{mosimage}LONG BEACH – Sunning themselves along a sandy stretch of Alamitos Bay on Thursday, bikini-clad Lauren Deyholos, 19, and Kelly Nalder, 20, were taking advantage of near-perfect Long Beach weather: 72 degrees with blue skies.

But, glancing at the water a few yards away, the pair instinctively turned up their noses. The weather is great here, they said, but they wouldn't dream of going for a swim.

"If we wanted to go in the water," Deyholos said, "we would go to Manhattan Beach or someplace where it's, like, clean."

Long Beach's public image has taken plenty of hits over the years. Water stagnation caused by the breakwater, coupled with seasonal urban runoff and the occasional red tide, have provided plenty of reasons for water lovers to move their beach towels up or down the coast.

But the recent – and still mysterious – sewage contamination that has plagued Mother's Beach and Marine Stadium since late September has put a renewed emphasis on the unique problems facing Alamitos Bay, popular for its in-water recreation.

"This is a very complex problem," said Nelson Kerr, who manages the city's recreational water program within the Department of Health and Human Services.

What to do?

So far, officials have little choice but to monitor the problem one day at a time, given the unpredictable water quality around the bay.

Bacterial counts change dramatically from day to day at many testing sites, and the Health Department puts out advisories whenever bacterial counts exceed state standards.

"We post signs," Kerr said. "We notify the lifeguards. We update the (city's) Web site, and we have a hotline – so all four of those take place right away."

But advisories are not exactly up to the minute.

Because test results take 18 to 24 hours, advisories are often placed the day after bad water is detected. And, sometimes, the water has cleared up again by the time the advisories are publicized.

"That's been one of the biggest dilemmas for this type of testing," Kerr said. "Every hour it can change."

The recent presence of human waste in the bay water has been strongly suggested by high fecal coliform and enterococcus counts.

The state standard is for recreational waters to contain no more than 400 fecal colonies per 100 milliliters of water. And during the last month and a half, the fecal colonies have regularly numbered into the thousands.

On Oct. 16, a particularly bad day, one area of Mother's Beach contained nearly 12,000 fecal colonies per 100 milliliters of water – or 30 times the acceptable amount. Luckily, there was no threat of anyone swimming; the Health Department had closed the beach between Sept. 29 and Oct. 24.

It's everywhere

The problems aren't just in Marine Stadium.

Earlier this week, advisories were placed at several locations along Bayshore Avenue – an area where water quality is considered relatively good.

So far, officials are stumped.

Three pumpout stations, used to empty sewage from boats, have been identified as faulty – two privately owned at Marina Pacifica, the third publicly owned.

But each station has been shut down, and still the problems persist.

A theory that seems to be gaining momentum is one put forth by Water Department General Manager Kevin Wattier, who says that that the problem may be connected to the recent reduction in operations at a nearby power plant.

As unlikely as it may seem, Wattier said he believes the AES-owned Alamitos Power Plant, when operating at full capacity, flushes out bad water by pulling it through the Los Cerritos Channel and dumping it into the San Gabriel River.

According to Wattier's theory, the contamination problems the city is detecting in Alamitos Bay have always been there; they've simply gone unnoticed because of the power plant-induced flow patterns.

Kerr said he is grateful to Wattier for his insight, and he said health officials have begun to take a look at circulation problems in the water.

Just last week, Kerr said, one officer launched an informal flow test by throwing a bunch of oranges into the water near Boatman Drive and taking stock of where they went.

The answer was nowhere.

"We weren't getting real good movement," Kerr said, "at least on the surface of the water."

He said the stagnation problem would be an area of further investigation.

"It requires a more complete study than throwing oranges," Kerr said. "But it's a start."

Wendy Thomas Russell can be reached at wendy.russell@presstelegram.com or (562) 499-1272.