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California beaches face a rising tide of pollution, study finds

Published 7/29/2009 on the Los Angeles Times

Natural Resources Defense Council reports a 4% increase in violations of bacterial standards at 227 beaches from 2007 to 2008.

Ten percent of water samples at California beaches last year contained
more human fecal bacteria than the state allows, according to a study
released today by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Violations of daily maximum bacterial standards at 227 California beaches increased 4% from 2007 to 2008, the study found.

"Many Californians were sickened or became ill after going to polluted
beaches last year," Michelle Mehta, an attorney with the council's
water program, said in a written statement. "The problem of beach water
pollution has not improved and millions of people visiting California's
world-renowned beaches continue to be at risk."

Although California may be famous for its surfing and swimming, the
state ranked among the worst in beach water quality nationwide, coming
in 22nd out of 30 coastal states. Los Angeles County was home to the
most polluted beach water, with 20% of samples exceeding state
standards.

In May, Heal the Bay also ranked Los Angeles beaches as worst in the state for water quality.

Bacteria can flow into beach water from sewage accidents such as the
spill that forced closures in Long Beach on Monday. Storm water flowing
through urban areas can also pick up animal waste, fertilizer, motor
oil and other contaminants that are dumped into the ocean.

"We've described it as a toxic soup," Mehta said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Although researchers linked 9% of contamination to sewage and 3% to
storm water, the vast majority (81%) came from unknown sources.

The gap in knowledge underscores a need for better research, Mehta said.

High bacteria levels caused more than 20,000 beach closures and
advisories nationwide and more than 4,000 in California. But local
authorities sometimes don't have the financial resources to adequately
monitor bacteria or to warn the public, according to Jessica Lass, a
spokeswoman for council.

Scientists awarded five-star ratings to popular beaches that warned
beachgoers and had relatively low levels of contamination. Among the
highest-ranked beaches were certain locations at Laguna Beach, Bolsa
Chica State Beach and Newport Beach.

The full report, Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches, will be available online today.

"The positive to take away is that there's good beaches next to bad
beaches, so people can make a decision about what beach they go to,"
Mehta said.

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