Published on 5/25/2007 on Press Telegram
Despite an encircling breakwater, Long Beach's shoreline has enjoyed a reputation for ocean water as clean as anywhere in Southern California, until this year. Now it is among the worst. No one can explain the abrupt change, but we can guess at least part of the reason: Too many people who don't know enough or care enough to keep their filth from draining into the sea.
Heal the Bay, which monitors the quality of California's ocean waters for illness-causing fecal bacteria, released its annual Beach Report Card this week to alert those who swim and surf to the best and the worst places. Statewide, 82 percent of beaches were good to excellent (grades of A and B).
But L.A. County got the lowest marks, and that's where most of the swimmers and surfers go. At the bottom of the list was Long Beach, where nearly all the 25 test locations got Cs, Ds, or even Fs.
This was the most negative turnaround in 17 years of testing, according to Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay. One of the reasons for the poor grades is because testing in L.A. County has been toughened, which is a good thing. Water samples now are taken directly in front of storm drains, which are the worst places to swim or surf even in dry weather. When it rains, it's smart to stay out of the ocean, bays and lagoons altogether until the region's filthy drainage dissipates.
Long Beach's overall ratings, wet periods and dry, were the lowest, but among the 10 most polluted were such attractive beaches as Cabrillo, Venice, Surfrider in Malibu, Arroyo Burro in Santa Barbara and, of all places, Avalon Beach on supposedly pristine Catalina Island.
Why Avalon, so far removed from L.A.'s notorious urban runoff? At first, the locals blamed the bird population, but it turned out in 2003 some sewage lines were leaking. The pipes got relined, but it looks like there's more work to be done.
Long Beach has some stubborn local problems, such as Colorado Lagoon and Mother's Beach at Marine Stadium, where water circulates poorly and pump stations have had breakdowns. Also, the city's beaches are on the wrong end of the region's flood control system, which channels toxic waste along with the rainwater, directly to the sea.
What are the solutions? Heal the Bay says it will work with local officials. In some places, runoff must be diverted for treatment, at least during the dry season. Sewage lines in Long Beach are maintained decently, but in some nearby cities the waste pipes are ancient and conveniently ignored. The tolerance for pump-station failures should be zero, or close to it.
Residents on the receiving end of the flood plain will have differences with inland dwellers forever, but there is no room for indifference when it comes to poisonous waste. The least people can do is pick up after their millions of pets, quit overdosing lawns with insecticides, keep trash off the streets and generally start cleaning up after themselves rather than let their messes float downstream.
Heal the Bay performs a vital service with its water-quality report card. As has been said, whatever can be measured can be improved.
This year, there is plenty of room for improvement.