Another sewage stained summer on O.C. beaches : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

Friday, April 28, 2000 | Print this story

Another Sewage-Stained Summer on O.C. Beaches? Health: The 20 shoreline closures so far this year almost equal all of last year's, and still no solution is in sight.


With beaches closing and bacteria counts surging, worry is spreading up and down Orange County's picturesque 42-mile coastline about the summer season ahead--and a long-term threat to the local way of life.

"We are a coastal county," said Wayne Baglin, chairman of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board and a former Laguna Beach city councilman. "Our beaches are key to not only generating revenue but also for the quality of life that we all enjoy."

The county has already had 20 beach closures caused by sewage spills this year--only two shy of the total for all of 1999. And as the one-year anniversary of the big Huntington Beach closure approaches, bacteria levels from a still-unknown source are once again escalating there. A suspected cause is urban runoff--the brew of trash, chemicals and poisons washed of lawns and streets into gutters--which flows unfettered to many county beaches by way of storm channels and creeks.

"What's happening is very disappointing and truly frustrating," Orange County Supervisor Tom Wilson said. "It's disappointing because a lot of work has been done by a lot of folks focusing on what's happening at our beaches and especially Huntington Beach." From quasi-governmental water quality organizations springing up along the coast to forums being held by prominent business groups, officials have been taking action. Several studies funded by local and state governments are seeking the source of the Huntington Beach pollution. At least five coastal cities are making a preemptive strike against urban runoff by diverting polluted water to treatment plants before it hits the beach.

But some worry that a failure to address the root causes--from aging sanitary systems to over-watered gardens--will prevent solving the problem of coastal pollution.

"There is no doubt in my mind that it will get worse each and every day," Baglin said, "until we turn the corner and stop pollution coming from each individual business and residence and street."

Michael Beanan, chairman of Laguna Beach's Ocean Water Quality Advisory Committee, said he too anticipates an escalation in beach closings--and a related drop in tourism.

"There has been no substantive improvement in the management of suburban runoff in Orange County, so the likelihood is it's going to be as bad or worse," said Beanan, an artist and former UC Irvine administrator.

Blocked Pipes the Major Culprit The closures caused by sewage spills have primarily been related to raw waste seeping from blocked lines. Activists say this points to a need for increased maintenance of aging sewer systems, as well as more inspections and enforcement actions against polluters who illegally dump grease into their lines.

"It definitely means there needs to be a greater focus on sewage infrastructure within the region," said Mark Gold, director of Heal the Bay.

The 20 beach closures so far this year represent a worrisome trend. There were only eight such closures by this point in 1999. There were 23 recorded in the first four months of 1998, but that was an extraordinary year in which heavy El Niqo rains overwhelmed sewage systems.

Stretches of Seal Beach and Dana Point remained closed to swimmers Thursday because of raw sewage spills. Swimmers and surfers are also advised to avoid parts of Huntington Beach, Newport Bay and Dana Point now because of high bacteria levels. Three spots in the county also have long-term postings because of persistent contamination from urban runoff.

Health officials in Los Angeles County are not seeing the same escalating problem this year. "We're seeing the usual poor water quality, the same problems we usually see during the first four months of every year" in L.A. County, said Gold, noting that Orange County has had the greatest number of spill-related closures so far this year of the four counties his group monitors.

However, officials said one reason for optimism is the unprecedented multi-agency effort to clean up the ocean. "I truly believe it's going to happen because it's getting historic attention. It never received as much attention as the past year," Supervisor Wilson said.

San Clemente Mayor Susan Ritschel said she has seen more interest in water quality issues among leaders of inland communities--the source of much of the runoff that fouls beaches.

"It is gaining momentum," Ritschel said. "In years past, it was a small group of the environmental community that was most sincere and most aware. Now it's becoming much more commonplace. That will benefit the coastal communities."

New groups, such as Wilson's Coastal Coalition, have brought local agencies together, creating more clout when seeking grants.

City governments, water districts and major landowners are also heavily involved in two major U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studies of Aliso and San Juan creeks, two of Orange County's most polluted waterways that empty into the ocean.

Wilson also began "Runoff 101," a presentation on water quality that was made to elected city officials from his district earlier this year to help them promote policies that will minimize contamination. It is being expanded countywide, with encouraging response, he said.

