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Thursday, January 05, 2006 | Nobody wants to swim in feces, but some beachgoers may unknowingly be doing just that.
Recent rainfall prompted county officials to issue water advisories across San Diego’s entire coastline, warning that the coastal waters do not meet the state’s clean-water standards for bacteria levels. Some beaches, such as the county’s southern-most, were closed entirely because of contaminated waters.
The increased rainfall that helped ring in (or drown out) the New Year also brought with it a greater risk of sewage spills, overflowing septic tanks and storm drain runoff. This contamination drains into coastal waters and increases the risk for surfers and swimmers of contracting gastrointestinal disease, upper respiratory tract infections and Hepatitis A, by swallowing water or through open cuts.
To inform beachgoers and bay enthusiasts of the conditions, the county’s environmental health department issues water advisories whenever rainfall in San Diego exceeds 0.2 inches. It also issues beach closures when it determines that there are, in fact, disease-causing bacteria in coastal waters.
But county officials are currently forced to issue beach closures – the more severe of the warnings – retroactively. That could change with a new testing method in the works.
The existing detection method used to determine bacteria levels in San Diego’s oceans takes about 24 hours to complete. This process involves growing bacteria in a laboratory, and then testing to see if any pathogens – microorganisms that cause disease – are present.
“You take samples to the laboratory and grow things up, and then look for evidence of bacteria,” said Steve Weisberg, director of the Southern California Coastal Research Project. “That leads you to tell people, ‘You know, you shouldn’t have been swimming yesterday.’”
Weisberg said that his group is currently developing a detection method that will allow officials to issue warnings within two-to-three hours. It involves extracting DNA – which grows more rapidly than bacteria – from a water sample and growing it in a laboratory.
He said that researchers could be ready to present this method to county officials as early as May.
But for the time being, many San Diego surfers are at ease braving the deep murky sea to catch the huge swells that struck the county’s coastline in the past two weeks.
County officials recommend not entering the ocean for 72 hours after a significant (0.2 inches or more) rainfall.
Surfers however, were out in (slightly less than full) force Tuesday, only 24 hours after heavy rainstorms hit Southern California.
Most of the surfers, swimmers and skim-boarders who tackled La Jolla Shores’ oversized tides on Tuesday said they were aware of the 72-hour water advisories, but were simply not concerned.
One La Jolla resident, Ted Spyropoulos, avoided the ocean on Tuesday because of its choppiness, but not because of its contamination.
“I can’t go around living my life like that,” Spyropoulos said, while watching the swells from his pickup truck in a La Jolla parking lot. “If they put up signs or something like that I wouldn’t go out, but you can’t live your life afraid.”
San Diego County officials however, do not have the resources to put signs along all 52 miles of the region’s recreational coastline. They only put signs where they issue beach closures, leaving some surfers in the dark about potential health risks at other sites that fall under water advisories.
Clay Clifton, a county environmental health specialist, said his department’s winter budget for bacteria detection and notification comes solely from a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the winter months. This funding is used to conduct testing on San Diego’s coastline and to put up the beach closure signs that commonly appear along Imperial Beach when rainstorms hit the county.
His cash-and employee-strapped department cannot afford to print enough of the $6 signs to post them every 50 feet for 52 miles if they were to post water advisories following every rainfall of 0.2 inches or more. If it were to do so, it would need to produce an estimated 5,490 signs at a cost of nearly $33,000 – surpassing the department’s winter budget. It would then need the cooperation of local lifeguards to disseminate the notices.
For now, beachgoers might be content braving the contamination, or checking the county’s Web site for warnings.
Adam Crocker, a 21-year-old University of California, San Diego student said notices might deter him from tackling post-rainfall San Diego swells, but it is not likely.
“I’ve gone out after some pretty big storms and I haven’t gotten sick from it,” Crocker said with a stereotypical surfer nonchalance shortly before entering the ocean.
A 2000 report by San Diego County’s Environmental Health Department showed that half of all reported illnesses occurred when swimmers entered the ocean during a rainfall advisory. Twenty-three percent of illnesses occurred because of sewage spills and 21 percent occurred during beach closures, according to the report.
The most instances of illness took place at Imperial Beach and Oceanside City Beach.
On Tuesday, the city of San Diego reported that sewage spills are down 84 percent since 2000, and are currently at an all time low.
Please contact Sam Hodgson directly at