Flunking Out on Beach Testing

beach_testing_photoThe state budget crisis has, sadly, led to cuts in worthy government-funded programs across California.  One of the latest victims is the state’s beach monitoring program, which measures water quality at hundreds of sites along the California coastline. Collected water samples constitute the cornerstone of Heal the Bay’s Beach Report Card, and more importantly, the basis of health agency decision-making on protecting public health.  With the governor cutting regular ocean testing with his blue pencil, and the budget crisis leading to a freeze on all state bond-funded programs, there now is no more state money to pay for beach monitoring.

How have the health agencies responded?

Many in Southern California have had to severely cut back their winter-monitoring programs, including Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.  In fact, San Diego County Department of Environmental Health (DEH) has eliminated its ocean testing all together, both winter and summer.

Even more troubling is that the State Water Resources Control Board’s Beach Water Quality Work Group advocates rolling back monitoring programs during the summer months under the guise of a “Model Monitoring program.” Unfortunately, there is nothing model about the program, which was shaped by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, health agencies, Regional Water Quality Control Boards and dischargers. The plan calls for reduced monitoring frequency at numerous locations and reduced monitoring during peak swimming months such as October, one of the warmest air and water temperature months of the year.

No state money means minimal public health protection at the beach. Bottom line: If you swim or surf year round in San Diego or Ventura counties, there’s a good chance that your beach is no longer being monitored. Don’t be surprised if your surf session gives you a little more than you bargained for, like a nasty case of stomach flu.

The case of San Diego County is the most disturbing in the state.  Although the DEH has eliminated its monitoring program, other agencies like local sewage treatment plants and the city of San Diego are still monitoring beaches.  Those agencies monitor approximately 40% of the beaches in San Diego County, including Oceanside, Carlsbad, Cardiff, Point Loma, Mission Bay and Ocean Beach. But other popular surfing spots, such as San Onofre (including upper Trestles), Encinitas (including Swami’s), Del Mar, La Jolla, Pacific Beach and most of  Imperial Beach are no longer monitored, thanks to the health department budget cut.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the health department doesn’t even use the data from the monitored beaches to make public health risk management decisions.  That means that beach water samples at locations such as Oceanside, Cardiff State Beach, and Solana Beach can come back screaming hot, and the health department won’t do so much as post the beach with a warning sign. The DEH is inexplicably shirking its responsibility to protect public health.  Reviewing data and sending out health protection orders does not take a major effort, yet surfers and swimmers are being left to enter the ocean at their own risk because of the county’s lack of action.

In Los Angeles County, the monitoring program along Santa Monica Bay and at Cabrillo Beach will remain unaffected because the county puts a premium on beach monitoring and a lot of the testing is required in the county’s stormwater permit.  However, financial cutbacks are leading to serious discussions in Long Beach to reduce its beach monitoring efforts, a major concern in light of the scale and magnitude of the city’s beach water quality problems.

Recently, Heal the Bay started receiving some of the data from the other monitoring agencies so we will start putting it back on our Beach Report Card.  But our report card is a poor substitute for public health warnings and sign postings.

All of  the hard work that went in to helping to create the California beach monitoring program, beach water quality standards, and public notification requirements is in jeopardy unless the environmental community and the public is heard soon. I strongly urge local enviro groups like Surfrider, Coastkeeper and Wild Coast, and beachgoers throughout Southern California, to make some noise as soon as possible.  You can submit comments on State Water Board policies to info@waterboards.ca.gov.

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One Response

  1. Souting off,
    well spouted and mostly accurate. It does make one wonder how a county such as San Diego, which has a cultural identity interwoven in ocean water recreation (not to mention the millions of dollars from that industry and tourism) can simply say, ‘well, the state isn’t paying for it, so we’re just gonna drop it’.

    Just for the record, the following locations in SD County are still being monitored by other agencies, but DEH is not reviewing the data: Oceanside, Carlsbad, Cardiff and Solana Beach, some City of San Diego beaches (but not Mission Bay or the San Diego River outlet), 8 stations from the border to Coronado, and Pt Loma.

    The locations no longer being monitored (by DEH) include most major river and lagoon outlets in the county and Mission Bay and San Diego Bay.

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