SANTA MONICA BAY — Water quality at Los Angeles County beaches is not getting any better and Santa Monica is no exception, according to a report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Urban runoff, water that flows through developed areas and into the ocean, remains the major culprit, and the NRDC is pushing for infrastructure improvements and more stringent restrictions from the Environmental Protection Agency to fix the problem, said Noah Garrison, an attorney with the organization.
“What this report shows is that the problem is not going away,” Garrison said. “We have beautiful, world class beaches that are relatively clean that are next to heavily polluted beaches.”
The report, called “Testing the Waters,” lists 200 of the nation’s most popular beaches and documents how often officials tested the water quality, how many times the tests revealed excessive amounts of fecal bacteria and how often the beaches had to be closed as a result.
The NRDC delves more deeply in its individual state reports, which show that California officials closed 430 beaches for 5,515 days in 2012 over pollution concerns.
Measurements taken at eight locations within Santa Monica’s borders show either improvements or a steady state of pollution across the year, with only the water around the Santa Monica Pier jumping up significantly in terms of bacteria.
Approximately 26 percent of samples taken at that location showed contamination compared to 23 percent in 2011, and the water had to be closed for 97 days rather than 84.
A report by Heal the Bay, another Santa Monica environmental nonprofit, found a similar problem that appeared in the winter of 2012. It chalked up the dip in water quality to broken netting underneath the pier that allowed pigeons to roost and drop their excrement into the water.
Santa Monica has done much more than install a net to improve its formerly mixed record on water quality.
The city no longer contributes to runoff pollution during the summer because of a series of diversion systems that move water to the Hyperion Water Treatment Plant for cleaning.
That isn’t an option in wet weather, however, when the deluge of water overwhelms the diversion mechanisms, Garrison said.
“It’s important that we deal with dry weather runoff when we have tourists, residents at the beaches and it’s great to see things like that going in place,” Garrison said. “We have to get to the root cause of this.”
Polluted water has major health consequences for swimmers. An excess of fecal bacteria can cause stomach flu, skin rashes, pink eye or respiratory infections. It can also be at the root of dangerous diseases like meningitis or hepatitis.
Children are at the highest risk because they’re more likely to swallow water while swimming, according to the report.
What’s worse, the technology used to test the water takes between 24 and 48 hours to deliver results, making it near impossible to tell the difference between two stretches of water and sand until two days after a person or family has visited the beach.
Officials are testing faster technologies, but they’re not yet ready for prime time, according to the report, nor is an effort by Santa Monica nonprofit Heal the Bay and Stanford University that researchers hope will enable officials to predict water quality problems before they happen.
The team is halfway through a two-year project, which is looking at 25 beaches of varying types throughout California, said Amanda Griesbach, a water quality scientist with Heal the Bay.
The team measures wind direction, water temperature, the movement of currents and a host of other variables to see if they play any factor in water quality, and how they can be used to predict what the water quality will be like on any given day, Griesbach said.
“It’s the most comprehensive view of what’s going on at these beaches. Any information we can get a hold of from the past eight years we’re looking to include in the model to give a better understanding of what we can expect in the future as far as water quality,” Griesbach said.
The NRDC backs infrastructure both locally and regionally to solve the urban runoff conundrum. The process involves trapping rain water where it falls and filtering it through the ground before it can flow down Los Angeles’ streets, picking up pollutants as it goes.
“The issue becomes then, having built up all this pavement and created all these surfaces that will create stormwater runoff, we have to start looking for solutions to protect our waters,” Garrison said.
A Los Angeles County measure would have raised $290 million per year from property taxes to pay for infrastructure projects throughout the region, but it stalled before the Board of Supervisors earlier this year.
Fixing water quality problems may sound expensive, but it has as much to do with economics as anything else.
Counties near the water contributed $5.7 trillion to the nation’s gross domestic product and roughly 48.6 million jobs, according to a 2009 report from the National Ocean Economics Program.
Santa Monica tourism groups sell the city by the sea on its pristine beaches, an industry that brings in 7.3 million people from outside Los Angeles County that pumped $1.5 billion into the local economy in 2012.