Wednesday, July 26, 2006 | Two hours after an e-mail from the county’s Department of Environmental health was sent to reporters Tuesday announcing sewage contamination in Mission Bay, 5-year-old Larissa Fry was still frolicking knee-deep in the dirty water.

Neither Fry nor her aunt were told to avoid the water until early afternoon – minutes before Mayor Jerry Sanders arrived at the Mission Bay visitor center to announced the closure of 18 miles of shoreline along the bay’s eastern half.

The timing gap between the announcement and swimmers being told to leave the water was reflective of the confusion surrounding a sewage spill that started July 5 in De Anza Harbor Resort – but was only reported Tuesday.

City and county officials were not sure of the exact source, extent or starting date of the spill at the De Anza mobile home park – or even which city or county employee reported it Tuesday. But the delayed report prompted a massive closure of Mission Bay, something Sanders described as a precautionary measure.

Before Tuesday, health officials had periodically posted advisories for certain spots at the bay after finding elevated levels of E. coli bacteria since July 5. The boosted bacteria levels were originally thought to have come from the mass of holiday swimmers, the mayor said.

However, officials were unaware of any potential sewage spill that would have caused them to officially close Mission Bay, a popular summertime recreation and water sports area, during a month of record-breaking heat.

Gary Erbeck, director of the county Department of Environmental Health, said that E. coli levels continued to be high in subsequent water tests, which made it appear as if another source were responsible.

E. coli counts – an indicator of fecal contamination from people and animals – were above permitted levels at eight Mission Bay spots tested July 5. They decreased July 9, before returning to normal July 11. Samples taken July 18 showed bacteria counts were back above permitted limits.

But no sewage spills or backups were ever reported. Without that information, Erbeck said, the county couldn’t close the water. An advisory can’t be enforced; a closure can.

On Tuesday, either a county or city employee who had visited De Anza Harbor Resort over the Fourth of July holiday weekend reported seeing a sewage spill July 5. Within hours, county environmental health officials decided to close the eastern part of bay. It will remain closed until county water tests produce three consecutive clean samples.

City crews are still trying to determine the origin of the spill. A news release from the county Department of Environmental Health pointed to a blocked sewer line. The management company responsible for the line may not have cleared the blockage, it said.

Dr. James Dunford, the city’s medical director, said symptoms of exposure typically occur within three days and are not serious. He said they include minor stomach ache and flu-like symptoms. If a stomach problem doesn’t go away, call a doctor, Dunford said – not 911.

But swimmers who had been in Mission Bay on Tuesday morning were clearly worried. They scurried to wash off after lifeguards told them to leave the water.

There was Lynn Vu, dripping wet after waterskiing on Mission Bay for an hour. She said she smelled something strange, got a headache and decided to come in.

There was Patty Hill, safely on shore, shouting to her daughter and grandchildren about to hop off a boat.

“Don’t touch the water!” the Santee woman hollered. “There will be no more jet-skiing, no swimming!”

Hill, whose children had been swimming since 10 a.m., said she’d grown accustomed to water contamination while living in Imperial Beach. The most recent water closure in that southern San Diego town was just lifted last Thursday.

“In this beautiful city with this beautiful bay,” Hill said, “this happens more than it should.”

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