Pollution strikes La Jolla beaches

Experience makes one wonder: just what will it take to get the city to properly post polluted beaches ... or to permanently solve the problem.

by Gary Taylor
What surfers and some scientists have known for some time has been verified by county health officials: runoff from storm drains is polluted and poses a public health risk, and even upscale La Jolla is not immune.

The first week of October, signs warning of contaminated runoff were posted at three La Jolla beaches, and a grass roots environmental group is calling for increased monitoring of storm drain outfalls at 13 beaches between La Jolla Shores and Point Loma.

But a few day later, many of the signs had been removed, apparently by unwitting souvenir seekers, according to Donna Frye, spokeswoman fro Surfers Tired of Pollution (STOP).

After the group lobbied local elected officials, including San Diego City Councilmember Byron Wear, for better monitoring of storm drain outfalls at local beaches, county officials released test results showing outfall material running onto beaches to be far above acceptable standards for body contact.

Down for the count

County water standards regard water unsafe if more than 1,000 total coliform bacteria are found in 100 milliliters of water; another standard used the ratio of 200 fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. At the foot of Windansea Beach (Bonair Street), tests showed material coming from a storm drain to have 23,000 total coliform bacteria per 100 ml on July 29 and 16,000 on Aug. 8. Similar results were found at the foot of Avenida de la Playa at La Jolla Shores and Tourmaline Surf Park. County officials maintain that although the storm drain flow is above the body contact standards for recreation, ocean water levels have remained low.

That disclaimer is not good enough for Frye and others who see polluted runoff onto beaches as a real and present hazard, especially to children who play in the polluted water that tends to pool on the beach, even in dry weather. And despite the ocean's ability to disperse pollution, a study conducted along Los Angeles beaches concluded that people swimming and surfing near storm drains have a 50 percent higher chance of becoming ill.

"Many times, this liquid is clear and doesn't have a noticeable odor. There are no signs posted in the area and people make the wrong assumption that it must be okay," Frye said. Frye added that she has warned parents not to let their kids play in the runoff water, sometimes with less than positive results.

"Some people have told me to mind my own business, that if the water was polluted there would be sign posted," she added. "I tell them that it is polluted and there are no signs because the City says they don't have the money for monitoring the pollution or maintaining warning signs." One city employee incredulously claimed that the City couldn't put up the signs because of "liability problems." Frye points out that the liability should lie with the City not taking action where problems such as this are documented.

And down the drain

Since January, S.T.O.P. has compiled a list of 13 beaches with significant-sized storm drains in the area. At least a dozen more similar sized drains can be found at North County beaches. As a result of its research, STOP is calling for more extensive storm drain outfall monitoring, the permanent posting of signs in chronically polluted areas, and ultimately, diverting storm drain runoff into the sewage system where it can be treated and release through ocean outfalls. One such diversion system exists in Mission Bay.

Frye says there is funding available to finance testing and signs through a fee paid by San Diego city residents on their monthly sewer bill, and from a lawsuit settlement the city paid to clean up sewage spills at Los Peñasquitos Lagoon. However, city officials warn it will cost much more to permanently divert storm drain runoff into the sewer system, even during dry weather when the system is not taxed by heavy rains.

"Yes, it's going to cost money ," says Frye, "but isn't the money well spent to keep the people on the beaches safe? As a public health issue, to me it's a no-brainer. I guess you have to ask the question, 'How much is human health worth?'"

Gary Taylor is editor of The Beach News, a weekly newspaper distributed along the coast from Del Mar to Oceanside.

Late breaking news

Just as SDET was going to press, we obtained a memo signed by Council members Mathis and Wear to City Manager Jack McGrory requesting him to "expedite the completion of..." feasibility, costs and potential funding sources for constructing structures to divert low-flow storm drain runoff, a signage design for storm drain outlets where public contact with pollution is likely, and a report on storm drains at city beaches which have dry weather flows that the public could likely come in contact with.

The memo also acknowledges, "The County's tests found that bacteria counts in the runoff flowing across the beaches ... were at extremely unsafe levels for human contact. The County's policy is not to close the beaches in these instance unless the runoff is causing ocean bacteria counts to become harmful. As a result, while the public may be prevented from entering the ocean when it is polluted, it risks contact with bacteria laden runoff simply by walking on the beach. These stream of runoff can be especially attractive to children yet no warning signs or diversion systems are in place."

Way to go S.T.O.P! We're hopeful that Wear and Mathis will stay on the chase. Donna Frye will. Now let's hope for a timely response from Mr. McGrory and his staff, and check to see if other cities and the County get the idea.