Kevin Cody

Heal the Bay report shows ocean water quality problems persist

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Stormwater pools in front of the Herondo Street outfall along the border between Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach after a rainstorm in December 2016. Photo by Lazaro Serrano

by Ryan McDonald

Southern California’s progress toward improving ocean water quality remains halting, with clean conditions abounding during the summer months when beaches are most crowded, but swimming after rain still posing a significant threat of illness, according to a new report from Heal the Bay.

This year’s Beach Report Card, released last week, includes a look at water quality in beaches up and down the west coast for the period between April 2019 and March of 2020, including, for the first time, several beaches in the Tijuana area. While more than 90 percent of beaches in Los Angeles County received an A or B grade during the summer months, almost 60 percent received a C, D or F following a rain storm in the winter months; 46 percent received an F.

The seasonal distinction comes from the fact that rain, which in California falls overwhelmingly between November and March, washes pollutants that accumulate on area roads into storm drains and eventually into the ocean. This exposure can create serious health problems for those who enter the water in the days after a heavy rain.

“Beachgoers who visit beaches during or after a rain event have an increased risk of contracting ear infections, eye infections, upper respiratory infections, skin rashes and gastrointestinal illness,” the report stated.

Although overall beach usage is far higher during the summer, winter and the months surrounding it are more popular with many South Bay surfers for the more powerful waves that usually arrive in the region at that time of year. The best conditions also frequently occur immediately after a rainstorm. For example, in late November of last year, a morning that dawned with heavy rain and unfavorable wind cleared by the afternoon to reveal some of the best waves to hit the South Bay in years. Many surfers, however, made the painful decision to sit out the epic conditions because they feared the ample accumulated pollution floating in the lineup.

“Three hours after the first rain of the season. I don’t care how good it was, that’s about as toxic as it gets,” David Danon wrote on the popular forecasting website Surfline in response to a story about the waves in the South Bay that afternoon.

This year marked the 30th report from the Santa Monica-based nonprofit, and it included an analysis of how water quality had changed over time. It concluded that while summer water quality had improved, wet water quality during the winter months had actually declined over the past three decades.

In 2015, state law changed to require local agencies use the “zero-point” sampling method, which involves collecting ocean water near the sources of pollution, such as storm drain outfalls and creek mouths, rather than down the beach where the water may have diluted. Scientists say zero-point sampling more accurately reflects the load of pollutants entering the ocean, and pointed out that storm drains are so prevalent in the southern half of the Santa Monica Bay that it is difficult to avoid entering the ocean without being within 200 yards of one.

“In the past before zero-point sampling, there’d be collecting up coast or down coast of pollution inputs. It wasn’t telling the full story,” Luke Ginger, a water quality scientist with Heal the Bay, said. “People would swim near storm drains or creeks thinking the water was safe. I would see kids play in the lagoons that form near storm drains.”

The change makes it more challenging to compare current data to that from the ‘90s and the early years of the Millennium, and Ginger said it’s possible some of the decline is owed to the switch to zero-point. Statewide, wet weather water quality readings sharply declined after the adoption of the new methodology.  Los Angeles County decided on its own to use zero-point sampling in 2005, and Ginger said Heal the Bay is working on a comparison of data from L.A. County beaches over the last 15 years.

Three beaches in the South Bay earned the organization’s “Honor Roll” designation given to beaches that received an A+ for all seasons: Palos Verdes Cove, Palos Verdes Long Point, and Topaz Street in Redondo Beach. No beaches in the South Bay were included in the listing of annual “Beach Bummers,” which tabulate the most polluted beaches in California, and the Redondo Pier, who used to regularly appear on the Bummers list, has been off of it for several years.

But the data make it clear that the South Bay and other regions continue to struggle with post-rain conditions. For 2019-20, the Redondo Breakwater, on the border between Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, and 28th Street in Manhattan Beach, both received A grades during dry conditions, but F grades for wet weather. Both locations are located near large storm drains, and both are popular with surfers chasing waves from winter storms.

Ginger said that there are plenty of examples of beaches that have struggled with water quality in the past but which have seen dramatic improvement through the building of projects to capture and clean stormwater. He pointed to the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility, otherwise known as the SMURFF. SMURFF is adjacent to the Santa Monica Pier, which also used to regularly appear on the “Beach Bummers” list. Today, the filtered stormwater captured at the facility is recycled for other uses throughout the city, helping to reduce the area’s dependence on imported water.

“Projects that incorporate those elements, and then reuse [the water], that’s what we’re looking for. That’s fresh water, why let that get into the ocean?” Ginger said.

Until recently, pollution at the Redondo Breakwater area had been targeted with an infiltration project proposed for the area underneath the Greenbelt in Hermosa between Second Street and Herondo Street. The project would have captured the “first flush” of water flowing through the Herondo storm drain after rains and filtered it through an underground gallery and eventually back into the water table, akin to what would occur in the absence of impermeable pavement. However, opposition from residents living nearby moved Hermosa’s City Council to kill the project last year.

Hermosa, Redondo, Manhattan and Torrance, all of whom contribute to the stormwater that flows from the Herondo outfall, are nearing the dissolution of the multi-city agreement that would have funded the Greenbelt project, Hermosa’s City Manager Suja Lowenthal said late last month. A new agreement will be brought forward to the council in the coming weeks.

Lowenthal said that the new agreement will ensure that “any project sited in Hermosa will be sized more proportionately to our city’s share of the stormwater captured.”

Last year, experts said such a provision could make stormwater capture efforts more expensive and less effective, because it would make it harder to build the large regional projects that have so far been the bedrock strategy for addressing stormwater issues. Along with the Herondo drain, the 28th Street drain area in Manhattan has been identified as a “priority subwatershed” for the four-city group. It is unclear what effect, if any, dissolution might have on a future project there.

The Heal the Bay report did not address the fate of the Greenbelt project, but made clear that addressing stormwater will be a key part of continuing to improve ocean water quality.

“Heal the Bay has always advocated that stormwater runoff should be captured, cleaned and reused, instead of allowing it to pollute the ocean. While there have been many capture and reuse projects implemented across the state in the last 30 years, there needs to be a bigger emphasis placed on stormwater flows in addition to dry weather flows,” the report stated. ER

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