A sewage spill in Glendale, 35 miles away, put Long Beach's shoreline off limits. What better way to illustrate the challenges of cleaning up our beaches?
The closure Wednesday was cautionary, meaning that nobody knew for sure what the risk level would be, and it was lifted the following day. But it made the point: Whatever comes down the L.A. River ends up at the shoreline.
Closures because of high bacterial count, which can cause infection and intestinal illness, are rare during the dry summer months, and Southern California's beaches with few exceptions get high ratings. But recently, some beaches in L.A. County have scored badly even in dry weather, partly because of a change in the way water samples are taken.
The samples now are drawn directly at the mouth of a storm drain, which gives a worst-case reading. This overstates the risk for swimmers even a few yards away, but it is appropriate because children sometimes swim and play right next to an outlet.
Even during dry weather, the ocean near the mouth of the L.A. River can be problematic, because the river carries much of the L.A. Basin's runoff from lawn sprinklers and other sources, and along with it animal waste, bacteria, pesticides, heavy metals and other nasty stuff.
Cleaning this up is a huge challenge, with no single solution. Even removing or reconfiguring the federal breakwater, a sensitive topic because it protects the twin ports of L..A. and Long Beach as well as homes along
the Long Beach Peninsula and in Belmont Shore, won't fix this problem. The five most most polluted beaches in Southern California – Avalon Harbor, Santa Monica Pier, Poche Beach, North Doheny Beach and Marie Canyon Drain at Puerco Beach – are miles away from the nearest breakwater.
Finding a solution is difficult, because several million homes, as well as parks, businesses, streets and gutters contribute to the problem. Ideally, the L.A. River would be filtered and treated before being allowed to blend into the ocean. But that's not feasible in dry weather, much less when winter storms send billions of gallons of rainwater toward the sea.
Catch basins at the end of drainage lines would work at least partially, but it would take thousands of them. Spreading grounds would allow nature to cleanse the effluent, but open land is scarce. Threatening upstream cities helps get streets and gutters cleaned, yet sometimes just gets local officials' backs up.
But don't let this detract from your summer. The environmental group Heal the Bay reported recently that California last year had its best dry-weather season on record. During the summer, 93 percent of beaches got grades of A or B, meaning very good to excellent water quality.
Just stay away from storm drains, including the biggest one of all, the L.A. River.