Huge spills of raw sewage and oil have marred an otherwise good year for water quality on Southern California beaches, according to the 32nd annual Beach Reports Map released Wednesday, June 22 by the nonprofit Heal the Bay.
Luke Ginger, a water quality scientist at Santa Monica’s Heal the Bay and lead author of the report, said a series of infrastructure failures last year led to “heavy pollution” of the ocean off the coast of Southern California. And in the report itself, Ginger wrote, “Decision makers need to step up and invest heavily in infrastructure in addition to holding polluters accountable.”
But Ginger and other water experts noted that the biggest incidents over the past year are the 13 million gallon spill of sewage from the Hyperion Reclaimer in Los Angeles, a 7 million gallon spill of sewage in the Dominguez Strait, which flows into the ocean. near Long Beach and the 25,000-gallon oil spill near Huntington Beach were one-time events that resulted in short-term damage.
When measuring the most common sources of ocean pollution — raw pollutants that typically run off drainage systems into the ocean — Southern California beaches fared pretty well.
“These were isolated incidents that were harmful but temporary,” Ginger said, referring to what the report called a “summer of spills” during the four-month window of 2021.
“If you look at routine runoff problems in dry weather, it’s not that bad,” he added.
“The bottom line is that 94% of the beaches in California are considered clean most of the time.”
The Heal the Bay report, which has expanded over the years, tracks water quality at 500 statewide beaches during three separate periods: “dry summer” days from April 1 to November 1, “dry winter” days from November 2 to March 31, and “dry winter” days from November 2 to March 31; wet weather” after the storm.
In the 12 months ending March 31, 94% of beaches tested in California received an A or B rating during dry summer days, an average of previous years. A and B scores dropped to 88% on dry winter days, slightly below average for that time period, and to 66% on wet weather days, slightly above average compared to similar stormy periods in previous years.
RELATED: See all ratings for Los Angeles County and Orange County beaches.
This surge in water quality after the hurricane was an unexpected benefit of a harmful drought. Coastal counties in the state received 24% less rain than usual last year, reducing the amount of land-to-ocean pollution.
But in previous years, drought has exacerbated ocean pollution, and experts say that is likely to be true in the future as well. Wildfires, which are stronger and more frequent during droughts, pollute the ocean, creating clouds of pollutants that rise into the sky and eventually fall to the surface of the water.
“It’s safe to say that drought is causing more wildfires, and more wildfires are degrading water and air quality,” Ginger said.
The Heal the Bay report provided details of specific conditions in each of the state’s coastal counties.
In Los Angeles County, the report was mixed. Testing showed that 90% of the county’s beaches had clear water on dry days, a situation described as “excellent” in the report. But after the storms, testing showed clean water on only 43% of the county’s beaches. The report also notes that in addition to major spills in Hyperion and Dominguez Strait, the county’s beaches were affected by 87 small sewage spills.
The report was better in Orange County, where 99% of beaches were clear on dry days and 66% were clear after storms. The report states that approximately 6,700 gallons of sewage was sent into the ocean off Orange County from 13 different sewage spills.
The report also lists six beaches in Los Angeles County and 19 beaches in Orange County on the “Honor Roll”, meaning the water is considered clean almost year-round under most conditions. Statewide, only about 10% (51) of all beaches tested met this standard.
Conversely, the water at some beaches in Los Angeles and Orange counties turned out to be dirtier.
The waters near the Santa Monica Pier and two sections of Mother Beach in Marina del Rey (at the lifeguard tower and in the area between the tower and the dock) were listed by Heal the Bay as “Beach Bums”. In Orange County, Vaughn’s boat in Newport Bay received the same designation.
But according to the report, the problems on these beaches were not necessarily man-made.
Seagulls and other birds contribute to faecal water pollution near the Santa Monica Pier, a common problem at many piers in Southern California. And the water at the beaches of Marina del Rey and Vaughn’s boat is not well tested because these areas are closed, with poor circulation and limited access to the open ocean.
But according to Ginger and other water scientists, assessments of individual beaches and the report as a whole give only an idea of the general state of the ocean.
The data used in the report is based primarily on tests conducted by the government during the year. This means that the vast majority of beaches in Southern California are not regularly inspected enough to meet the requirements of the Heal the Bay report.
Testing usually also only looks at sewage-related contaminants, including bacteria and feces, which can make swimmers and surfers susceptible to rashes and stomach ailments, among other health problems. Many unmonitored contaminants — microplastics, viruses, chemicals, barrels of poison — are known to be harmful to humans and in the ocean off the coast of Southern California.
“The thought is that testing is looking for contaminants that can make a person sick quite quickly … within a day or two of exposure,” Ginger said. “Others (pollutants) will require long-term exposure or are at such low concentrations that they do not pose such a threat.”
In addition, since 2015, state-sanctioned tests have been carried out mainly in places where runoff or streams discharge water from land into the ocean. These tests are more likely to detect more contaminants than if you were testing even at 100 yards.
Overall, water scientists suggest that water quality on beaches in Southern California has improved over recent decades, showing a slow but steady improvement that reflects what was seen in air quality in the region from the 1950s to the late 2010s.
“People are more aware of what they shouldn’t be doing, like dumping things down storm drains or letting pollutants go straight into the ocean,” said Harry Brown, founder and president of Orange County Coastkeeper, which is part of a chain of non-profit organizations of the same name. who work to improve water quality across the state.
But just as local air quality is showing signs of deterioration, Brown and others say long-term improvements in water quality are threatened by population growth and global warming.
“We are constantly learning new things about the ocean. And we’ve barely defined “ocean acidification,” Brown said.
“What we do know is that about 25% of the carbon we produce is taken up by the ocean.”
He and others noted that this year’s Heal the Bay report was prepared on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act of 1972. water in the United States to something close to its natural state. While this standard has not been reached, Brown and others suggest that the law remains a powerful force in keeping the ocean clean enough for swimming and surfing.
“Coastal water has improved,” Brown said. “It’s been years of work and it’s not perfect, but it’s gotten better.”