Water quality advisory groups are also prompting city councils to take a harder look at local pollution problems.

Regardless of the effort, some worry that the county's image--and economy--are threatened by the decline in water quality.

Sean Collins, whose Huntington Beach-based Surfline network provides surf reports worldwide, said a growing perception of pollution problems at Orange County beaches could raise difficult hurdles for beach businesses.

Yet even with reports of elevated pollution, Collins said he believes local beaches are cleaner than those in other surfing meccas, such as Hawaii, Mexico and Australia.

"The level of [media] exposure is so much greater that people are more inclined to think it is a bigger problem than it is," he said. On the pier at Seal Beach, children, fishermen and tourists expressed sorrow and anger over the problems of ocean water quality.

They worried most about the environmental dangers they couldn't see or understand. Sarge Henritzy, 66, of Huntington Beach has fished off county beaches for nearly 40 years.

"Thirty years ago, there were a lot of great fish out here. They aren't here anymore. This year in particular has been a very, very bad year for fish, and no one knows why, but the pollution is here," he said. "Why don't they do something to stop it? You can't swim, you can't fish."

Like others on the pier, Henritzy wouldn't eat what he caught.

Daniel Lopez of Montebello echoed that concern. "You think twice about where you want to take your family," he said. "That's why we choose to go to Orange County beaches, with the image they have of being cleaner than ones in Los Angeles. I don't know if that's true anymore."

Walking with two folding beach chairs, one on each arm, 10-year-old Wilson Sandoval swerved to take a closer look at the bronze statue of Slick the seal at the end of the pier.

He has never seen a living one. His mother, Patricia, doesn't believe he will. She said she doesn't expect recent attempts by the city to attract the once-abundant mammals that gave the town its name will succeed.

Years ago, she went to the beach every weekend. Now she rarely goes, and she won't let her children swim in the water.

"It's sad, especially for the children," she said. "Animals are disappearing from the environment, and the water causes diseases. The city and industry should do something about it."

Some tourists at Seal Beach also said they were disappointed by beaches they heard were among the best in the nation. Jarod Kimber, who was vacationing from Milwaukee, settled for taking a picture with friends in front of the Slick statue, though he wished he could see a live seal.

He expected cleaner water and nicer sand too. Instead, he found sewage. "It smelled kind of ripe," Kimber said. "It's nice out here, but other beaches on the Gulf Coast are 100 times nicer."

Beanan says Orange County eventually will solve the problem--most likely after it has become an unmistakable crisis.

"Another summer of tourist cancellations and closed beaches and growing fears of decreasing real estate values will probably be what it's going to take," he said, "to finally alert people that this problem is not going to go away."

Times staff writer Willoughby Mariano and correspondent Monte Morin contributed to this report.

* * *

Stay Out of the Water Less than four months into 2000, Orange County has seen 20 beach closures caused by sewage spills -- two fewer than the total in all of 1999.

-- - (x@xxx.cQm), April 28, 2000


Last time I heard this story it was claimed that the pollution was drifting up from Tijuana. Maybe we can figure a way to blame it on the Miami Cubans.

-- (, April 29, 2000.

Raw sewage on beaches is a good thing. It means corporate profits are being maximized and this will be reflected in your next 401k paper one's and zero's statement.

And for God's sake don't imply that there's some sort of problem with the world. You sound like 'a' the Eveready bunny of doom. You're makinjg the same mistake as the Club of Rome. You see the facts are tat blah blah blah blah blah blah


-- Ben Pecker (@ .), April 29, 2000.

Aging pipes again. Maybe the money that they want to use to investigate the Elian removal could be used instead to create jobs for more people by repairing those pipes. But then that would make too much sense and is not that good for the "public relations" needed to get re-elected.

-- Cherri (, April 29, 2000.

I don't understand the worry about broken pipes in relation to San Diego. My understanding is that San Diego dumps ALL its raw sewage directly into the ocean. Their idea of sewage treatment is to put it a mile offshore.

Am I right?


-- jumpoff joe (jumpoff@echoweb.neet), April 29, 2000.


I couldn't agree more. My pipes are aging badly and I say to screw Elian and let's get my pipes repaired.

-- (, April 30, 2000.

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