SM BAY — Students at Santa Monica High School were shocked to see extremely high levels of bacteria present in the waters here following last week’s heavy rains.
The students, enrolled in the Surfrider Teach & Test program monitoring water quality in the Santa Monica Bay, found bacteria levels weighing in at more than double what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers safe, warning surfers and swimmers to make sure they stay out of the water for at least 72 hours after it rains.
The rains send urban pollutants and fecal bacteria into storm drains and onto local beaches, raising the risk for contracting a serious infection, said Lindsey Jurca, educational chair for the Surfrider Foundation’s Malibu and Santa Monica chapters.
“High bacteria levels are expected when it rains because everything from the streets floods the ocean, but the kids and the public are generally not aware of how high the level of bacteria can be,” Jurca said. “When they do find out, some are pretty shocked.”
Bacteria levels at the Santa Monica Pier were 223, which is 119 organisms per milliliter higher than the EPA safety threshold of 104, according to Surfrider. The Pico-Kenter storm drain at the end of Pico Boulevard had bacteria levels that averaged at 120, and Ocean Park sampled at 331.
Samohi students also tested water quality at the storm drain underneath the pier, which City Hall replaced last year due to leaks that were causing poor water quality grades. Bacteria levels in the storm drain runoff were 7,915 — more than 75 times higher than what the EPA considers safe.
Students specifically tested for the presence of enterococcus bacteria, a fecal bacteria whose presence indicates that other disease-causing bacteria and viruses might also be present, which can lead to respiratory illness; stomach flu; and ear, nose, throat and eye infections.
“Fecal bacteria is just one of the many harmful things urban runoff carriers, which can include trash, cigarette butts, pathogens and even heavy metals,” said student Katie Rowbotham.
While testing is needed, students plan to step up their efforts to protect the public by participating in a new warning system at local surf shops. Jurca said students plan to provide surf shops with weekly updates to water quality reports so that surfers, who often can’t resist the high tides that come with rain storms, be more prepared. The reports should be posted in a month, Jurca said.
The Teach & Test program at Samohi is funded through Surfrider and a grant from the California Coastal Commission. The goal is to raise awareness about the importance of keeping dangerous urban runoff from reaching the bay. Students are also encouraged to consider careers in science.