteria - but few counties have adopted these
While testing and publicizing more than most counties,
San Diego has not adopted these new standards. San Diego still only tests
for e coli along 61 miles of County coastal waters from San Clemente to
"It's a big misconception that monitoring programs
are prohibitively expensive," said Dare Fuller, attorney and Testing
the Waters author. "Average monitoring costs among the most comprehensive
and recommended programs are about $2,650 per mile. These monitoring costs
are reasonable and well worth the investment in public health and swimmer
Local pollution solution
In the last 5 months, 509 samples were taken, with a
"lot of non-detects" - but many positives as well. The County
Department of Environmental Health usually issues 1 to 2 advisories per
week but has no budget to increase test types or do much preventative work.
They seem to always be in a reaction mode from crisis to crisis. Everyone
loves the beach and the water and would really, really like it to be clean,
but somehow either the funds or the execution is lacking.
San Diego County beaches are impacted by local sources
of pollution. The San Diego Baykeeper and NRDC are working to get polluters
such as the San Diego shipyards to start complying with direct discharge
and stormwater laws.
And then, of course, there's the sewage-contaminated
waters from Mexico's Tijuana River, which discharges at southern San Diego
beaches. 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.
The Mexican government and the EPA have joined forces
to construct a new sewage treatment plant. The International Boundary and
Water Commission Project finalized an Environmental Impact Statement in
1994, and construction of the plant is underway. The advanced primary treatment
facility is expected to be on-line in December 1996. The Regional Board
is currently considering how to permit the facility, since it is a foreign
facility discharging into San Diego's waters.
Monitoring would seem the minimum required at this point,
but when are we going to build the sewer systems needed to handle what we
have - or stop permitting additions to the system? When are we going to
get serious about reducing the amount of sewage failure and overflow pollution
on our coast? How about a moratorium on new sewer hookups until beach closure
and pollution rates fall? Any and all area mayors and council members are
encouraged to reply.
For questions about testing and monitoring, contact Kathy Stone, County
Department of Environmental Health: 338-2386 . The entire Testing the Waters
VI report can be accessed through NRDC's Web site at http://www.nrdc.org.
San Diego County 1995 Ocean and Bay Closings and Advisories
Closed Open Beach Source/Cause
1/1 2/8 Mission Bay Rain
1/3 1/6 Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) rain
1/4 1/19 Imperial Beach Rain/sewage
1/5 1/8 Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) Sewage contamination
1/6 1/15 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
1/7 1/17 Cardiff St. Bch. Sewage overflows
1/8 1/11 Batiquitos Lgn. Sewage overflows
1/12 1/15 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
1/12 1/15 Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) sewage contamination
1/14 1/19 Buena Vista Lgn. Sewage overflows
1/19 1/23 Windansea Pk. Sewage overflows
1/25 1/27 Cardiff Sewage overflows
1/25 1/30 Imperial Beach Rain/sewage
2/2 2/6 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
2/4 2/7 Cardiff Sewage overflows
2/14 2/17 Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) rain
2/14 2/23 Imperial Beach Rain/sewage
2/15 2/23 Mission Bay Rain
2/24 2/28 Imperial Beach Rain/sewage
2/26 3/1 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
2/26 3/27 Mission Bay Rain
3/1 3/31 Imperial Beach Rain/sewage
3/5 3/8 Buena Vista Lgn. Rain/sewage
3/5 3/14 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
3/6 3/9 Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) Sewage contamination
3/6 3/18 Batiquitos Lgn Sewage overflows
3/6 3/29 Cardiff Sewage overflows
3/11 3/17 San Onofre SB Sewage overflows
3/12 3/15 Countywide advisory* (Precautionary) Rain
3/27 3/28 La Jolla Pump-station failure
4/15 4/18 Cardiff Sewage overflows
4/17 4/24 Mission Bay Rain
4/25 4/30 Imperial Beach Pump-station failure
4/26 4/28 La Jolla Pump-station failure
5/1 5/3 Imperial Beach Pump-station failure
5/11 5/13 Imperial Beach Pump-station failure
5/22 5/25 Cardiff Sewage overflows
5/27 6/2 Mission Bay Rain
6/15 6/18 La Jolla Pump-station failure
6/20 6/23 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
7/1 7/5 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
7/4 7/7 Sunset Cliffs Sewage overflows
7/14 7/16 Windansea Pk. Sewage overflows
7/23 7/25 Sunset Cliffs Sewage overflows
8/4 8/9 La Jolla Pump-station failure
8/7 8/11 Torrey Pines State Park Sewage overflows
8/26 8/28 Windansea Pk. Sewage overflows
8/31 9/2 Sunset Cliffs Sewage overflows
9/3 9/7 Del Mar Beach Sewage overflows
9/7 9/9 Mission Bay Sewage overflows
9/8 9/9 La Jolla Pump-station failure
9/16 9/18 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
9/22 9/25 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
10/14 10/16 Del Mar Beach Sewage overflows
10/26 10/29 Carlsbd St. Bch. Sewage overflows
11/12 11/14 San Diego Bay Sewage overflows
12/1 12/2 Torrey Pines State Park Sewage overflows
permanent San Luis Rey River Outlet, Oceanside Chronically poor water quality
permanent Loma Alta Lagoon,Buccaneer Bch,O'side Chronically poor water quality
permanent South end of Seacoast Dr.to the Int'l Border Chronically poor water quality
Subtotal: at least 338, plus 3 permanent
* Advisory warns against swimming in coastal recreational waters throughout
the county near storm drains, creeks, rivers, and lagoon outlets.